By May S. Ruiz
Long before the word feminism entered our lexicon, women were coming together to indulge in intellectual pursuits that were deemed, at the time, to be the domain of the male species. That’s what a group of women who lived in 1750s London did when they formed The Blue Stocking Society.
‘Ladies,’ a new play by Kit Steinkellner, is a fictional account of a year in the life of The Blue Stocking Society and explores the tangled knot of electric and jagged relationships that comprise this group. These women are pioneers and revolutionaries emboldened by the call to arms to be the first of their kind and burdened by the misfortune of being born far ahead of their time.
It will be featured this Saturday, July 28, at 11:00 am at Boston Court Pasadena’s 14th Annual New Play Reading Festival and will be directed by Co-Artistic Director Michael Michetti.
Steinkellner expounds, “’Ladies’ is a history and time travel play in its theatricality. It was inspired by The Blue Stocking Society, the first organized feminist movement founded by a group of women who lived in England in the mid-18th century. Much has happened since in terms of advancing the role that women play in society, but at the time they were considered radical.”
“The idea came to me about ten years ago when I was in London and I went to the National Portrait Gallery which was holding an exhibit about these women,” discloses Steinkellner. “They intrigued me as being true pilgrims and pioneers in a realm which had absolutely no roadmap. Writing a play about them struck me as being both exciting and scary.
“I wanted to tell their story in an ‘out-of- the-box’ way just as they had done when they began their club. In dealing with something that is set in the past, I realized there’s a risk that the story might come off as dusty, archaic, or irrelevant. As I researched about their lives, read their diaries and their correspondence with each other, it became important for me to make sure I did it exactly right.
“To create something exciting that explains my obsession with these women, and why I was so captivated by them, I used time travel to be part of the play as the historian and narrator. I investigated why I wanted to have a relationship with women who lived over a hundred years ago and how they are relevant in today’s world.”
Adds Steinkellner, “There are four actresses in ‘Ladies’ and each one plays a prominent woman in this group – each enacts my character and some of them perform male roles. While this play was conceived ten years ago, I only started actually writing it five years ago and it became a finalist in the O’Neill National Playwrights’ Conference. However, that version didn’t have the time travel element in it and I wasn’t part of the play.”
“The play has seen several changes and revisions although they didn’t happen all at once. I gave it time to germinate and develop; I would leave it then go back to it after a few years to improve and polish. I’m very excited about this Workshop and I’m grateful that Michael and Jessica picked it for their New Play Festival because it’s a very important process towards bringing it to life. I want the audience to be emotionally engaged with the story and these women’s lives,” Steinkellner enthuses.
Emilie Beck, Boston Court Pasadena’s Literary Manager, who has been involved in the New Play Reading Festival for seven years, describes, “Kit’s play is quite fascinating and is, in a way, its own genre. It speaks to an intellectual realm but there’s also a lot gestural work in it; it’s cerebral and visceral at the same time.”
“There is an element in ‘Ladies’ that sets it apart from other plays – this interesting conceit in which each character becomes Kit, the playwright,” Beck points out. “The play is making use of her rather than Kit putting herself as a protagonist, if that makes sense. It involves time travel but not in a science fiction way. I think there’s a very fluid connection between the here and now and these ladies in the 1750s.”
“It’s thrilling to us that this year we received more submissions from women playwrights than from men,” states Beck. “The four new plays we’ve chosen for this year’s Festival are all written by women. While we read without attention to gender, we were drawn to these voices, which speak to a wide array of underrepresented female experiences.
“What’s interesting is that the ‘Me Too Movement’ was happening as we were reading these submissions. So these plays had not been written out of that and yet we were reading in that context. I imagine that as we move into the future, there will be more plays written because of that.”
Beck asserts, “That said, it wasn’t the only theme touched on by the plays we received. We got submissions with very dark themes – war, apocalypse, suicide, assault. In fact there were a lot of them that involved sexual assault. A good number of plays we read were spoken by a voice that has been disenfranchised. It’s really important to us to represent that. For a long time there’s been this overriding voice of the white male playwright. Not to dis the white male playwright, there are many of them who are wonderful and whom I love working with, we need to make a little room for women and minorities.”
“New work is important to us,” declares Beck. “The whole reason this theatre is here is to get new work on the stage. It’s hard to write a play; playwrights sit on their own, trying to create a multidimensional world with voices in conversations that would, in some way, illuminate a theme.
“Playwrights have to find a way to get from a flat page, to that creative place, to a fully realized production. They have to go through the processes, get together with a bunch of artists in a room to listen to how it sounds, to see how it’s working and not working. That is integral to our work here. It’s exciting for us and we look forward to it every year.”
The New Play Reading Festival is a key component of Boston Court Pasadena’s commitment to nurturing playwrights and new work. It paves the way for unknown artists’ creations to get recognized and produced on stage.
What a thrilling prospect it is if this weekend we could be seeing the future Eugene O’Neills or George Bernard Shaws, whose plays are esteemed, revered, and performed to this day!