Local women’s theater festival explores trans, queer stories

audience watching theater play
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The theme of this year’s Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival (PWTF) deviates from the traditional idea of womanhood. “Folkslore: Breaking the Binary” features plays that explore stories of women and queer people that exist outside of the cishet-normative binary. The festival will run from Aug. 3-6 at Hamilton Family Arts Center in Old City. 

PWTF cultivates space for women to thrive in the performing arts by providing exposure opportunities, professional and artistic development and performance platforms. The 2023 festival is the first since a shift in executive leadership; PWTF founders Polly Edelstein and Christine Petrini joined the board, Glynnis Nadelbaum took on the role as artistic director and Autumn Blalock took the helm as managing director. 

“In its ninth year, the Philly Women’s Theatre Festival is in a way rededicating ourselves to our mission in a radical way by not only showcasing works by women and nonbinary artists, but questioning and dismantling the narratives that our patriarchal society confines womanhood to, as well as even the ways in which we tell these stories,” Nadelbaum said in an email. “We hope audiences are moved to thoughtful conversation, leave with questions about how they can disrupt the patriarchy and break the binary, and most of all, are entertained by these incredible artists!”

This year’s slate of shows include L M Feldman’s “SCRIBE,” or “The Sisters Milton,” or “Elegy for the Unwritten;” Ang Bey’s “Masc.;” Liv Shoup’s “Skinny Legend;” and Tyler Rocio Ecoña’s “Unfair Advantage.” 

“SCRIBE” focuses on the three daughters of John Milton, whom he asked to help transcribe the text of his epic poem “Paradise Lost” when he became blind. 

“History suggests that some of the work might have fallen to his three daughters, or at least one of his three daughters,” said Feldman, who identifies as a gender nonconforming female. Despite Milton having asked his daughters to transcribe for him, he didn’t believe in a woman’s right to be educated, failed to provide educational resources to his daughters and left them nothing in his will when he died. Milton may also have been gay, but married women because of the societal expectation at the time, according to Feldman. 

“I found it extremely interesting and troubling that this person who is a literary genius and a major canonical figurehead and foundation in the western canon, had these three children who he deprived of the same access to learning and tools for self expression that he had,” Feldman said. “The play is a historical fantasia version of what that might have been like for the three [daughters], and [examines] the relationship between genius and privilege, genius and opportunity, genius and access, separate from genius and talent.”

Through this play, Feldman intends to address questions of how audiences relate to great works of literature and art when they have complicated relationships to the creators. 

“If we find the art brilliant, what do we do about problematic humans who made the art,” Feldman asked rhetorically. “Who is living in the shadows of genius, brilliance, access, self expression? What could our cultural inheritance have been if that had been more widespread? What never got to be written and what still is not able to be written, and what do we do about that? I want people to leave asking these questions and wrestling with them.”

Ecoña’s “Unfair Advantage” follows a young trans swimmer who is the first trans female athlete on a collegiate swim team. After she scores a big win that puts her in the lead for the national championships, she experiences public backlash. 

“‘Unfair Advantage’ is really about her experience and her journey, responding to and living with public attention as a trans athlete,” said Ecoña, who identifies as a Peruvian-American trans lesbian. “This play is deeply rooted in Philadelphia-area politics and Philadelphia-area discourse. I think that it speaks to the experience of transgender people, especially trans people who are interested in sports and who play sports.”

Ecoña’s lived experience receiving some pushback as a former dancer underpins the story of “Unfair Advantage.” They also took inspiration from the experiences of trans swimmer Lia Thomas, who gained national attention and backlash when she became the first openly trans athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship while studying at UPenn. 

“There’s definitely a message of acceptance, but also a critique of hate within this play,”  Ecoña said. 

The play also draws influence from current political attacks against trans communities, specifically legislation that bans trans youth from participating in school sports that correspond to their gender identity. 

“When I’m writing plays, I like to think about the impact that my writing will have on families after they see it,” Ecoña said. “Especially as groups like Moms for Liberty and other conservative media groups are really trying to push this narrative of the scary transgender person, the scary transgender athlete who is taking away women’s spots and taking away opportunities from quote unquote real women — I definitely want to challenge that stereotype. In a lot of my work, I strive to depict queer and trans people as normal human beings with emotions, with fears and with joy.” 

A different kind of trans narrative is at the heart of Bey’s play “Masc,” which tells the story of Tasha, a trans college senior who is wrestling with coming out as a trans man. But Tasha’s path to self-discovery is complicated by news of their father being released from prison, and makes them reluctant to come out. 

“I like to say it’s a coming-of-age story and a self-love story,” said Bey, who identifies as a nonbinary Black femme, as well as trans. 

Bey’s conception of their trans identity is tied to their racial identity and the culture in which they were raised as a Black woman, they said. Although Tasha’s story and Bey’s story are not one and the same, Bey’s lived experience is typically part of the underlying message of their plays, they explained. 

“Something that I wanted to explore through Tasha’s character is the conflict that she has wrestling with her learned Black womanhood and her realization that she is not a woman at all, and may even be a man — what she thinks is the opposite end of the spectrum,” Bey said. “A lot of what Tasha is also wrestling with is how they’re perceived. They care so deeply about how other people think about them, and they want so deeply to be understood. I think that’s something that is universal. I think that what Tasha has to learn — not to spoil anything — is that nothing is clear cut and the world doesn’t exist on binaries.” 

Bey also commended PWTF staff as a whole for choosing the theme of this year’s festival — to showcase women, queer and trans people who don’t fit into the traditional idea of what it means to be a woman. 

“I think that so much of ‘Masc.’ is exploding the definition of womanhood, exploding the definition of manhood and all [the] binary-ness that we exist within the world,” Bey said. “I’m really proud of an organization that is blatantly called the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival for exploding that definition by inviting trans artists and our stories into the space.”

Shoup’s play “Skinny Legend” further challenges that definition of traditional womanhood through the story of Katie, who is a fat, body positivity influencer on Instagram. When Katie goes on a trip to meet her traditional, masculine boyfriend’s high school friends in his hometown, she discovers that they are all perpetuating a weight-loss pyramid scheme. 

“[The play] is basically a battle of healthy weight loss versus body image — all these different body politics,” said Shoup, who identifies as queer. “It’s about the reality of being a fat girl online and in person and how we fake things on social media to make people think that we are brave, and that we are special. In reality, we are just trying to figure it out like everybody else.”

“Skinny Legend” embodies an alternate view of womanhood in the sense that the main character is not someone mainstream audiences typically find attractive, Shoup said. 

“Sometimes the way that fat people are treated, they’re not treated like people,” Shoup said. “There’s a lot of times when women aren’t treated like people, period, but especially when you are fat or deemed different-looking, you really lose a lot of humanity. A lot of people don’t give you the time of day. I think a lot of feminist movements still exclude fat people unintentionally.”

Ultimately, Shoup hopes audiences leave the play reflecting on the idea of how they feel about their body and whether they might reject the typical conception of what it means to gain weight.

“I just hope they take away some sympathy, some empathy,” Shoup said. “I think [fatness] is a topic that I don’t see in theater. I hope they leave considering people who are different from them in a different light. I hope that theater folks who come see it — folks that are on the casting side — see that ‘oh shit, we don’t cast fat people.’”

For showtimes, tickets and more info on this year’s Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival, visit https://givebutter.com/PWTF9th.