What if Shakespeare had a sister?
In her classic 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf asks: what if Shakespeare had had a sister?
She imagines an artist equal to Shakespeare in genius, different from him only in her sex, and wonders what might have become of her. She suspects that such a playwright would have died in obscurity, her poetry unexpressed. In invoking the stunted life and work of that imaginary playwright, Woolf mourns all the countless women writers throughout history whose spirits were broken and whose voices were dismissed, unheard, or silenced.
Sadly, generations later, women playwrights are still shockingly underrepresented in the modern theater.
Only 17 percent of the plays produced professionally in America are written by women, even though across the country women provide the bulk of the audience and support for theater, whether it’s nonprofit or commercial, professional or not.
(Oddly enough, despite the radical inequality of opportunity for women playwrights, plays written by females with female leads tend to be the most commercially successful plays—a further argument for nurturing women’s work. There is a hunger for it.)
The facts are stark: as difficult as it is for male playwrights to make a career in the theater, female playwrights have an even harder time, facing harsher discouragement, worse odds, and a greater sense of isolation. The Shakespeare’s Sister Fellowship seeks to address that imbalance by providing a female playwright with a unique blend of support and encouragement, inviting her into three communities equipped to aid her in honing her craft, concentrating her energies, strengthening her connection with other writers, expanding her community, and finally developing her work once she has brought it into being. Over the course of the year, as she passes through each stage in the process of writing a new play, she will be sustained and aided by an institution and a community specifically suited to that particular aspect of her work.
- In December, before the fellowship year begins, she will go to New York for a meeting with representatives from the three partner organizations, during which she will be encouraged to dream and strategize about how she wants to use her time and the resources she will have to draw upon.
- Then she will start her fellowship year with a residency at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island in Washington State in the winter or early spring, the beneficiary of what Hedgebrook calls its “radical hospitality.” She will live and work in one of the six handcrafted cottages on the rural property. She will be fed by master chefs and share a meal every night with the other writers in residence there. That retreat week will be followed by a master class week in which she will continue her residency and have a chance to participate in a writing class taught by a celebrated writing teacher, who will also consult with her one-on-one about her ongoing work.
- In the summer, the playwright will be invited as a special guest to participate in A Room of Her Own (AROHO), a retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico where women writers from all over the world gather to exchange ideas, make connections, and revel in the landscape. This assembly of women writers ensures attendees access to: mentorship and collaboration across all levels of accomplishment and in between genres; acceleration of craft mastery; real opportunity to establish fruitful relationships with industry and literary experts; and meaningful, personal engagement between accomplished and fledgling artists facing the struggles of artistic innovation and marketplace reception first articulated by Virginia Woolf and still relevant today. This week will be an opportunity for the playwright to engage with the larger community of women writers, helping her to establish a network of like-minded peers and essential mentors.
- Finally, in the fall of 2015, the playwright will have a project residency week in New York at the Lark Play Development Center, an organization dedicated to the support and development of the playwright. In that week the playwright, working with professional actors and directors, can look at what she’s generated over the year and gain perspective on her process and insight into how what she’s written might evolve.
Woolf ends A Room of One’s Own with a call to action. She entreats us to invite the spirit of Shakespeare’s sister back into the world by preparing the way for her and providing her with acknowledgment, encouragement, and support.
[T]hen the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born.