Department of Theatre combats gender inequity with Big Ten initiative
Michigan State’s Department of Theatre is staging the latest production to be commissioned by the Big Ten Theatre Consortium, a series of plays by outstanding American female playwrights designed to promote the writing and production of new works about and by women. MSU’s production of “Bonnets: How Ladies of Good Breeding Are Induced to Murder” by Jen Silverman, runs March 13-22 in the Auditorium building’s Studio 60.
Every year since 2015, the consortium has commissioned a new play from some of the best female writers in American theater, including Naomi Iizuka, Rebecca Gilman, Kirsten Greenridge and Madeleine George. Intended to draw attention to the need to produce and support new works about women, each play must feature at least six substantial age-appropriate roles for college-age students.
When the first consortium-commissioned play premiered in 2015, “American Theatre Magazine” reported that only one in five plays being produced nationally were written by women and only three women made the list of the Top 20 Most-Produced Playwrights that season.
Since then, that number has increased to 11, including “Bonnets” writer Jen Silverman who has tackled the initiative’s requirements in spectacular fashion. The script also includes notes to ensure inclusive casting – an issue with which the theater industry is grappling.
On racial and gender diversity, Silverman insists that “Actors can be any race or ethnicity. This play welcomes female-identifying, genderqueer and non-binary actors in all roles.” It is a cast of 13.
The show is described by director and associate professor of Theatre Studies and Directing Ann Folino White as “punk rock stories of unrequited love, misguided lust (isn’t it always) and blossoming romance ending in a total blood bath, narrated by God.”
Silverman agreed with Folino White’s directorial concept: “Try shoving Joan Jett in a corset and see what she does to you.”
When asked how a punk artist and feminist icon from the late 1970s could resonate with college students in 2020.
“At its core, the content of this play is really commonplace,” Folino White said. “It’s presented in a quirky, funny, celebratory, radical, post-modern way, but we’re not examining ‘an issue.’ We’re examining human interaction. Women are often put in painful and impossible situations. It’s about demonstrating how the constraints, expectations and restraints of a patriarchal society result in powerlessness and the radical act of taking it back.”
All the roles in the show, regardless of the character’s sex, are played by female-identifying actors, which Folino White says gives both the audience and performers a chance to experience gender as fluid, moving from body to body.
“Working at a research university like Michigan State really enables me, as a director, to engage students in these deep discussions,” Folino White said. “Throughout rehearsals, students will relate a situation in the play to something that just happened to them the day before. We unpack that together. The play gives students the opportunity for dialogue, to learn how hard it is to condemn an individual outright. We’re not only acting; we’re developing empathy.”
“Bonnets: How Ladies of Good Breeding Are Induced to Murder” by Jen Silverman runs for 10 performances March 13-22 in the MSU Auditorium building’s Studio 60. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $13 for seniors and MSU faculty/staff and $10 for MSU students. Tickets are available online at whartoncenter.com, at the Wharton Center box office or by calling 1-800-WHARTON.