UW Tacoma Treads the Boards with Unwritten Women

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As part of a push to expand performing arts on campus, UW Tacoma staged a production of "Unwritten Women: Five Short Plays Based on Female Literary Characters from History."

Megan Saunders as Katrina in 'Ichabod's Head'As part of a push to expand performing arts on campus, UW Tacoma staged a production of Unwritten Women: Five Short Plays Based on Female Literary Characters from History for three performances on November 14-16 in the black box theater of Cherry Parkes. The play came to campus largely through assistant professor Michael Kula's ongoing efforts to develop a campus-community theatrical collaborative, creating more performing arts opportunities for students in and out of the classroom.

Elena Hartwell, a Seattle-based writer who also teaches Writing for Social Change at UW Tacoma, wrote the play, which is directed Sara Freeman, an associate professor of theater at University of Puget Sound. In addition, Unwritten Women featured live music composed and performed by Nicole Blair, assistant director of undergraduate education at UW Tacoma.

Among the cast were current UW Tacoma students Lucy Lucas, Marae Slyter, Jillian Lee and Akua Asare-Konadu. Recent graduate (and UW Tacoma Library employee) Megan Saunders also had a role.

Marilyn Bennett, a Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA) faculty member, as well as the artistic director of Toy Boat Theatre in Tacoma, rounded out the six-person cast. Dr. Bennett was brought onboard because, according to Hartwell, "We wanted the students to have the experience of working with a professional."

In describing her work on Unwritten Women, Hartwell says, "The plays explore women who are referenced in or are related to a work of literature … I've re-imagined how those women might have been misrepresented or misunderstood. The plays look at everything from poverty to spousal abuse to piracy – relevant issues, even when framed around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."

The setting of the plays is important, as it pertains to the literature on which Unwritten Women is based. Two of the plays were based on Moby Dick, while the others were built around The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Treasure Island and Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden for their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial To The Public.

Akua Asare-Konadu as Mrs. Hawkins in 'Mother Hawkins'

But Hartwell’s “reimagining” of the women in these stories makes Unwritten Women more than an homage to literature; it contemporizes them in interesting ways. “These women don't behave in ways that would be considered appropriate for the times they are written in,” Hartwell says. “But they are also grappling with contemporary issues, so we can look at current times with the remove of watching characters from the past."

In addition to the unique content of the plays and the overall approach of building from stories that have come before, Unwritten Women was the right choice for UW Tacoma’s nascent performing arts scene because, from a technical standpoint, it was easy to produce. Hartwell says that since the production was a new experience for the school, that sense of ease “needed to be taken into account.”

Moreover, as the play was made up of several smaller plays, each running approximately 10 minutes in length, and featuring only one or two actors at a time, the performances were prepared and rehearsed for separately, which was of great benefit to the student actors.

“These plays stand on their own, allowing the rehearsal schedule to require only one or two actors at a time,” Hartwell explains. “UW Tacoma has a high number of students who work or have families, and would therefore be unable to do a typical 5-night-a-week rehearsal process. The nature of these plays allowed students who wouldn't otherwise be able to audition to participate.”

Lucy Lucas and Marilyn Bennett in 'Ahab's Wife'The adjustments to make the audition and rehearsal process more accommodating to students only added to the passion many of them already have for the burgeoning performing arts program on campus. “I think this is a start in creating a potential acting major and other performing arts majors,” says cast member and president of the Student Theater Acting Guild (STAG) Marae Slyter. “This is STAG’s second year as a club at UW Tacoma, and since we got the funding this year we are able to do more than we could have ever imagined.”

 “I think this is a start to plan bigger scale productions on campus,” Slyter says. “We are also working with the community and our spring production will be open for community members to audition.”

The call for the community to lend its support is as important as the support expected from the students, faculty and staff of UW Tacoma. As Hartwell explains, “This is intimate theater at its best. The one thing that theater will always be able to do, which television and film can't, is put living, breathing people in front of you. As an audience member, you are as close to these actors as if they were sitting in your living room, and they are talking to you as you would a friend."

“There is tremendous heart in this show from everyone involved,” Hartwell says, encouraging those interested in theater to come see what Michael Kula, STAG and UW Tacoma have worked so hard to achieve. “And a theater is being created right in front of our eyes. That's worth a trip to Cherry Parkes.”

Written by: 
Kevin Yeoman / November 14, 2014
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu