WAM Theatre: Using Theater to Support Women

Posted on January 10, 2013, by Ann Wright, Half the Sky Movement

Kristen van Ginhoven came across a review of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide in Glamour magazine and pre-ordered it. She had no idea at the time how much the book would impact her. Five years after reading the book and inspired by the featured women’s stories, Kristen and her close friend Leigh Strimbeck have co-founded WAM Theatre — a theater company that explores social issues related to women and girls and donates a portion of the proceeds to organizations supporting women.  The plays are performed in theaters in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and around New York's Capital Region.

Like many social enterprises, the idea for WAM Theatre was based on Kristen’s own experience — in her case, in theater. She acknowledges, “I didn’t have the resilience to be on the frontline of human trafficking, but I knew I could create an entertaining moment in the theatre.” She reached out to her friend Leigh, a fellow actor and director, to co-found a new professional theatre company that would create opportunity for women in the theatre as well as benefit women's organizations in their local communities and abroad.

Members of WAM Theatre Donate 25 percent of proceeds from 'Old Mezzo' to an NGO Beneficiary

With initial support from friends and family, the project has grown to include five mainstage events, often exploring a complex female lead, such as a woman struggling to rebuild her life after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Kristen says, “Our play last year was about three sisters who lose their parents and have to come together to redefine their futures together. These are poignant and inspiring feminist tales that everyone can enjoy.”

Twenty-five percent of each ticket sale is donated to organizations investing in women on the ground, which has included Women for Women International, Edna Adan’s University Hospital as well as Shout Out Loud Productions, a local organization raising awareness about sex trafficking of children, and another local organization working to prevent teen pregnancy. Kristen and her co-founder Leigh describe their theater as “double philanthropy”: providing opportunities to female artists and re-investing a portion of ticket sales into causes that benefit women.

The plays and special events have covered a breadth of social issues. WAM hosted a festival of women’s solo work — O Solo Mama Mia Festival — in Spring 2011, which explored women’s empowerment through topics such as bullying, coming out, dealing with depression and finding therapy.

The idea of women helping women is reflected in the theatre’s name — WAM — or Women’s Action Movement. However, the acronym has grown to include “Women and Men”, a reflection of the diverse appeal of the theatre’s philanthropic mission to support female causes and the arts. WAM Theatre supports female artists in particular.

Kristen is quick to point out that gender inequality is a problem in the theatre industry. Quoting the playwright Theresa Rebeck, she explains that "Over the last 25 years, the number of plays produced that were written by women seems to have vacillated between 12 and 17 percent. So, it would be fair to say that under 20% of all plays produced in North America are by female playwrights.”

WAM aims to help address this inequality. In 2012, the theater provided nearly 30 paid contracts to theater professionals and over 75 percent were for women. Among them is Susan Dworkin, one of the original writers of Ms. Magazine – a landmark feminist magazine founded in 1971 — who was the playwright of The Old Mezzo,’ about the political awakening of an opera singer, which debuted at WAM Theatre last year.

Kristen says, “Thanks to the support of our community and the inspiration of the Half the Sky Movement, the model of using theatre to benefit women and girls is working.”

On March 15, WAM theatre and Sisters for Peace will be hosting a screening of the PBS television series Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide with guest speakers to follow. To find out more, visit their website at http://www.wamtheatre.com. Follow WAM Theatre on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/WAMTheatre.