A Woman Inspiring Women Leads to County’s First All-Female Playwrighting Festival

Once that big light goes off and we move on to wherever, or don’t, the best most of us can hope for is a kindly remembrance or two. Rare are those who inspire others after they’re gone.

Count Peggy Hesketh among the latter. A writer, journalist, educator and all-round funny, fierce and fearless person (she took up surfing at age 60 and bees played a huge part in her first novel, the same bees she was highly allergic to), her approach to life is a major reason why the county’s first festival devoted to women writers takes place this weekend in Brea.

Page to Stage: That’s What She Said is a festival of five unpublished plays by women writers (most of whom are anything but undistinguished). They are staged readings with discussions afterward designed to raise awareness of those writers in hopes of securing fully staged productions for them. But the festival is also meant to call attention to the dearth of produced plays by women and the lack of strong female roles in the theater.

“For those of us [involved in local theater] we see this on a daily basis,” says Andrea Freeman, part of Project La Femme, an OC-based organization formed in 2017 that seeks to promote more women involvement in the performing and visual arts, and co-producer of the festival with the Brea Curtis Theatre. “You look at any theater season and you’re lucky if two plays in the entire season are by women.”

As Heather Enriquez, the festival’s artistic director says:

“It is frustrating for women. We buy about 60 percent of [theater] tickets but we’ve run across statistics that only about 30 percent of the shows produced in the country are by women … and women writers tend to write for women and that’s where the strong parts for women are going to come from. So this is really about [showcasing] women’s voices who have written plays with strong female characters.”

(If you’re interested in those statistics, which are even lower than that 30 percent at the top-tier professional theaters in the country, take a look here.)

Hesketh wasn’t a playwright, but she wrote. Constantly. Essays, short stories, journalism. She also taught writing and rhetoric at UC Irvine. Her first novel, Telling the Bees, inspired in no small part by growing up in Orange County, was published in 2013 and she was working on her second when she died in March 2018. At the time, she was a member of Page to Stage, a Facebook group launched by Enriquez and Patti Cumby, executive producer at STAGEStheatre, that grew out of a “we really need to write” conversation between them and morphed into an online writer’s collective in which women talked about what they were writing, bounced ideas off each other, and collaborated.

Monthly meetings were also held, organized by Enriquez, but “after losing [Hesketh] so suddenly … well, it took me a few months to do much of anything,” she says. Then she realized “that isn’t what Peggy would want … she would want more for a group of women writers.”

In August of last year, Enriquez, realizing that Fullerton College’s long-running playwrights festival had been canceled, saw a hole that could be filled and pitched the idea of an all-women playwrighting festival to her employer, the Curtis Theatre, which she joined in 2017.

The theater’s manager, Kris Kataoka, liked the idea and, one year and 400 submissions later, a festival is born.

“We weren’t expecting nearly so many,” said Freeman of Project La Femme, about the submissions. “We were just blown away by both the number and the quality of the work.”

Also surprising was the turnout for auditions.

“We had a huge response, which was surprising since staged readings aren’t as glamorous as (fully staged productions),” Enriquez says. “And every woman who was there came up and thanked us for doing this. I think that shows the [desire of women] for plays by women with strong female roles. It showed that if you build it they will come. If you give women the opportunity, they will do the work and support it.”

OK, so all that’s out of the way. So what are the plays, and who are the writers?

Butterfly in the Ashes. Written by S.M. Fontes and directed by Enriquez, this is, according to Project La Femme’s website: “An unflinching and darkly comedic look at the lives of four Mexican-American women … a peek into the mundane happenings that bind people together and how the ghosts of the past come to live in future generations.”

Deanna and Paul and The Paper Hangers. A double bill with an intermission, the first is written by Dagney Kerr and directed by Angela Cruz Martinez. It is (again, like all these, from Project LA Femme’s site), a “quirky non-linear romance between an unconventional waitress and an uptight customer who just wants to have a cup of coffee and read his newspaper. These seemingly opposite personalities learn to dance together and try to make a go of it.”

The second is written by Emily Brauer Rogers and directed by Katie Chidester. “A modern surreal take on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, a mother struggling with postpartum depression takes refuge in the countryside tended by her husband and mother. Instead of conforming to her family’s and society’s ideals of motherhood, she is enticed further into her own self by the characters that she encounters.”

Bureaucrazy. Written by Kate Danley and directed by Rose London. “A quick-witted farce in the style of commedia, two secretaries who hate their jobs navigate office politics and compete for a step up the corporate ladder. When their boss accidentally chokes on an oatmeal cookie in the office right before departing on a trip to Peru, their attempt to hide the truth results in a true comedy of errors.”

Gargoyle. Written by Diana Burbano and directed by Elvia Susana Rubalcava and Rosa Navarette. This one sounds the trippiest, as it includes a disfigured World War I soldier taking refuge in a small South American village to escape from his past and society, a former silent film star and sculptor living a bohemian life as she waits for her divorce to be finalized, and her teenage daughter. “As he reluctantly allows the women into his life, an uncomfortable love triangle forms, forcing him to seek another refuge,”

Brea Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Dr., Brea, (714) 990-7722; www.curtistheatre.com. Butterfly in the Ashes, Fri., Aug. 30, 8 p.m.; Deanna and Paul and The Paper Hangers, Sat., Aug. 31, 3 p.m.; Bureaucrazy, Sat., 8 p.m.; Gargoyles, Sun., Sept. 1, 3 p.m. $7-$20. 

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Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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