The #hysteria play-reading festival seeks common ground in a world gone mad

By Bliss Bowen

Santa Monica Rep’s weekend play-reading festival taps into society’s collective rage from women’s perspectives

“You’re not crazy, things are f*cked” is such a widely shared belief that it seems like another voice chiming in with the conversation when the phrase is spotted on a poster for Santa Monica Repertory Theater’s #hysteria, this weekend’s multi-venue festival of play readings written and directed by women. It is on point as subtext for those playwrights, and also for the topics addressed.

Are the plays feminist? Political? Historical?

“They are all of those things,” says Tanya White, the theater’s co-artistic director (with Eric Bloom), ticking off the plays’ lofty themes: wage inequality, immigration, the meaning of borders, institutionalized racism, feminism, justice, and the ways in which women are often rendered invisible by business and social structures.

Most are comedic too.

“They are about the human experience in all of those things. That’s what keeps it from being dry, hitting you over the head with ideas,” White says, chuckling. “It really is about people’s stories. That’s how we connect. … We selected them because they address different aspects of systems that women are engaging with specifically from women’s perspective and point of view.”

Each play will be read in its entirety, except White’s “7 Conversations About Slavery,” which arose from her poetry and whose second act she is still completing. Discussion of slavery’s impact “is a conversation that we don’t really have, and haven’t really had, as a whole nation,” she says. “We were able to become a global superpower because of cotton and because of free labor. …We all suffer from not dealing with that.”

“Nickel and Dimed” is Elina de Santos’ stage adaptation of journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s hard-hitting book, in which she chronicled her undercover adventures as a middle-aged housecleaner trying to get by on minimum wage. Unsurprisingly, even working double shifts her paychecks didn’t stretch enough to cover rent.

Karen Zacarías’ zinger-filled, environmentally minded “Native Gardens” mines empathetic comedy from conflicts over a disputed fence line dividing an older, white Republican couple’s property in the Washington D.C. suburbs from a house recently occupied by younger, progressive Latin professionals expecting a baby. Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” inspired partly by 1930s screwball comedies, looks at black women’s images in movies and television while tracking an actress’s struggles to be seen in the entertainment world.

Then there’s Lauren Gunderson’s Shakespeare-inspired comedy “The Taming,” whose lead characters include an ambitious beauty pageant contestant and a zealous blogger. It’s “more specifically revolutionary than the other plays,” according to White, because it “upends the idea of women being polarized in their points of view.”

Such themes will be engaged during moderated half-hour discussions after readings. White encourages audiences to participate in those talks, which help foster a sense of community.

“To share in a wide experience is everything,” she notes. “Lately I’ve been hearing over and over that words don’t teach, experience teaches. I think that’s so true. Being a writer, I love language, but it really is that experience of someone’s story that opens us up.”

The #hysteria festival kicks off with a preview party at 7:30 p.m. Friday (June 7) at Skidmore Gallery in Bergamot Station. Readings include “The Taming” at 2 p.m. Saturday at Promenade Playhouse; “Seven Conversations About Slavery” at 7 p.m. and “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at Santa Monica Playhouse; and “Nickel and Dimed” at noon and “Native Gardens” at 3 p.m. Sunday, both at Promenade Playhouse. Tickets are $25, or $90 for an all-access festival pass, at santamonicarep.org.

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