WAM gathers ‘Change Makers'
GREAT BARRINGTON -- A playwright who has talked with freed inmates from death row, an international photojournalist who has covered refugees from the Ugandan Civil War and the dammage from the 2004 Tsunami and a documentary film-maker who has chronicled a dying New Jersey police officer trying to pass on her earned pension to the woman she loves will meet to talk with each other.
To celebrate the fifth anniversary of Women's Action Movement Theatre Company, artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven wanted to celebrate its mission of making art and positive social change. So as a benefit she has brought together a panel of artists who do both.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman, who also won a Tony Award for her book to the musical of "The Secret Garden," and WAMC Producer Sarah LaDuke will moderate "Change Makers" at 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 24, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center with film director Cynthia Wade, photojournalist John Stanmeyer and playwright, actor and novelist Jessica Blank. (Jayne Atkinson, originally slated as a moderator, has had to withdraw to attend the Emmy awards.)
Blank said she was raised in a politically active household, and her political awareness has grown along side her interest in the arts.
"For a long time, when I was younger, I had an idealistic hope it was possible to combine the two," she said. "I really didn't know if it was possible."
But early in her career she put together a play inspired by the documentary theater movement, using direct sources to tell often overlooked stories. With her then-boyfriend, now husband, Erik Jensen, she researched death row inmates who had later been found innocent.
They co-wrote and co-directed the play, "The Exonerated," first produced in 2002 -- it toured internationally, ran off-Broadway and later became a film with Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy and Susan Sarandon.
Her career ranges from mainstream projects on stage, film and television to the play "Aftermath," based on interviews with Iraqi civilian refugees in Jordan.
She finds a kind of empathy in hearing the stories of others.
"There is something radical and potentially transformative about going on a journey with other people," she said.
Others on the panel have blended art and action in other media. Director Cynthia Wade won an Academy Award in 2008 for "Freeheld," a short documentary about a dying policewoman's effort to leave her pension to her female partner. Earlier this year, Wade released a short film, "Selfie" -- filmed at Monument Mountain High School in Great Barrington -- that addresses body image issues among young women.
Stanmeyer, a Berkshires-based photographer, has worked around the world for National Geographic and Time, and his work explores the issues of poverty, human rights and cultural diversity. His 2012 book "Questions Without Answers" chronicles his career in the field.
"The common denominator is all of us desire to use our art for action -- to use our art to create positive change around social justice issues," van Ginhoven said.
The panel will also give a preview of WAM's upcoming season. Playwright Winter Miller will join in the talk, and WAM will present her play "In Darfur," Oct. 30 to Nov. 16 at the Berry Family Studio at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.
Van Ginhoven founded WAM Theatre five years ago with Leigh Strimbeck after reading "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide" by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, about the effort to end gender inequality.
Along the way van Ginhoven and Strimbeck have built relationships with other arts groups in the region -- including larger theater companies with their own theaters and smaller ones open to collaboration. A key component of their work, in addition to supporting the theater and raising awareness of social justice issues, is to raise funds for important local causes that share their goals. So far, the company has collected and donated $10,500 to organizations that help women and girls around the Berkshires and the Capitol Region.
Van Ginhoven said they seek out and are sought out by different artists. She mentioned in particular their work with Susan Dworkin, when they produced the premiere of her play "The Old Mezzo" in 2012.
"I spend a lot of time actively researching and reaching out to other like-minded organizations, in the hopes of eventually doing rolling premieres or collaborations with companies outside of the Berkshires," she said.
She said that building an audience "is always a work in progress," because WAM Theatre is new and does not have its own theater space.
"We want to spend the funds we raise on people, not buildings," she said. "But each year our audience numbers, as well as our supporters and sponsors, increase substantially, so we are on a good track."
Over the next five years, she hopes to expand their season to include two mainstage productions a year -- in the fall and spring -- along with a reading series and special events. She also plans to expand WAM's education program, and continue to find new ways to work with other organizations.
Looking ahead this way tells van Ginhoven how far she has come. When she and Strimbeck started WAM Theatre, she said, she did not know whether their mission would be possible or sustainable.
"It is beyond where I hoped it would be," she said.
If you go ...
What: WAM Theatre panel, ‘Change Makers'
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 24
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St.,
Admission: $50, $75 premium $25 to WAM education program
$125 with post-show reception