Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks’ 26th season’s theme is “She Blinded Me with Science,” and all three plays that are scheduled examine the roles women have played in furthering scientific discovery.
The plays “were ones that we had been wanting to do for some time,” says artistic director Suzan Fete, who comes from a science background and holds a master’s degree in nursing.
The selections reflect the mission of Renaissance — “theater by women for everyone” — while supporting national efforts to get more young women interested in the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, better known as STEM programs.
Despite sharing a scientific throughline, the selection is surprisingly diverse.
Playwright Karen Zacarias’ Native Gardens (Oct. 19–Nov. 11), described as “a hot-button comedy where cultures and gardens clash,” tackles the horticultural conflict between native plants and exotic species in a tony Washington, D.C., suburb. Led by two feuding neighbors, both women of science, the narrative tackles a variety of subjects, including race, taste, class and privilege.
Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 (Jan. 18–Feb. 10), a play about ambition and isolation, chronicles the role scientist Rosalind Franklin played in the research that eventually led to the discovery of the DNA double helix. Yet Franklin’s name often is not associated with the breakthrough described as the 20th century’s greatest scientific achievement.
Finally, Reina Hardy’s Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven (March 29–April 21) tells the tale of a 13-year-old scientific genius from Strawberry, Kansas, and her chance encounter with Althea, an intergalactic supercomputer that, according to program notes, manifests as “a mean girl with really great hair.” Annie is the chosen one to lead humankind to the stars, Althea says, but there is a cost to fulfilling that destiny.
The desire to produce Annie Jump actually started the season rolling, Fete says. Renaissance had performed the play as a dramatic reading during its 2017–18 Br!nk New Play Festival. The full production will be the company’s first “rolling” world premiere, with concurrent productions this season by theater companies in Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.
Balancing the Gender equation
Each of the plays stands on its own, but all carry a subtext of the difficulty women face in trying to compete in what heretofore has been seen as a man’s world, Fete says.
“Even though the plays aren’t directly about discrimination, they each touch on things that show how society differs in the way it treats women,” Fete says. “Women face more obstacles than men.”
In Photograph 51, for example, the character of Rosalind finds challenges based on the fact that she is both a woman and Jewish, making her an outsider in multiple ways, Fete explains. She arrives at the study assuming she will be a full-fledged participant only to discover she’s been assigned to an assistant’s role.
“She was also not a pleasant or user-friendly person,” the artistic director says. “Had she been a man, perhaps her name would be on the Nobel Prize along with the others.”
The science theme notwithstanding, all of this season’s plays have what Renaissance always looks for — strong and interesting roles for women.
“When we were founded in 1993, we wanted to produce the best possible quality theater that we could while promoting the best possible roles for women on stage and off,” Fete says. “We seek out plays with strong female characters and themes that speak to women in society.”
Fete notes that a large majority of theatergoing audiences are made up of women, but only 20 percent of plays are written by women. The disparity causes an imbalance in how women are represented onstage, which results in false perceptions by society in general and among women themselves.
“We all thrive in a society that appreciates diversity,” Fete explains. “I don’t think people actively discriminate, but you seek what you are familiar with and what you like.
“If most producers are men, they will seek things that speak to them,” she adds. “As we get more women in power, things will balance out.”
Based on responses that Fete hears, she believes Renaissance Theaterworks is accomplishing what it set out to do: balance the gender equation.
“What makes me the most proud is when a young actress comes to me and says, ‘I saw your work when I was in junior high school and realized that there is a place for me in theater.’”