“Theatre for everyone that benefits women and girls.”
This is the slogan by which those at WAM Theatre strive to live. Located in Berkshire County in Massachusetts, WAM is also known as “the place where arts and activism meet.” After being inspired by the book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, theatre co-founders Kristen van Ginhoven and Leigh Strimbeck had one mission for WAM: to create a theater that everyone would enjoy, but also, would benefit women and girls.
“Reading ‘Half the Sky’ made me believe, for the first time in my life, that I could make a difference,” writes Van Ginhoven on the company’s website. “By co-founding WAM, I have found a way to help turn oppression into opportunity.”
Every season, the theater puts on a series of shows that relate to or involve women’s rights. For example, in this past season, the theatre put on shows such as The Last Wife, which examined the relationships between Henry VIII and Katherine Parr through the lens of the patriarchy, women’s rights, and sexuality. Other efforts have included their own gathering of January’s Women’s March, a remount of their production of Emilie, and their program Fresh Takes, where WAM allows three works, all written by women, to take the stage.
The theatre’s productions are only one part of their missions – a portion of their box office proceeds go directly to programs that will directly benefit women and children. “We’re more interested in a measurable impact,” explains Gwendolyn Tunnicliffe, the Philanthropy and Outreach Coordinator at WAM. “While organizations like Planned Parenthood are great, they’re so big that you can’t really see where your donation is going,”
One of WAM’s accomplishments during the 2017 season was that the year’s proceeds went to 10 girls’ scholarships at Flying Cloud Institute, an organization that aims to inspire young people and educators through programs they hope will spark streaks of creativity. The company was also the first organization to host the Berkshire Summit, a two-day summit that invites women in artistic and management careers to immerse themselves in learning about fundraising, producing, relationship building, and awareness building.
In August 2016, the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) presented the results of their research at the Women’s Leadership Conference in San Francisco, which discussed why there was a gender imbalance between women and men in positions of leadership in local non-profit theaters. Inspired by the research, Van Ginhoven decided to create a program that would help women improve the imbalance as well as provide them with the strategies to do so; hence, the Berkshire Summit was born.
The Summit has three main goals: to provide participants with an experience that provides them with future connections, to enrich the industry in a way that supports the system as is while creating a space for women to take future leadership roles, and to expand skill sets that can be useful in the future. “If we only see the male experience, we’re not taking in the whole experience,” says Tunnicliffe. “The issue isn’t [women’s] qualifications, it’s about affording opportunities and opening dialogue on important issues.”
“If you can identify why these women are not being chosen to lead, you can change that,” she explains. “If you can get them to the top, those women will start hiring with intersectionality in mind and there will be this kind of trickle-down effect.”
There is no word yet on the theatre’s next season; however, they are sure to continue fulfilling their mission brilliantly.
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