Working every summer for 10 years at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Keri Wormald was stunned by the number new plays being created around the world.
She was equally struck with how few were coming out of the United States — much less Richmond, a theater-rich town. Nationwide, few regional theaters focus on new works.
“Where are the theaters of the ’60s and ’70s, the ones who were creating new works?” she asks. “That’s why I go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, to see things that blow my mind. I want to be a part of that.”
Wormald and Bridget Gethins have been part of the Women’s Mercury, a Richmond group dedicated to telling women’s stories and providing writing, directing and performance opportunities to women since 2006.
After moving away and returning to Richmond — “everyone does,” she says — Wormald began having brainstorming lunches with Deejay Gray, artistic director of TheatreLab, the upstart theater company dedicated to producing new work, which also has a season full of female-centric plays. Out of those sessions came the concept of the B Word, a theater-making initiative that starts with women sharing their stories in an open-mic format.
For the inaugural event Dec. 4 at TheatreLab, the topic was “Glass in My Eye: Confessions of Reluctant Female-Hating Feminists,” a call for stories about bad female bosses who didn’t accord their sisters respect in the workplace.
“What emerged was that women, especially women in their 20s and 30s, had something important to say in the workplace but felt paralyzed and unable to speak their truths,” Wormald says. She was one of several women who attended not planning to share, but got up to talk. The next open forum will be during TheatreLab’s run of “Bad Jews” in February.
The aim is to gather the memories of women diverse in age, ethnicity and life experience and start work-shopping the stories they’ve told to create a devised piece, a form of theater in which the script originates from a collaborative, usually improvisatory work by a group.
“I love the idea of creating a piece of theater that could put Richmond on the map,” says McLean Jesse, TheatreLab’s associate artistic director, who was immediately on board with the B Word.
“It would be excellent to have devised a script at the end of this process and send it into the world to be published and produced at other theater companies,” Jesse says. “It’s wonderful to be cultivating art in your own community, but TheatreLab has hopes of breaking out further and helping establish Richmond as a city known for theater.”
That’s Wormald’s goal, too. She wants to take the resulting production to places such as the Philadelphia Fringe Fest and, of course, Edinburgh, where a decade of summers in Scotland has ensured that she knows how to market offbeat productions and that she has an in-depth knowledge of venues inclined to support new works. She’s also a talented director who’s taken on important recent productions such as Cadence Theatre’s “August: Osage County” and “Clybourne Park,” for which she won a 2014 Richmond Theater Critics’ Circle award.
And while she admits to a passion for directing well-written shows, she also sees it for what it is. “You’re redirecting these plays,” Wormald says. “I’m interested in telling new stories that come out of people who live in Richmond. If you’re going to go out on a limb, you might as well go out with really good work.”
For now, that means forums to hear from Richmond women, followed by workshops at TheatreLab. Once the organizers have arrived at a new piece of theater they consider to be tight and offering a new point of view, they’ll be ready to unleash it on the world.
“Theater is such an excellent tool. It can be used for entertainment, but also as a platform for ideas and opinions to be expressed,” Jesse says. “This is a time where politically, things have been very scary for women. It’s important for us to continue to share our stories and to voice our thoughts, and theatre is a way to express all of that through art.” S
The next open-mic forum will be announced on TheatreLab’s Facebook page, at facebook.com/theatrelabrva.