News: Hedgepig Ensemble and Partners "Expand the Canon" Again Beginning Sep. 13

 

Concepts such as the "canon" and "classic" works have been sites of struggle, in both academics and performance, for some time now, leading to some seismic changes both in who is considered a canonical writer and in who gets to shape that conversation. Of course, while undeniable advances in decentering White male writers and in increasing equity and representation have been made, the process of rethinking the canon remains contested and ongoing. In 2020, perceiving an inflection point in the New York City theater arts community, Hedgepig Ensemble Theatre, a Brooklyn-based collective founded in 2012, launched Expand the Canon, which focuses on furthering the inclusion of diverse women playwrights among what theater artists and audiences consider to be the classics. Having had success in influencing the works that have appeared not only on stages large and small but also in higher education classrooms nationwide, Hedgepig will shortly be highlighting a new set of plays in its 2021 List Drop on September 13th, as well as producing a Reading Festival featuring some of this year's plays from September 19th to 27th.
 
Hedgepig's Artistic Director, Mary Candler, notes that the company "has worked to approach the classics through a feminist lens since its inception. We've done that in a lot of ways—hiring women directors and production teams, spending time and care with female roles to help humanize them, choosing material that features women with agency." However, after about five years, it became clear to Candler that there was an opportunity to do more than stage classics by dead White men. "I decided," says Candler, "that it was time to produce a classic by a woman playwright—but didn't know where to start. Sure, Aphra Behn popped up—but I assumed there must be others." Although Behn (1640-1689), a multi-generic writer with an eventful biography and a pioneer in women writing for commercial theater in England—there are also earlier examples of mystery plays (religious plays performed in civic festivals), masques (elite, dance-heavy entertainments), and closet drama (plays not intended for the stage) by women—certainly warrants the significance accorded her, comparable women playwrights continue to be largely absent from not only the contemporary stage but even from many graduate-level classrooms. As a result, Candler ended up "tumbling down a rabbit hole that veered between Google and the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library," finding "laundry lists of plays by women—but without any useful producing information attached (plot, cast size, theme, relevance)" and seemingly "limited and skewed White." She realized that if the obstacles to producing classic plays by women were this onerous for someone who was professionally dedicated to "gender equity in the classics," then others could surely use assistance in this aim, and she and her team resolved to "do the work: read the plays, find the best, and remove barriers for producing them (or teaching them)."          

Thus was Expand the Canon born in January 2020 and, as Candler describes it, "only became more important as the pandemic and the revolution in June forced theaters to push pause and re-evaluate." In the first year of the initiative, it served as a resource for smaller companies as well as for pillars of New York theater such as Theatre for a New Audience and Roundabout Theater Company, with the latter choosing two of the five plays in its ReFocus project from Expand the Canon's curated list. Educational institutions such as Mary Baldwin University, Millikin University, The Academy for Classical Acting, and Florida State University have also integrated texts from the list into their respective curricula. The goal, Candler reminds us, is not "to replace dead white men with dead white women; but rather, a more diverse canon that honors and uplifts legacies of many voices." The published list of 9 plays, narrowed down from 400, provides for each play a brief description; casting, production, and licensing information; and, in most cases, a script, along with a brief bio of the playwright; a note at the conclusion of the list encourages "equitable, thoughtful, curious, and specific" casting and production staffing. Some names on the 2020 list will be more familiar (Zora Neale Hurston, with Spunk) and some less (18th-century writer Susanna Centlivre with Bold Stroke for a Husband), but all have been chosen as works judged "timely, relevant, and producible." To date, and even as many theaters are not yet back to business as usual, Expand the Canon has received more than 5,000 visitors, with almost 400 accessing the scripts provided. Looking forward, Candler has expressed her "hope that this moment makes the resource more hungered for—and I hope that we (producers) don't fall back into the 'tried and true'—because there's a new and more abundant audience out there for a more diverse canon."

Image credit: Emily Lyon
This year's List Drop, beginning on Monday, September 13 at 7 pm, will spotlight nine more canon-expanding plays by women writers. The 2021 list includes three translations that, if produced, will be national premieres, and five of its nine entries come from BIPOC writers. To further engage audiences and theater artists with the chosen plays, Hedgepig will also produce This is a Classic: The Do-This-Play Reading Series, in partnership with Ma-Yi Theatre Company, Classical Theatre of Harlem, and The Sol Project, companies dedicated to amplifying Asian American, Black, and Latinx voices, respectively. The reading series, which runs from September 19th to 27th, will be available both virtually and at local in-person “watch parties” in Brooklyn, NY; and the cast will feature Hedgepig Ensemble Members Madeline Egan Addis, Desirée Baxter, Jamal James, Andrew Hutcheson, Jory Murphy, Skye Pagon, Basil Rodericks, Rachel Schmeling, Gagarin, Dorothea Gloria, Shannon Corenthin, and Terra Chaney, as well as actors from partner companies to be announced. The schedule of readings is available on the festival website, with titles and full casts to be announced with the 2021 list of plays on September 13th. Tickets are a suggested donation of $15 and can be purchased on the Expand the Canon Festival website.

With the success and growth of Expand the Canon, Hedgepig has both added a reading committee to allow it to evaluate a greater number of plays and created a podcast series, This is a Classic: The Expand the Canon Theatre Podcast. As theaters start to mount productions again, Candler says that Expand the Canon's "#1 goal is to see these plays on stages. Beyond that, we want to publish a book of monologues for actors from these plays, start working more closely with translators to widen the number of world classics available in English, produce our first commissioned adaptation of an Expand the Canon play (which you can see a reading of on 9/27), and expand our podcast to bring in amazing guests!" Theater fans can support this initiative by subscribing to the podcast, donating to Hedgepig, and seeing and spreading the word about unfamiliar classics by women (if a company is producing The Beau Defeated [1700], by Mary Pix, and Macbeth, recommends Candler, "buy your tickets to Beau Defeated. Or to both") and productions (or teaching) of plays on the Expand the Canon lists. With the Expand the Canon initiative, lack of time and resources cease to be a barrier—or excuse—for theater gatekeepers in the necessary work of producing, teaching, and appreciating a larger, more diverse body of women's plays as classics. Changing how we view and engage with the past is one route to changing the future that we will inhabit, and the Expand the Canon initiative and Festival offer some next steps. As Candler puts it, "We are asking the industry to interrogate what stories they put on their stages—and we are providing a resource to help them do better."

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