Putting The Spotlight on The Women-Led Theater Companies of NWA

Women are taking the stage at theaters across Northwest Arkansas
Rachel Burkevich plays the role of “SHE” in Lauren Gunderson’s play Natural Shocks, performed at Fenix DownUnder on April 20th.

“ISN’T IT funny that the best sunsets are when the sky is cloudy?” says Rachel Burkevich, a Fayetteville-based actor, stepping from behind a music stand, holding a playscript, her voice pinging slightly off the cinder-block walls of the gallery basement. “It’s gotta be a little messy out there, you know. When it’s clear, there’s nothing in the sky for the light to bounce off of. The sun just sets. A ball of light you’re not really supposed to look directly into. But if there’s some weather out there, then suddenly, it’s like a sherbert-y explosion. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. Not sure it’s a good one.”

She pauses, studying the script.

“Where is the door?” Rachel asks, breaking character as she turns to where the play’s director, ArkansasStaged’s Laura Shatkus, is sitting with her stage manager and two production assistants. Laura motions to the far wall.

“That alcove on the wall will work,” she says. “We’ll need to be sure not to set chairs in front of it.”

It’s a cool evening in early April, but it feels even colder in Fenix DownUnder, the basement below Fenix Fayetteville, where ArkansasStaged is rehearsing Lauren Gunderson’s one-woman play, Natural Shocks. A narrow room with a concrete floor, cinder-block walls painted white, bare light bulbs hanging from a low ceiling and a bucket catching drips from an overhead water pipe, the space hardly suggests a venue for an evening of theater. But this is precisely the sort of space that appeals to the artistic director of ArkansasStaged.

“I love to make an audience feel uncomfortable,” Laura told me earlier. “I love throwing off their expectations.”

The arts scene in Northwest Arkansas has been on fire the past decade, and theater is no exception. TheatreSquared, the longest-lived professional theater company in the area got its start in 2005, and since then, though a number of others have come and gone, at least eight active theater companies have formed. Of those companies—which produce everything from classic musicals to contemporary dramas, children’s theater to immersive, site-specific performances, Shakespeare to collaborations with Latinx and minority students—no fewer than seven are led by women, including ArkansasStaged, which Laura has helmed since 2014.

While Arkansas does not generally find itself at the forefront of progressive social change, when it comes to women-led theater companies, the trend in Northwest Arkansas is decidedly against the national grain. A three-year study conducted by the New York Council on the Arts in 2002 found that only about 20 percent of professional theater artists were women—a statistic that shook up the theater world at the time and got people to start paying attention to the disparity in professional opportunities. While that landmark study is now 16 years old, a recent study published by the League of Professional Theatre Women, as well as a great deal of anecdotal evidence, suggests that while women are generally better represented than they were in the early 2000s, it’s still very much a man’s world, onstage and behind the scenes.

Though not its exclusive focus, ArkansasStaged pays particular attention to plays written by and about women. But Laura, who has been an actor for the past 16 years, has firsthand experience with the dearth of female roles offered by many companies, including some in Northwest Arkansas.

“I’m tired of it,” she says. “I’m tired of there being sometimes only one role for a woman in a play, onstage or backstage.”

Making Opportunities

“How does a culture come about in any place?” Amy Herzberg responds, when asked for an explanation for the disproportionately large number of women-led theater companies. An actor and director, the head of the acting program at the University of Arkansas and TheatreSquared’s associate artistic director, Amy has lived in Fayetteville since 1989. “I don’t know the answer. I do know that Northwest Arkansas is a wonderful, welcoming place. It vibrantly supports opportunities in ways that are, I think, far less prevalent in other places. Perhaps our uniquely encouraging community and environment are the biggest factors.”

Amy moved to Fayetteville to join the theater faculty at the University of Arkansas just before the Walton Arts Center opened. There were a handful of community theaters in the area at the time, but no professional theaters or opportunities for theater professionals to be paid for their work.

“The opening of Walton Arts Center made a huge contribution to creating a ‘habit of theater’ in our area,” she says. “Art begets art. As the habit of theater grew, so did opportunities for and support of a diverse set of theaters, many of them started by graduates of the university’s theater program. It makes sense that so many theater artists now choose to stay and invest in our area or return here after working in major theater centers such as Chicago and New York. The quality of life is so strong here.”

Little by little, the habit of theater grew, attracting people like Kassie Misiewicz, who had no previous connection to Northwest Arkansas but came here specifically because of both the nascent theater scene and the quality of life the area afforded. In Seattle, where she and her husband, Daniel Hintz, had lived before moving to Northwest Arkansas in 2003, the opportunities for someone aspiring to be the artistic director of a children’s theater had been limited. Bentonville, on the other hand, where the Walton Arts Center was the only game in town for professional-level performing arts, and where there was no professional theater for youth, had nothing but opportunities.

Soon after landing in Bentonville, Kassie and Daniel connected with Amy and several other theater professionals in the area and started TheatreSquared, which launched its first two seasons by producing both plays for adults and plays geared specifically to children and families. Kassie served as TheatreSquared’s first artistic director. After the second season, the board of directors and company decided to focus exclusively on plays for adults, so Kassie left and started Trike Theatre in 2008.

“It was a blank slate,” Kassie says. “Starting this theater here, unlike in Seattle or another large city, could have a huge impact.”

In its 10 years, Trike has grown from a scrappy, storefront theater to a well-established arts organization. It now has six full-time and three part-time employees, offers classes for children of all ages, produces six professional plays for young audiences each year, two which are staged at the Walton Arts Center, and does extensive outreach in schools throughout the area. Through Trike, Kassie has also done a lot to nurture the theater scene here. Over the years, she has hired innumerable young actors and other theater professionals, some of whom have come out of the University of Arkansas’ theater department. She has also helped other companies in the area by making rehearsal space at Trike available to them, including ArkansasStaged and Shakespeare-centric The Classical Edge.

“I was never going to be an artistic director in Seattle, so I had to start my own company,” she said. “Northwest Arkansas is a really good place to take artistic risks because if a show doesn’t work, the consequences aren’t as great as they would be in a bigger market. And this is also a great place to raise a family. It’s an easy place to live and very supportive of the arts.”

A Nurture Culture

As opportunities for theater artists have grown here in recent years, so have the opportunities for diverse voices and for experiences beyond the traditional theater setting.

Ashley Edwards has written plays performed by local companies, including Trike and ArkansasStaged. She is also the head of the theater department at Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville and co-founder of the LatinX Theatre Project, started in 2016 to better represent the voices of young people in Northwest Arkansas’ Latin American and minority communities. Participants in the project range from high school students to older adults. As playwright in residence for the company, Ashley takes the poems and other writings of the project’s participants and weaves them into a script.

“It all about their stories,” she says. “I’m just shaping them and, in the process, teaching the company members to be performing artists.”

Another Trike alum, Erika Wilhite came to Fayetteville when her husband enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at the University of Arkansas. Erika worked on and off as a teaching artist at Trike during its first year while she assessed the theater scene here and weighed her career options.

“I arrived in Fayetteville in 2009, and no one else was making the kind of theater that I wanted to be a part of as a theater maker and as an audience member,” she says. “So I started a company.”

That company, Artist’s Laboratory Theatre, is a nontraditional company in many ways. Practically all of its performances are site-specific, created to be performed in a particular place—a cemetery, a prison, an art museum, a festival. The company is steeped in a spirit of social justice and community activism, so many productions are written with community input and tackle current civic problems. Shelter, about housing insecurity, public transit and poverty, and performed entirely on an Ozark Regional Transit bus last May, was typical of the sort of immersive and civically engaged experiences Artist’s Lab creates.

“We’re making plays, but we’re also getting deep into topics connected to social justice,” Erika says. “It’s a new approach to getting things changed on the city level.”

Despite its low-to-the-ground, hyper-local and grassroots approach—or perhaps because of it—Artist’s Lab has garnered significant financial support from organizations such as the Walton Family Foundation, the Arkansas Arts Council and the Mid-America Arts Alliance.

Artist’s Lab has grown in the past three years and now has its own office space and six full-time employees, all women. (“It just happened that way,” she says of the all-female staff.) She relishes doing her part in creating jobs for theater professionals and speculates that this conviction may have something to do with the abundance of women-led theater companies in the area.

“We are a nurture culture, and we really lean into that and work with that purpose,” she says. “Everyone I’ve hired does that. That’s how we all operate in the world. I don’t know if it’s because we are women, but it’s inherent in everything we do. I don’t say that men don’t do that, but historically, for whatever reason, men have been prevented from really going there.”

The Arkansas Ozarks, Alive With The Sound Of Music

Despite all the new opportunities that have evolved, theater artists have managed to find areas of the theatrical universe in need of development. Sarah Webb and Missy Gipson are both singers, actors and dancers. The Northwest Arkansas transplants didn’t find the sort of theater that they like when they moved here, so they took matters into their own hands.

A member of Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers, Sarah worked for 10 years in New York as a singer, dancer and actor before moving here in 2011 for her husband’s job. Roused by the work of TheatreSquared and other local companies, and wanting to see more professional musical theater in the region, she started Inspire Theatre in 2015, one of only three Equity theaters in Arkansas.

“When I got here and couldn’t find the kind of theater I liked, I had to create it,” she says. “People find themselves here for different reasons. If you’re here and musical theater is what you’re passionate about and what you want to do, and it doesn’t exist, then starting our own is the only option.”

Inspire kicked off with Song, a concert-style review of songs celebrating the work of female lyricists and composers, performed in a 1,000-seat auditorium in a church in Bentonville in July 2015. Then in October, Inspire mounted its first full-scale production with Man of La Mancha, the 1964 musical based on Don Quixote. By Northwest Arkansas standards, it was a huge production. Some 34 people were involved, including nine cast members and a 14-piece orchestra. The musicians were all local, but the director, musical director, four-member designer team and half of the cast were brought in from out of town.

“I wanted it to be high-quality from the get-go,” Sarah says. “We were really trying to bring a level of musical theater that doesn’t exist in this area.”

Missy Gipson was one of the three women who performed in Song and also appeared in Man of La Mancha. She, too, worked professionally as a singer, dancer and actor in New York, as well as Atlanta and Washington, D.C., before moving to Fayetteville in 2005. She had contemplated starting a musical-theater company for several years, and in 2017, she launched Pilot Arts. Based at the Arkansas Air & Military Museum in south Fayetteville, Pilot Arts offers classes for children of all ages and stages musical productions with age-appropriate casting (children’s parts are played by children, and adult parts are played by adults.) Pilot Arts mounted a very successful production of Footloose in the fall of 2017 and Tuck Everlasting last April. The crew and the musicians were paid. The large casts were made up of unpaid community members, though several in both casts had worked professionally in the past. Missy hopes that in time, Pilot Arts will be a fully professional company.

“I was really looking for ways to create,” Missy recalls of her early days in Fayetteville, a time when opportunities in theater were scarce. “I think women are starting these companies to give themselves more opportunities to create and not wait for an invitation to do it. I don’t know if that’s tied in to being a woman or not, but for me, it was a way to make a creative life for myself in Northwest Arkansas that fulfills my need as an artist and as a community member.”

A Room Filled With Opportunity

Some 85 enthusiastic patrons crowd into Fenix DownUnder for the one and only performance of Natural Shocks. The blocking has been fine-tuned and rehearsed, the minimal props put in place, offstage sound effects worked out, and 100 chairs borrowed and moved from a nearby convention center and placed in two facing rows in the narrow basement space.

Laura introduces the play, takes a seat along the wall with the rest of the audience and watches Rachel bring to life the story of a woman taking shelter in her basement from what she initially says is a fast-approaching tornado, but which is later revealed to be her abusive, gun-toting husband. As the play builds to its climax, Rachel unscrews the light bulbs that hang from the ceiling, one at a time. The space gets more and more dim until Rachel is standing directly under the one remaining bulb, which is turned off by a production assistant offstage after the last line of the play, plunging the actor and audience momentarily into total darkness.

No sooner than Natural Shocks has finished, the set been cleared and the chairs returned to the convention center, Laura is thinking of the next ArkansasStaged production: a reading of a work in progress by Ashley Edwards. After six years in Fayetteville, preceded by 10 years toughing it out in the Chicago theater world, Laura feels at home in Fayetteville, where she can make a living as a theater artist and go out on a limb producing and directing a wide range of work through ArkansasStaged.

Before plunging into the next project, she takes a moment to savor the evening’s success. As both the director and producer of the play, Laura is pleased with everything, particularly Rachel’s captivating performance and the way the basement, which had been secured months earlier, meshed so perfectly with the content of the play and her attraction to making theater in unusual spaces.

“The space made it so fun,” Laura says. “It was a room filled with opportunity. It was just a matter of making choices.”

David Conrads is a freelance writer and journalist in Bentonville. His work has appeared in numerous national, regional and local publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, The Kansas City Star and Kansas City magazine.