Strong Women Playwrights
Kentucky Women Playwrights' Seminar led by Trish Ayers encourages healing and garners awards
When Mary Owens moved from New Jersey to rural Garrard County in central Kentucky, she was seeking a quiet place where she could write poetry about her family.
“I got a little cabin in the woods by myself and stayed in my cabin for a year and a half working on my book,” Owens says. “I came out once a week or so and got food, then went right back.”
Eventually, the idea of being part of a community that would feed her artistic spirit sent Owens to Berea. She found a coffee shop, ordered a cup of tea, then began reading every flyer that was posted on the walls. She remembers it as a magical time when she simply walked around, looked, and waited for something to happen.
That’s when she spotted a flier inviting women writers to a reading at the New Opportunity School for Women in Berea. Owens called the telephone number listed and met Trish Ayers. “She’s been spending the last year and a half opening doors for me. She drew me in and the whole world changed,” Owens says.
Trish Ayers knew about the power of the written word to change people when she began the Kentucky Women Playwrights’ Seminar in 2006. She conceived the project after writing saved her from an illness so debilitating that she thought she wanted to die.
Ayers was a professional photographer, wife, and mother when she began facing serious health problems beginning in 1990. A surgery unexpectedly necessitated a tracheotomy (a permanent hole in her neck to facilitate breathing) and brought on unexplained allergic reactions that triggered severe respiratory distress. As Ayers remembers it, she could barely walk and spent much of her time in a recliner with oxygen and a nebulizer. “I really wanted to give up, and I seriously considered giving up because I felt I was taking a lot of oxygen to breathe, and what was I contributing to the world? I was a lump.”
But one day as Ayers sat in that recliner watching television, a show came on that encouraged viewers to write down 101 dreams, so she began her list. Then another show caught her attention—this one about a former prisoner of war who talked about how the world is filled with POWs. That surprised Ayers so she perked up, listened, and heard the man name exactly what she had become—a Prisoner of “Woe.”
So Ayers began to break out of that prison with the help of writing, which she had enjoyed as a child. Her family bought her a laptop so she could sit in the recliner and write. The first thing she recorded was notes about when she felt ill; that led to an understanding of what was causing her allergic reactions. Then she began writing stories.
“That’s really what saved my life—seeing I had a purpose in my life. I could contribute to the world,” Ayers says.
The first play Ayers wrote for Berea College was in collaboration with her husband, Shan Ayers, associate professor of theater at Berea College. After they finished, she wanted to write another. So Ayers began taking playwriting classes and writing, then sending out her plays hoping someone would want to produce them. Initially, she didn’t find the success she sought.
“Some of the frustration I came across was that my work was not in the style that was being published and produced, and I felt I was being forced into a style if I wanted my work performed,” Ayers remembers.
In response to one of her plays, Ayers received a note from an artistic director in London, England, suggesting she try sending her work to women’s companies. That’s when Ayers began to realize that women and men sometimes write plays in different styles, and women were often having a hard time getting produced. “I realized as women we need to help mentor one another in this genre,” she says.
When Artist’s Collaborative Theatre began working on the Kentucky Women’s Playwright Festival in 2005, they contacted Ayers about finding women in Kentucky who could write new works for the festival. So Ayers gathered five women and they began working together on their plays. “I found I really thrived with having other women write with me,” she says.
After the festival, Ayers spoke at the New Opportunity School Writers’ Group in Berea about playwriting. The introduction, however, wasn’t enough. The women wanted to learn more. Ayers organized a seminar that was funded with the help of an Art Meets Activism Grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women.
“One of my major goals on the seminars is to get more women’s voices out there,” she says. At each group meeting, Ayers presented a specific topic related to writing plays. In addition, if a participant had new work to share, she might read it aloud for the group to comment on.
Eventually, the plays the women created reached a point where they needed a wider audience of listeners, so Ayers began organizing Second Friday readings in Berea in conjunction with WaysMeet Healing Arts Center. The public evenings featured writers who would either read from their work or turn a play over to a reader’s theater so they could hear their words read aloud.
One dream Ayers had was that women from the seminar would sweep the playwriting awards given annually by the Appalachian Writers Association. So in the summer of 2007, Ayers, Owens, and seminar member Linda Caldwell attended the annual AWA meeting and waited for the announcement of the Josefina Niggli Awards for Playwriting. The first play announced was third place to Trish Ayers.
Second place went to another seminar participant, Denise McKinney. Then it was time for first place. As far back as Ayers could see, no woman had won first place. The first-place winner in 2007 was Mary Owens.
Fulfilling that dream isn’t the end of what Ayers hopes for. “One of my dreams is that Kentucky will be recognized as a place of strong women playwrights,” Ayers says. She plans to reach out to women farther from the Berea area for her next seminar.
Ayers’ own plays have been produced in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Washington, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Japan. Her most prized success to date is LUMPs, a play set in the waiting room of a breast care center. Due to her mother’s cancer, Ayers spent many hours in waiting rooms. She observed the dramas of not only the patients, but also of those who love them, an observation she put to work in her play.
As the playwrights hone their skills, with the support of each other, many of them are also finding the same kind of healing in the writing that Ayers did. Owens says her writing has helped her release negative feelings in her life.
“I bring a sister and brother together on stage and let them fight it out, see where it takes them, and give it a twist so that things work out in a way I wish things would work out, and in the end that gives me faith that I had the idea so I can do that. It’s been very healing,” Owens says.
Ayers has continued to work with an advanced group of women playwrights and she continues to write, to mentor, and to look for new opportunities. She says: “Sometimes you accept a choice not knowing where it’s taking you, and that choice takes you down the most amazing road.”
KENTUCKY WOMEN PLAYWRIGHTS' SEMINAR
The Kentucky Women Playwrights’ Seminar is a series of nine monthly classes that playwright Trish Ayers teaches about the craft while also facilitating discussions of ongoing works by seminar participants. Through the seminar, Ayers hopes to encourage the creation of quality work by Kentucky women playwrights who want to dramatize life issues and encourage positive social change. The seminar provides a supportive atmosphere in which the women can thrive as artists.
In the first seminar, funded with the help of a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, Ayers worked with 12 playwrights, primarily from the Berea area, who completed 25, 10-minute plays, 12 one-acts, and one full-length play.
Ayers plans to begin a new seminar with seven playwrights this month. These women must be willing to meet participation goals, such as completing a 10-minute play, entering a contest, and adding to group critiques. Participants complete an application process that demonstrates their writing ability, dedication, and willingness to pass on what they learn. Each participant’s 10-minute and one-act plays will be read at the Second Friday Events reading in Berea.
Although the 2008-2009 season is already full, those seeking information for future seminars can contact Trish Ayers by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and use KWPS in the subject line. Theaters interested in reading the plays may also contact Ayers.