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SHAKESPEARE’S OTHER SISTERS–The Road to AROHO by Thelma Virata de Castro

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

“But I want to be Shakespeare’s Sister! I do, I do!”

Can’t you just hear Veruca Salt in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? That was me after I received my rejection e-mail for the Shakespeare’s Sister Fellowship.  As fellowships go, this one was a dream. The concept was to give a female playwright a unique opportunity to develop a new play:

–A week at Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers in Washington State

–A place in A Room of Her Own Foundation’s (AROHO) retreat  in New Mexico

–A week at Lark Play Development Center, to develop a new play in New York City with directors and actors

–All travel expenses covered

–Plus $10,000

“But I want to be Shakespeare’s Sister! I do, I do!”

But alas, 955 other female playwrights and I did not get the fellowship. I didn’t even make the top 40 semi-finalists.

I did, however, learn about the AROHO Foundation and their biennial retreat. 100 women writers across all genres gather for a week to explore Virginia Woolf’s themes, take master classes, and engage with each other in the land where Georgia O’Keeffe painted.

“I want to go to AROHO! I do, I do!”

That meant another application. I discovered that AROHO offered fellowships that paid for registration and housing. Unfortunately, I received yet another rejection. But I did check the box that said I’d still like to be considered to attend the retreat, even if I had to pay my own way.

Life went on.

As a non-MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) playwright, it is easy for me to get wrapped up in MFA envy. Having an MFA is not a guarantee of success, but it does allow for mentorship, development and connections in the very social business of theatre. Playwrights who are produced in regional theatres and who get the big fellowships usually have an MFA. Right, Veruca?

“I want an M.F.A.! I do, I do!”

So I was humbled when I read a post in the Hedgebrook Blog by Kelly Clayton. I was fortunate to receive a Hedgebrook residency in 1999 and I follow the posts by Hedgebrook alumnae. Word has spread about this incredible residency in which women writers get to stay in an individual cottage and are given space and time to write. Hedgebrook offers radical acts of hospitality, such as bringing your lunch to your door. The application process has grown extremely competitive. Over 1,000 women writers apply for just 40 spots. Kelly Clayton got in. She is a talented, dynamic writer, but in her heartfelt post she described her feelings of insecurity because she was a high school dropout.

Shut up, Veruca.

Last February, I volunteered to lead a writing session for a group of women that included residents of New Entra Casa, a transitional home here in San Diego for recently incarcerated women. The first thing I talked about was being friendly to yourself. If you weren’t friendly, you wouldn’t write. That writing session allowed the women to open up. In later conversations, they shared about the experiences that led them to jail. They talked about how the New Entra Casa Executive Director interviewed them for placement. They prayed that they would be chosen as residents for the program after they were released.

“Pick me. Pick me.”

A few days later, I was surprised to get an e-mail from AROHO. I had almost forgotten about the retreat. I had applied for the Shakespeare’s Sister fellowship back in July 2014. Turns out, I did get picked. I was one of the 100 women selected to attend the AROHO retreat in August 2015. I’ll be taking a Master Class with Ellen McLaughlin, the Shakespeare’s Sister Fellowship Creator and Mentor. And I am excited to meet Shakespeare’s Sister—Dipika Guha. Fortuitously, Dipika will be coming to San Diego to write a play for Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company’s inaugural InCommunity project.

I attended the Dramatists Guild National Conference in La Jolla this past July. The results of The Count were announced, which is the gender parity in theatre research study funded by the Dramatists Guild and the Lilly Awards. Bottom line: 4 out of 5 productions by regional theatres throughout the country are written by men. In analyzing the results, Marsha Norman said that when women’s voices are silenced, it’s not a world safe for children or anything. Tony award winner Lisa Kron said, “This is not the natural order of things . . . let’s just fix it.” I’ll be participating in a We Are Theatre SPEAK-OUT about gender parity at the 2016 AWP Conference with Aphra Benn, Martha Joy Rose, Laura Shamas and Jennie Webb (representatives from Guerilla Girls on Tour and the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative).

I am Shakespeare’s Other Sister. So’s my friend Aleta. So are all my other female playwright friends. So are the women of New Entra Casa. So is “anonymous.”

From Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, “A Room of One’s Own:”

“ . . . Shakespeare had a sister . . . She lives in you and in me . . . for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. . . . if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born.”

Be friendly.

Thelma Virata de Castro is the founder of San Diego Playwrights. She’ll be sending her boys to day camp and entrusting her husband to pack their lunches when she attends the A Room of Her Own Foundation retreat.