Estrogenius Festival Turns Ten As It Celebrates Female Voices

A host of theater festivals around the city spotlight various groups, from fight artists to Latin American performers. The Estrogenius Festival, to provide another example, celebrates female artists, and is among the more successful festivals of its kind – it is currently in its tenth annual season.

Estrogenius was founded by Fiona Jones, who is also one of the founding partners of manhattantheatresource. “I kept looking at all the under-utilized female talent around me,” she says, “and felt I had to do something about that.” The festival’s mission is to provide creative opportunities to female artists, ranging from the emerging to the seasoned professional, in a variety of disciplines.

Jen Thatcher, co-executive producer of the festival, agrees that Estrogenius exists “to celebrate the under-served voices of female artists and to encourage men to explore interesting, complex female voices and narratives.” The first festival, in 2000 ran for two weeks, consisting of a program of ten short plays, music, and a visual art exhibit. Jones “has inspired all of us and provided a woman-friendly artistic environment in which we could all work,” said Kathleen O’Neill, who directed a show in Week Three of this year’s festival, and has worked with Estrogenius since its inaugural season.

By now, however, Estrogenius has evolved into a five-week-long festival. Each of the first four weeks features a different program of five plays each. The final week is the Estro Encores week, which features audience favorites from the first month of the festival.

In addition to the short plays, there are also evenings of Sola Voce (solo pieces), a visual art show, pre-show music on the Windowbox stage, two evenings of GirlPower (featuring works written and performed by teen actors), two performances of Women in Motion (a dance component), and two evenings of Voices of Africa, which benefits Nigerian girls’ education. Voices of Africa is part of a collaboration with the Peace Corps Niger, the Young Girls Scholarship Program & Pangea, in which New York area performers recite poetry, music and prose of Nigeria. All proceeds from Voices of Africa go to the Young Girls Scholarship Program. Thus far, Estrogenius has sponsored the education of 27 girls in Niger, a west African country where the literacy rate among women is less than 8%.

Thatcher explained the submission process. “We accept open submissions from around the world. For the short plays, we typically receive hundreds of submissions.” Reader panels of at least three people then review the submissions, score them, and present their recommendations to the producers. The recommended pieces – which Thatcher says she considers the Estrogenius “finalists” – are then reviewed by each week’s producer and assistant producer, who make the final selection of plays to be included in their week of programming, “with an eye to offering a smorgasbord of styles and themes in each week,” according to Jones.

From the top recommendations, each producer chooses five plays for her specific week. “Every submission is carefully considered and every submitting artist gets a response,” said Jones. “We are frequently complimented on our rejection letters, if you can believe it!” This year saw 200 submissions, with 50 finalists and, ultimately, 20 selected pieces. According to Jones, over the years they have had submissions from 35 states and five countries.

In the spirit of diversity, Estrogenius is also no Lilith Fair tour. “Men are a huge part of Estrogenius,” Thatcher said. “In the first place, there are tons of male acting roles. Secondly, each year since the festival’s inception, we have had at least one play written by an ‘honorary chick,’” she went on to say. “We love the fact that there are men out there writing great parts for women and we want to be sure they’re encouraged!”

“Since 75% of the professional theater in the United States is driven by men, we felt it was important to encourage men to explore their female voices,” Jones added. She said that the only distinction is that “men have to submit material appropriate to a celebration of female voices, while plays by women can be about anything.” Jones also explained that the panel reviews submissions on a gender-blind basis. There are three short plays penned by men in this year’s lineup.

More than gender, it seems clear that the one common thread among all Estrogenius participants is the passion they all share. O’Neill cites the camaraderie and connection to the “artistic development of so many people” as the aspects she loves best about it.

“In every Estro festival there have been the exquisite moments that only live theater can give, where the immediacy of the actor transports the audience,” O’Neill continued. “What a celebration! It is what New York City is all about for all of us.”

More information about the Estrogenius festival can be found here: http://www.estrogenius.org/estro/index.html

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