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New play initiative seeks to give women students more roles

You often hear actresses of a certain age complaining about the lack of good roles available to them.

Are their younger counterparts any luckier?

Not if they’re working in the theatre, they’re not.

Professor of theatre Joseph Appelt said that he and his fellow department heads at other Big Ten schools all have a similar problem. “We have more women than men in our departments, so casting is oftentimes a challenge,” he said.

The problem: getting enough female roles.

The need for female roles has inspired stage productions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the World War II drama Aimée & Jaguar, by the book by Erica Fischer. The Big Ten Theatre Consortium’s New Play Initiative will commission plays with modern themes with many female roles.

One reason is that female playwrights—the likely candidates to write those rich, complex roles for women—tend to be underrepresented in the theatre world as a whole: less than 20 percent of the shows that get produced on American and British stages are written by women.

It’s been a much-discussed topic among the Big Ten theatre chairs over the past five years. They recently decided to do something about it. “The project was really spearheaded by Alan McVey, at the University of Iowa,” Appelt explained.

The department heads came together, he said, and as with any theatrical venture, they decided to start in the logical place: with the story.

Beginning this spring, the Big Ten Theatre Consortium’s New Play Initiative will commission, produce, and publicize a new play by a female playwright. This play will contain several significant roles for college-aged women, and Big Ten universities will have a three-year period to produce it, royalty-free. After that, it will be available for worldwide production.

This year’s chosen playwright and the two that will follow her in 2015 and 2016 (the consortium has agreed to a three-year trial period—with hopes that the program will continue for ten more years) was given an artist payment of $10,000. “We felt this amount would help attract the very best people,” Appelt said. He explained that each Big Ten school will contribute a thousand dollars to the initiative annually: $10,000 will go to the playwright, the remaining $4,000 will cover publicity and administrative costs. “I was very grateful for Dean Barbara O’Keefe’s enthusiasm and willingness to get onboard,” he said.

This year’s playwright, Naomi Iizuka, is one of the nation’s most acclaimed dramatists. She is the head the of playwriting program at University of California–San Diego and her widely produced plays include 36 Views, Strike-Slip, and Anon(ymous).

Her Big Ten commission, Good Kids, is set in a Midwestern high school and explores a casual sexual encounter gone wrong and its very public aftermath. “I have the first 24 pages of it right now,” Appelt said. “You can see how things would spin out of control in a situation like this with Facebook and Twitter and all the things at our disposal right now. I think it’s going to be a very exciting show to produce.”

Because the universities are equal partners in the project, no single school will have the official distinction of hosting the premiere of any play; instead, the consortium will host “rolling” premieres. Appelt said that he and Diane Claussen, managing director of the Theatre and Interpretation Center, are planning to attend The University of Michigan’s production of Good Kids in the fall.

A Northwestern production in 2015 looks likely. “One thing we’ve been actively trying to do is choose material that engages the campus,” Appelt said, “and we see this fitting right into that. It’s just the kind of thing we want to be producing.”