It’s a cold and foggy August day in Salinas.
“Must be Summer,” Melissa says with a wry grin.
In light of National Women’s Equality Day, I had the pleasure of sitting down with The Western Stage’s Artistic Program Director, Melissa Chin-Parker, to learn about her vision for next year’s SpringFEST, The Western Stage’s annual pre-season open-studio festival of workshop and performance projects, of which, Melissa is both creator and executor. In addition to this weighty title, Melissa is also a theatre artist: director, actor, singer, designer, crafter, and a designation which she may or may not be aware of, my mentor. If there is a job, a craft, a skill that exists in the theatre, Melissa has mastered it (with the slight exception of lights and sound, which she says she hasn’t yet figured out, but I’ve seen her tinkering up there).
I’ve had the privilege of meeting many talented and knowledgeable theatre artists in my life, but none have captivated me, pushed, and challenged me as Melissa has. Both as a child when I met her and in my 20’s when I worked as her intern, I’d always been awed by her sense of command, especially coming from someone only a little over 5’ tall. She is strong in speech and presence. She handles crises with fortitude and composure. She thinks of every angle and “walks before she runs,” as is her credo. I chose her as my mentor for all these reasons, in addition to the fact that she is also a woman. In my lifetime, I’ve not met many women who embody such a wide range of theatrical expertise from creative to technical, as well as leadership. Melissa is an anomaly in my lifetime, at least in the theatre industry. Being that it’s National Women’s Equality Day, it seems fitting to ask the question: when will women become the rule and not just the exception?
The theme for SpringFEST 2018 is “In the Company of Women: Changing the Story.” There is a kind of nostalgic, old-worldly charm about the phrase, “in the company of women.” It conjures visions of the hours our grandmothers spent together, circled around basins of laundry, washed by hand; discarded piles of corn husks or green bean stems; socks that need darning. When work needed to be done, women often did it together. Did it make the work go by any faster? Maybe. It must have certainly made for less tedious work with the help of a little conversation. But I’ll wager that, above all, women are a great comfort to each other, especially when we come together for a common goal. No one understands a woman like another woman; our struggles, our joys. So “the company of women,” to me, translates to a network of support that is stronger than any other. When I hear “changing the story,” however, I think not of the past, but of the future. We live in an age where we are starting to recognize and accept that the gender gap, the inequalities between men and women in the professional sphere, still needs to be filled. We are not there yet, but we’re making progress. To “change the story,” we need to change the way we look at women – recognize their strengths, even if those strengths lie in areas that have previously been ruled by men; and celebrate their successes, not because they did a good job for a woman, but because their work is indeed worthy of praise in itself. This year, SpringFEST aims to bring the focus on women artists by producing works that are written by women, about women. In addition, these performance projects and workshops will be led by all-female production teams and teaching artists. Like our grandmothers, we are coming together to get the job done.
You might be saying to yourself, “Gee, I don’t know why women are still making such a fuss. They won the vote, they’re allowed to leave the home and join the workforce without judgment. They’re allowed to every right and privilege as a man. What else do they want?” On paper, yes, women have earned civil rights and can no longer be stoned for shirking her “womanly duties.” (Except that the pay gap thing is still an existing, major problem, but for the sake of keeping it simple, we won’t get into that just now). In the theatre industry, in particular, women still have a ways to go to join the ranks of the boys. If you look at the statistics, men are still the predominant sex among directors, writers, and composers; whereas, women are still stuck in predominantly female roles, such as costume design, hair, and makeup. At this year’s Tony awards, two women were awarded honors that have previously belonged exclusively to men: directing and writing. And while this advancement was duly celebrated, it is still a glowing example of how women are still considered the exception, rather than the rule. It should be a no-brainer that women can direct and write, and do it so well that they earn a Tony. Yet, it isn’t a no-brainer; instead, it is a newsworthy astonishment. It begs the question: Are there simply more men in these positions because men have a biological knack for the demands of the job? Or is it possible that there are just as many women gunning for these jobs, but they have to work twice as hard to be recognized and twice as hard to advance? Unless we challenge our preconceived, and perhaps even unconscious, assumptions that writers and directors are male jobs, the efforts of women in these roles will go largely unnoticed.
SpringFEST from its inception has always been about providing the opportunity for people to try their hand at something new. Or, give those who don’t have the experience needed to further themselves in the arts, the chance to be given a leg up. Given “a shot,” so to speak. Melissa explained to me that with the political climate being as it is, women “of a certain age,” as she politely puts it, feel they are in a do-or-die situation, where the time has come to empower the women that are following behind them. She feels it is her calling, as the orchestrator of SpringFEST, to devote this year to giving female artists their shot. In fact, this theme will coincide with The Steinbeck Center, who has also answered the call to focus their attention on women in the arts, including Steinbeck’s wife, Elaine Steinbeck, who was a talented actor and one of the first female stage managers. She has a theater named after her – the Elaine Steinbeck Stage in Sag Harbor. Her success, however, was unfortunately eclipsed by her husband’s fame. There are so many dynamite women, Melissa says, that deserve to be brought into the spotlight.
Melissa herself is one of those women who attributes her success to being given that leg up. When she first started working at The Western Stage, she didn’t know anything about theatre. But her mentors put their trust in her, they believed that she had vision, but only needed to be given the chance to learn and explore. This is the exact idea behind SpringFEST, giving those who are hungry for experience, mentorship, or artistic exploration, the opportunity to dive in.
Some of the projects percolating include the “Live Music Showcase” – a performance opportunity for singers to workshop their pieces and perform in a Cabaret style setting. Melissa is also conceiving a playwrighting workshop, based on a model that was once called “Solo Flights:” one-person projects, which involve comprehensive research on your chosen topic, playwrighting guidance, and a public reading of your play’s first scene. Actor and playwright Cheryl Games will be coming in from the Bay Area to teach this one. Melissa is in communication with a young playwright from El Teatro Campesino named Cristal Gonzales, with the hopes that she will allow us to perform one of her scripts in our Open Studio. One event that she is particularly excited about, having waited a year since obtaining the rights to put it up, is “Emma: A Pop Musical,” a modernized version of the novel by Jane Austen, featuring a juke-box score of songs made famous by legendary female singers and girl groups like The Supremes, Pat Benetar, Katy Perry, Cyndi Lauper, and The Ronettes. The boys aren’t excluded from this one, as there are a few good roles for them, but the important thing about “Emma” is that it features females as the central characters, rather than as accessories for male characters, as is generally the norm in theatrical literature.
I am proud to mention that I will be choreographing “Emma,” as an example of another such artist who has been given a “leg up” by The Western Stage and its programs. Because of mentors like Melissa and others, I’ve been given the freedoms to try my hand and explore my theatrical endeavors in performance, teaching, and choreography, and basically anything else that would satisfy my curiosity. Because of the training and knowledge I gained at The Western Stage through interning, I decided to go off and earn a B.A. in Theatre through the wonderful program at CSU Chico. And I am now able to say I’m living my dream, working as a theatre professional; an actor, dance teacher, choreographer, marketing associate for TWS, and at this particular moment, theatre blogger. To do all these things (and make a living) would be hard won if not for the learning opportunities and supportive guidance of TWS. So it is with this sense of gratitude that I join the creative team of “Emma,” because there are young women in our community, like Melissa, and like me, who deserve that same freedom to explore, that same guidance, and “their shot.”
This is only a small sampling of what will be on the docket for SpringFEST 2018, but already, the offerings are taking shape. Auditions for the “Live Showcase,” “Emma” (for teens, 20’s, and a few adults), and a TBD Young Company show are coming up soon: September 16 & 17 with callbacks October 7 & 8 (For audition information, click here). And perhaps the most exciting bit of news of all: Melissa will be taking the students who work with her to produce SpringFEST on a series of field trips to meet/visit women theatre professionals. One of our TWS alumni, Heather McAllister, has just been hired as the acting Theater Manager and Technical Director at the gorgeous Mission City Center for the Performing Arts (Santa Clara). Next stop, BRAVA for Women in the Arts (SF) and Crowded Fire Theater (SF) where Mina Morita is director/Artistic Director, and of course, a visit with TWS regular and fight director, Carla Pantoja of Dueling Arts. Interested in being a student producer with Melissa? I thought so. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out the SpringFEST page on our website to stay up to date on the addition of new projects (https://westernstage.com/springfest-2017/). There is much to look forward to!