When Iliana Rentería Bernal moved to the Roaring Fork Valley almost three years ago, dreams of the stage were just that.
“Before that, I worked at the National Health Institute in Mexico,” she said. “So, I do not have any background in theatre, but I do love to write and read literature and poetry.”
That love led Bernal last year to write, “Winged Woman,” which she performed as the play’s lead. It tells of a woman who gradually realizes she’s becoming a dragon and finds her inner power and strength.
“It all came from these conversations about expectations and your role in society and how you may look a certain way and people might expect something from you, but then you can be something totally different and it’s up to you,” explained Bernal.
Voices like Bernal’s on stage are rare. That’s because work by women only accounts for 28 percent of professionally produced plays in the US. Women of color represent an even smaller percentage of playwrights, directors, producers and actors. Women playwrights, for their part, have taken notice, and some theatre companies like Carbondale-based Voices are trying to make sure their work makes it to the stage.
“We still have an income gap,” explained Kristin Carlson; she’s on the Board of Voices, which produced Bernal’s original work. ”And the theatres with the budgets and the support to produce new work are mostly headed by men and the work that appeals to male artistic directors maybe is different than what would appeal to a female director.”
Voices is based in Carbondale, and shines a spotlight on diverse storytelling and performers. The organization has theatre programs for school kids, and immigrants from Latin America. Women’s Voices is the organization’s all female theatre troupe. The group writes, performs and produces their own plays, which often focus on unique stories told from female perspectives.
“A lot of people want to produce women’s scripts,” explained Julia Jordan, the executive director at The Lilly’s, an organization based in New York City that advocates for women in theatre. “But they predict bias on the part of other people and whether that’s true or not or partially true, it sort of becomes a self-feeding loop.”
Jordan’s also involved in The Count, which is put out by the Dramatists Guild. The Count surveys 147 theatre companies and 3,970 productions across the country and compiles data about diversity in the industry every three years.
The last Count, which was released in 2017, finds the Rocky Mountain region has one of the lowest rates of professionally produced plays written by women of color. It’s a trend that’s mirrored on stages around the country.
And it’s not for lack of trying—compared to the general population, white women and women of color are over-represented in English Literature and Theatre degrees. Jordan said almost a quarter of undergraduate degrees associated with the performing arts go to women of color. Many of those same women end up pursuing careers in theatre, but don’t see their plays on stage.
“They’re becoming playwrights that are revered by their peers and professionals, especially when judged blind,” explained Jordan. “But then when it comes to being produced, their numbers go from 21 and 22 percent to 3—now, if we could rectify that, that would be a huge jump for all women.”
That’s why the stories being produced and performed by Voices are so important, according to Women’s Voices executive artistic director Renee Prince. The group’s most recent production was an audio performance called “The Collective Pause,” that was produced during the initial pandemic related shutdowns. Prince said it serves as a poignant reminder of the power of women’s words.
“This project really does come from the heart. It’s a space where vulnerability is welcome and a space where you really can’t get this right or wrong you can only get it honest,” said Prince. “The podcast felt like a natural way to bring all of our voices together to share with the community.”
Bernal said that adding her voice to the ensemble has been a rewarding experience, and she’s recently gone from being a playwright and performer to a Voices board member. She hopes that sharing her own story inspires other women.
“I just wish there were more women of color who would join projects like this,” she said. “Because it’s great to have representation and just to see someone who looks like you and has a story like yours out there doing things without being afraid and just sharing with pride who they are.”
Jordan said she’s optimistic that the number of women producers and women playwrights of color are going up, and that increased diversity is slowly taking root in the theatre community. The Me Too movement largely coalesced because of actresses in Hollywood. Hashtags on social media like “OscarsSoWhite” have also illuminated the lack of diversity in big budget films.
Carlson added that what’s being produced on local stages around the country is invaluable to the national discussion.
“Our stories are so important. The divides between us only grow greater when we don’t know them, or tell them or hear them,” she said. “And that is the beautiful thing about theatre. We recognize ourselves in people who are not us … it is an important step towards creating and maintaining bridges.”
Uniqueness and embracing it, isn’t a bad thing, according to Bernal’s telling of a winged, dragon woman. Given a stage and a spotlight, it’s a thought that might allow countless other voices to take flight.
Spanish translation of this story is made possible by a grant from the Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund