For the ninth consecutive year, Cheryl King’s Stage Left Studio is presenting its Women at Work Festival — a theater festival devoted to works by and/or about women. The 10-day festival runs through Sept. 27 and is a benefit for Girl Effect, a charity that provides 600 million adolescent girls around the world with the funding they need to help raise them and their families out of poverty. I caught up to King a few days before the festival opened to talk theater with her.
TheBlot Magazine: Let’s start with the festival itself. Why is Women at Work necessary?
Cheryl King: Women have yet to achieve parity in the performing arts. In writing, acting and directing, we make up less than 20 percent of those being paid for their craft. And we get paid less. All across the globe, women are oppressed, undervalued, exploited, taken for granted. Women’s issues are even denigrated by other women. I often hear women in their 20s say, “I hate feminists.” And I tell them, “If we feminists did not do our job on the front lines, you would not have birth control, access to abortion, laws against gender discrimination, representatives in Congress or on the Supreme Court, the right to serve in the Armed Forces in combat positions, even the right to vote.” We still are far from achieving parity in all phases of existence, and that’s in the Western world. In many places in the world, women are beaten, enslaved, sold like cattle, harassed, subjugated, raped and killed — as a basic fact of life. As long as this gender disparity exists, women have to stand together, and we have to continue to work as a bloc to make our needs known and to address the inequality that is so pervasive all around the world.
The Women at Work Festival showcases the work of women — and the ideas that are important to us. It’s a showcase of our abilities and our concerns, and it’s a benefit for The Girl Effect, which helps girls around the world raise themselves, their families and their villages out of poverty.
What does it take to make a festival like this succeed?
It takes me making good decisions about what to include. And a lot of factors go into that. I like to support new work and new ideas. I have to consider the needs of the audience: What will be of interest? What can they afford? When will they come to a show? Where is the performer from? There are promotional considerations. I’ve worked hard to establish friendly relationships with critics, reviewers, newspapers and supporters who can get the word out. It’s a constant task — Facebook postings, tweets, creating press releases, putting out photos, changing the photos, correcting wrong info.
Good support staff — good graphics are important, so is a reliable crew who can whip up a good lighting plot or sound design on a dime, and good box office personnel who can handle any situation. Experience — in the past nine years, I have produced 18 festivals of my own and curated Sola Voce (the solo show part of the Estrogenius Festival) eight times. Producing is like raising a house full of children; there are issues that crop up all the time, unexpected events, loss of cast members, board operators, all the people who are essential to make things happen. You have to be able to roll with the punches, and to spend long unpaid hours attending to details large and small, trivial and important.
What do you look for in a show?
I am a writer by inclination, and my first look at a show is the writing. I seek a good through-line, a solid beginning/middle/end, originality in style and format, well-articulated thought and concept, novelty and leading-edge thought. My second look is the performance (often this is not possible, as much work submitted to festivals is brand-new and no record of the performance has yet been made). I check to see if the performer has chops, if they know how to command a stage, if they have the requisite skills to embody their work. I research their production team, their director and designers. Though I am willing to take a chance on a new writer/actor, it’s important to consider the audience. I want to ensure that the product is stage worthy, and that the audience will be glad they came. I do not welcome self-indulgent or undercooked performances on my stage. I believe in a performer/audience contract; entertainment value is not the only value in theater, but it’s an important value.
What is the Stage Left Studios purpose? How long have you run it? How do you run it?
What has evolved is an artistic community — actor/writers who bring one project to Stage Left and then over the course of years, they bring subsequent projects back to the space to develop. It’s primarily a development space, and much excellent work has moved on from here to festivals and other cities. Stage Left shows have received many awards in Fringe Festivals and three have won Drama Desk nominations here in NYC. I have run it now since October of 2005. The first Stage Left was at 438 W. 37th St., but when my landlord there died, after my being there for nearly five years, his beneficiaries decided to sell, so when my lease ended, I had to do it all over again here at 214 W 30th St. I have now been at this location for four years.
I run the space by myself, for the most part. I have had interns who help out with promotion and box office duties, and I have had help in the build-outs of the space, both volunteer and hired. I work with two graphic artists — William LoCasto and KC Weakley — who give me the benefit of their expertise. But all the other tasks are mine. I hire techies to run the light/sound board — Ellen Rosenberg and Alex Chmaj. My friend TC Corwin, who built the stage and the booth, and has provided lots of other help with the venue, has earned the title of “Mayor of Stage Left” for his devotion to the space and the work here. A lot of love and support have come to Stage Left from many people, but I personally spend about 60 hours a week making it happen.
Tell us how you got involved in the theater biz.
In 1993, I had been doing standup comedy for 11 years on the road and was tired of the grind, the long road trips and working in nightclubs. I wanted to be able to do material that was not necessarily funny and that had a through-line longer than three minutes. I wanted to write a solo show and perform it. Coming to NYC was the solution. In New York, I would be able to continue to make a living doing standup in local gigs and thereby be able to stay in one place, take a writing workshop and find a theater to perform in. Over the course of the next three years, I did that, and by the time I left standup in 1995, I had nearly finished my solo show. In 1996, I performed it in a workshop production and became aware that I needed more than standup skills to do it. I needed to be an actor. So I began what turned into an 11-year course of study with many fine teachers, here in NYC and LA. In 1999, I started teaching and producing acting retreats and workshops. In 2001, I opened my solo show and was disappointed in most of the black-box spaces I found. I thought I could do better, and by 2005, I had decided to open my own venue, Stage Left Studio. My main intention was to provide myself a place to coach, teach and perform, but, of course, I had to pay the rent, which meant producing, coproducing and renting the space. Things just continued on from there.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.