Move over, Shakespeare. There are some oft-overlooked ladies coming to the fore of the classical theatre canon. Hedgepig Ensemble Theatre, a female-centered company in Brooklyn, has been researching classical plays written by women this past year, and just dropped the inaugural list of works theatre ought to be producing as part of its Expand the Canon project.
“Our mission is to elevate the voices of women by reimagining the classics, and we were twisting ourselves into pretzels doing that in a lot of cool ways,” says artistic director Mary Candler (she/her). The eight-year-old company had been meeting its mission by working with all-female production teams, giving female characters agency, and producing classics through a female lens. Then the realization hit. “At one point we thought,” says Candler, “isn’t it strange that we keep producing dead white men?”
So she, along with the company’s associate artistic director and dramaturg Emily Lyon (she/her), got to work hunting for classics penned by women. Last year the company put out a call for recommendations on social media and formed a reading committee of 25 theatremakers to help parse through databases and libraries of classic plays and lists of works by women, including this one, published by American Theatre. The committee read 150 of the 600 submitted works, and plans to continue reading and building the canon.
“The biggest surprise for me was how awesome so many of these plays are, and how horrifying it is that they don’t get the attention that some of their male counterparts did,” says Candler. Lyon’s research led her down a rabbit hole of Japanese plays and the discovery of many unproduced translated works. “What was most surprising is that women have been writing all along,” concedes Lyon, noting that one of her favorite finds was Bold Stroke for a Husband by Hannah Cowley. “Discovering these great plays that are analogous to Molière…I’m hoping they catch fire.”
Candler and Lyon cite the Kilroys, Parity Productions, History Matters Back to the Future, and New Perspectives Theatre Company’s “On Her Shoulders” as helpful resources in culling the reading list. Hedgepig’s Expand the Canon project, though, is more than a catalogue of plays—the company aims to get the plays produced. Part of the whittling process for this year’s list included looking at the works’ relevance today as well as various producing considerations. Hedgepig’s website includes a summary of each of the selected plays, information about cast size, licensing information, and where the scripts can be found.
The inaugural list comprises nine plays: House of Desires by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1683), translated by Catherine Boyle; Bold Stroke for a Wife by Susanna Centilivre (1718); Bold Stroke for a Husband by Hannah Cowley (1783); Anima (or Her Soul) by Amelia P. Rosselli (1898); Rachel by Angelina Welde Grimké (1916); The Drag by Mae West (1927); One-Acts or Restless Night in Late Spring & A Hell of Her Own by Fumiko Enchi (1928); Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston (1935); and Wedding Band: A Love Story in Black and White by Alice Childress (1962).
Five of the plays are by BIPOC women, a testament to the team’s extensive search for diverse voices, but they hope to receive more recommendations of underproduced classic works by women of color as they continue to build this expanded canon.
As part of the list’s unveiling, Hedgepig will introduce the selected plays to the public through free, virtual readings this fall. On Sept. 22, Emily Lyon will direct Bold Stroke for a Husband. Hedgepig will also will also partner with other companies across the country for the reading series: American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisc., will co-present Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s House of Desires on Sept. 27; Ma-Yi Theater Company in New York City will co-present One-Acts by Fumiko Enchi (Restless Night in Late Spring & A Hell of Her Own) on Sept. 29, directed by Chari Arespacochaga; and Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston will be presented in partnership with Classical Theatre of Harlem on Oct. 1, directed by Bianca LaVerne Jones.
“We’ve been really excited by how these partnerships help us bring an authentic telling of these plays to the public,” says Candler. Viewers can RSVP for the upcoming readings here.
Looking forward, Hedgepig will continue to read classic plays by women and promote them through this annual list. “This has been our work over the last six months, and will hopefully will be our work over the next five to ten years,” says Candler.
Lyon aims for the list to become a staple resource in the theatre community and beyond. “My hope is that people are producing these plays, professors are coming to this list to look at who else should be involved in their teachings, and actors are looking at this list to where to get a monologue that is written by a woman,” says Lyon. “There’s just so many spaces that I hope these plays end up living in.”
Allison Considine (she/her) is senior editor at American Theatre. email@example.com
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