Sunday, March 11, 2018

As in WAM: Where Arts and Activism Meet!

Arts and activism don’t always go hand in hand. But when they do come together, the power can be explosive, as in WAM!

WAM in this case stands for Where Arts and Activism Meet, a pioneering women’s theatre company in Berkshire County now entering its ninth year.

The dynamo who co-founded the company, Kristen van Ginhoven, did so after reading Half the Sky:Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The book, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, profiles extraordinarily courageous women who achieved heroic accomplishments despite huge life obstacles. The book changed van Ginhoven’s life.

Trained as an actor and director, Canadian-born van Ginhoven decided to start a theatre company in Berkshire County that would feature women playwrights, actors and theatre artists.

But that wasn’t all. Her vision – which has come to pass – was for WAM to donate approximately one-fourth of the proceeds from each of its productions to non-profit organizations that serve women and girls both locally, across the country and around the world.

Last November, the Board of the Berkshire Theatre Critics Association paid tribute to van Ginhoven’s remarkable accomplishments through WAM by selecting her to receive the prestigious Larry Murray Award, which recognizes a theatre or an individual for advancing social, political, or community issues.

In WAM’s first year, van Ginhoven admits she wasn’t altogether sure her newly formed theater company would fly.  She recalls the day that the company’s first production, called “A WAM Welcome,” opened back in April 2010.

“No one had bought tickets beforehand,” she says. “I didn’t think anybody would show up.” The first woman who came up to the box office wanted to buy a ticket for herself and a woman friend who had cancer.  Van Ginhoven was very grateful to sell those first two tickets.

Altogether, the production went on to have four performances with a total of 100 people in attendance. That first year, WAM donated $1,000 to a group called Women for Women International, a program that teaches women business, life and vocational skills to help them earn a living.

This past year WAM mounted two productions: in the spring, a remount of Lauren Gunderson’s “Emilie,” first presented by WAM in 2013. The play explores the life of La Marquise Emilie du Chatelet, who in addition to being Voltaire’s mistress, also managed to promote modern physics during the Age of Enlightenment.

In the fall of 2017, WAM presented “The Last Wife,” by Kate Hennig, a marvelous exploration of the trials and tribulations of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr. The play – which I thought equal to or better than many Broadway shows I’ve seen -- earned great reviews and ran for four weeks. 
Altogether, 1500 people saw the play.

Two organizations benefited from WAM’s 2017 productions. “Emilie” generated $2500 for the Flying Cloud Institute, which provided scholarship money for 10 young women to attend a Young Women in Science training program at Simon’s Rock and Berkshire Community College during the summer of 2017.

“The Last Wife” generated $9500 on behalf of Soldier On, a national organization that provides housing and other services to women veterans who are homeless. In Massachusetts, van Ginhoven says, Soldier On operates a “beautiful, comfortable and cozy” residential facility in the town of Leeds, located about halfway between Pittsfield and Northampton. Specifically, the WAM contribution will provide on-going support to female vets as they make the transition out of the Soldier On home and back into the “real” world.

Van Ginhoven says that several women from Soldier On attended the final performance of “The Last Wife” in early November.

“We were very moved, as one of the women spoke about how she had lived in her car. She lost custody of her children, attempted suicide and ended up in the hospital.” That’s where she heard about Soldier On’s housing facility. Today, the vet is working to make a transition out of the home. 

She is also working to try to get her children back.

“We were thrilled to know that we at WAM would have a small part in building her life again,” van Ginhoven says.

In total, WAM has mounted a total of 11 productions and has donated $41,500 to a total of 13 not-for-profits benefiting women. Van Ginhoven speaks fondly of several of the projects WAM has supported, some of which are on the other side of the world.

In 2014, for example, WAM donated $5000 to the Mother of Peace Orphanage in South Africa, where 13 housemothers raise 84 orphaned children. The money from WAM allowed the director of the orphanage to give the housemothers a paycheck for the first time.  Each woman was paid $385 --approximately $4,000 in South African dollars-- sufficient for one woman to put an addition on her home so that she can bring in rental income.

Closer to home, WAM in 2013 donated $3400 to a Pittsfield-based organization called The Rite of Passage and Empowerment Program, a group that serves young women of color in grades eight to 12. Operated by a dynamic community leader named Shirley Edgerton, the Empowerment program offers Berkshire County girls a wide variety of nurturing and educational activities, including, each spring, a tour of the nation’s historically black colleges. WAM’s donation paid for that tour in the Spring 2014.

WAM also offers an on-going educational program called Girls Ensemble to young women ages 13 to 18, who must audition for the group. With guidance from WAM instructors, the girls write and perform a piece of theatre based on issues in their own lives. This year, Girls Ensemble will operate a two-week intensive program.

WAM has also collaborated with IS 183 and Girls Inc. to offer acting classes to young women in the community.

When I tell van Ginhoven that I am a bit awed by all of the theater work, as well as all of the philanthropy, that WAM has under its belt, she laughs, and admits that her company has grown tremendously in its first 8 years.  “We’re pretty amazed ourselves at what we’ve accomplished,” she says. “We’re nothing if not ambitious.”

Still, by comparison to what she calls the “Big Four” theater companies in Berkshire County – Barrington Stage, Berkshire Theater company, Williamstown and Shakespeare and Co. – WAM remains a modest endeavor. But that works just fine with van Ginhoven. “We’re like the turtle and not the rabbit. We grow really slowly.”

The company’s 2018 theatre program will be announced within a few weeks, and in July at their yearly gala, WAM will announce the non-profit organization that will benefit from the production.  In the past, van Ginhoven was on her own selecting a beneficiary for the company’s donations. This year, however, WAM is forming a committee to decide which group will be selected. The committee, she says, will include an artist, a board member and a volunteer.

How does she go about selecting a play for WAM? Van Ginhoven says that she reads “a ton of plays, “ always on the lookout for scripts that feature women “trying to be authentic in leadership” roles. 

Her rule of thumb: “If I read a play and I get goosebumps, it’s in the pile” of possibilities. Then, she says, “it’s a question of when is the right moment” for a particular play.

She selected “The Last Wife” right after the 2016 Presidential election. The play’s themes, which focus on women’s precarious position in a male-dominated political world, fit the nation’s mood. “I had seen the play, and the day after the election, I was feeling so bereft.” Some aspects of the play angered her; some thrilled her. In the end, she decided it worked, and it did.

This year, however, she admits to be being confused about how WAM should respond to the events surrounding the “Me Too” campaign, and the nationwide groundswell of feminist activism against sexual harassment. “There has been so much conversation. We are thrilled for this conversation, it’s long overdue, but what does it mean for society and for how young men and women are supposed to behave? Nothing is black and white, as much as I wish it were.”

In the end, van Ginhoven will consult with her recently hired associate artistic director. And she will probably make the decision the way she often has in the past: by trusting her instincts. “I’m a gut instinct kind of girl,” she says.

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