with Danielle DeMatteo & Emily Rellis of
She NYC Arts
Interviewed By Jagger Waters
We The Women has been thrilled to learn all about She NYC Arts (now also She LA Arts!) She LA's festival this summer took place at the Zephyr Theater in Hollywood July 28 - August 4th. We loved the work we saw and hope you will check out what these incredible women have accomplished. Find out how She NYC Arts is expanding beyond NYC and LA in 2020 in our interview!
We interviewed Danielle DeMatteo, Artistic Director of She NYC Arts & She LA Arts and Emily Rellis, Executive Producer of She LA Arts about what it's been like operating bi-coastal, annual festivals and an educational program for female high school students with a team of (that's right) all women! Any woman-identifying writer, or writing team that is at least 50% women, can submit work to the festival. We're already looking forward to next year!
How was SheNYC created?
Danielle: SheNYC was first created from the realization that women playwrights, composers, and directors have an infinitely more difficult time getting their work produced professionally. Often, we're left with two options: either fundraise and spend all your savings to self-produce, or sign away the rights to your show to a producer -- who is often an older man, whom you may or may not trust. In speaking to playwright friends and colleagues, I found that so many of us had similar experiences of being taken advantage of by producers who dangle money before a project to manipulate young women in the industry. We created the festival as a way to give women a new option to see their work produced in full.
What's the biggest challenge of running an annual festival that takes place in two different, major cities (NYC and LA)?
Danielle: I’d say the biggest challenge is managing the differences between our two markets. The theater industries in both cities function quite differently, so every part of our process — from vetting scripts, to working with the accepted writers, to marketing tickets— has to be tailored to how the industries in these two cities work differently.
Emily: I agree with everything Danielle said - it's been a rollercoaster to learn the differences between the NYC and LA theater markets. But, adapting to those differences, as well as the very few similarities both markets do have, has been a gift. A gift that bites back for sure, but it's an opportunity to encourage us to think about the essence of what draws people to the theater as a whole, and I hope that is something we can to explore in both cities and hopefully many more!
Are there any success stories you'd like to tell us about, with playwrights who have gained momentum after having their work produced in the SheNYC or SheLA festivals?
Danielle: Totally! One writer that comes to mind is Mandy Murphy, whose play From A to Double D was in our NYC festival a few years ago. That was a beautiful play about the things you lose as you grow up, and it went straight on to an extended run after it won Best Script in our festival. We then helped the writer get the script published in the Dionysian Magazine, and now it’s planning for yet another production. But one thing that i’m most proud of in that vein is that at the end of the day, our program isn’t about just promoting one show— it’s about promoting a writer and her career, so that more women can have successful life-long careers in the arts. So we have a panel of industry judges come see each show, and offer feedback to the writers afterwards. In the past, these judges have gotten their favorite playwrights meetings with major TV studios, Broadway producers, recording studios, and agents. A lot of our writers now have representation, which they didn’t before the festival. It’s that holistic approach that will help lead to our alumni get full-time careers doing what they love.
Emily: Elinor T Vanderburg comes to mind for me. One of the smartest and most creative writers I have come to see in our festival's growth. Her first musical was a part of our 2017 NYC festival about a dystopian future where women laid eggs and began a deeper discussion about reproductive rights. She dove in so fully and so wholeheartedly that the audience felt that love and care from their seats. And while it sold well and was enjoyed by so many - what did Elie do? Come back two years later with an even bigger project, with even more love and care put in - a play called "Dancing Girl" that told the story of Esmerelda from the Notre Dame tales, with an important and amazing theatrical addition - being a show cast with those who are deaf and was made to be enjoyed by both hearing and deaf patrons. That is something that is just so special to me, that we have made a safe space for women with these amazing ideas to feel completely and fully supported in having them come to life. I hope we continue to see familiar names pop up in future submissions, with even bigger risks and dreams to fulfill.
There are so many teams of women who have banded together to create their own works, companies, arts collectives, and political action committees over the past several years. What would you say is the most important element of managing a team of women who are already employed full time?
Danielle: That’s both a great and a tough question. We’re very lucky that so many talented women believe in our mission, and therefore, we have a strong and mighty staff who are willing to put in all this extra work on top of their day jobs! So the most important element is having a goal that people really believe in. But on top of that, I think it’s being able to trust the women you’re working with. I love how smart, intuitive, and talented they all are, so when someone wants to take on a new project or has a new idea, I trust them to be able to handle it and really take the reigns without a lot of micromanagement. That way, everyone feels like they really have ownership of their role in our mission, and a tangible stake in the success of the company. That’s how our new kids program, CreateHER, got started!
CreateHER, SheNYC's education program for female high school students who are interested in theater, is such an amazing opportunity for young artists to learn the start to finish process of producing theater. What is the status of arts education programs in NYC public schools, and how does SheNYC help?
Danielle: I think it’d be tough to find a better place in the world for arts education programs than NYC. We have no shortage of programs, camps, and even entire public schools just devoted to the arts. So we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel or try to be better than the other programs out there; we wanted to do something that would supplement other programming, fill a gap in the topics already covered, and most importantly, be entirely free and accessible to anyone who identifies as a girl. We noticed that both in high school and college, you can easily get training as an actor, stage manager, director, or designer. But what there wasn’t a strong training program for was playwrights and producers. And if we are trying to forward women in the theater, those are two of the most important professions to tackle! The writers are the first to create the work that other women can later work on, and the producers are hiring everyone to do it. So we set out to make a training program that would not only show teenage girls that careers in playwriting and producing ARE achievable, but to also give them a strong foundation of the skills they need to be successful at these things.
Has there been a specific moment you can remember, from either the festival or education program, that really touched you and demonstrated how important it is to support young and emerging female artists?
Danielle: How do I pick just one?? This year, at the NYC festival, we had a fantastic new Esmeralda-centric reinterpretation of the famous novel NOTRE DAME DE PARIS called Dancing Girl. This new version took a more historically-accurate approach in making Quasimodo’s character deaf, played by an incredible deaf actor, with many of the other characters also being played by deaf or speaking/ASL bilingual actors. The entire show was interpreted in ASL, so we had an ASL-friendly seating section where the audience had the best view of the stage. All of their performances sold out with the ASL section filled to capacity, with hearing audience members seated on the other side of the theater. There were a number of moments throughout the show where the ASL dialogue had jokes in it that the hearing audience members couldn’t understand, but the deaf and ASL-fluent audience members did! So you would hear just one side of the audience laugh, while those of us who could hear on the other side had no idea what the joke was. It was really beautiful to be able to watch that and know that we helped create a welcoming space not just for women, but for so many types of people who aren’t always looked out for in the entertainment industry.
Emily: It's truly impossible to pick just one moment after so many incredible teams and productions have become a part of our SheFamily. I truly think our closing night party/awards ceremony is something special. Each time I have attended, on both coasts, there is an energy that runs through the room that I have not felt anywhere else. All the shows are so proud of themselves, and the other productions, equally. You see the writers conversing with each other, giving accolades to other teams, adding to the cheers and claps for each winner, freely expressing their thoughts and enjoyment of each other's work and listening to one another. There was a moment when Melitta McKethan from Between The Colored Lines won Best Supporting Actor at this year's LA festival - and the whole room, the BTCL team and everyone else present erupted into joy and applause and accolades, it made me cry on the spot. You can literally see the community that we are trying to cultivate for all women creatives growing before our very eyes. That kind of support can't be bought or found just anywhere, so I am so happy that we have made a space where that kind of network can grow and continue on after each Festival closes.
What is the dream for SheNYC in five years?
Danielle: Our dream is to continue to give women in the arts more opportunities, and to expand our reach so that as many women can get those opportunities as possible! And I’m super excited to be able to announce that we’re taking another step toward that goal this year. 2020 will be our 5-year SheNYC Anniversary, and we’re celebrating it by launching our third branch: in Atlanta, Georgia! We’re so thrilled to see where this new journey takes us. She ATL’s 2020 festival will feature Georgia-based playwrights, so stay tuned for more details on how to get involved or submit your show if you’re in the Atlanta area.
Emily: I hope to have a SheNYC T-shirt in every color and city imaginable. I hope to be at the board meeting where we need to decide on a more global name, as our "She-presence" has grown so much that we need a more globally inclusive identity. And - I hope that our core members of the SheNYC are still growing together, through the life changes that come and go as they will, as this team is so wonderful and creative and teaches me more and more each year. I could never express my gratitude appropriately for being given the chance to be on the team.