When Weyni Mengesha and her team at Soulpepper Theatre discovered that just 31 per cent of Canadian stage productions were written by women (and just 0.5 per cent by trans and non-binary artists) in the 2018-2019 theatre season, they knew they had to help make a change.
And so, Her Words was born — a festival dedicated to celebrating and showcasing new plays, discussions, workshops, and concerts from women artists from across Canada.
The festival’s inaugural year was in 2021, and this year’s iteration is set to begin in Toronto on October 5.
“We were recognizing that this was a major gap on a national level,” said Mengesha, Soulpepper’s artistic director. “As a larger institution, I always think, ‘What are we doing with our resources? What are we doing to help build equity in the ecology and ultimately build a really exciting landscape that is full of rich POVs?’”
The festival, running until November 26, “has everybody represented,” Mengesha said. It will feature three full productions: playwright Kat Sandler’s WILDWOMAN, a narrative based on the historical context of the source material for Beauty and the Beast; The Guide to Being Fabulous by Sandra Caldwell, a musical retelling of the writer’s life story; and Sympathy for the Devil, a concert with stories that look at superstition and the notion of the dark side, written by Raha Javanfar.
It will also include workshops of Welcome To My Home, Falen Johnson’s piece about Shirley Horn, an Indigenous elder who became the chancellor of Ontario’s Algoma University years after attending the residential school that once operated there; and Table For Two — a comedy about the Toronto dating scene from established actor and new writer Akosua Amo-Adem.
An event called Fresh Ink will meanwhile feature 10-minute excerpts of brand new works from emerging writers. There will also be a series of talks on everything from women writing for television to women creating original music. And an intensive for women creators, called The Bootcamp, will give participants the chance to learn about directing, designing, writing and more.
“There’s a lot to see, a lot to learn, and a lot to inspire and excite both creators and audiences,” Mengesha said.
In 2020, before the creation of Her Words, Soulpepper commissioned a program called Six Women Writing. The idea, Mengesha explained, was that if men were writing three times more than women, why not commission double the number of women to be in residence at the theatre, with all the resources and guidance and time they might need? Soulpepper commissioned an assembly of Canada’s top voices for the program: Sandler, Caldwell, Johnson, Trey Anthony, Hannah Moscovitch, and Erin Shields.
“The thing I love the most is that the six women keep expressing that they’ve never been in residence with so many of their colleagues,” Mengesha said. “They never get to be in the same rooms together. They’ve been seeing each other’s works, coming to each other’s workshops, giving each other feedback, and championing each other.”
Alongside the Six Women Writing program, Soulpepper also has five musicians in residence. The festival is a chance for all of these artists, writers and musicians included, to present what they’ve been working on once they’re ready.
“It allows people to continue to dream, imagine, and not feel limited,” Mengesha said. “Women come and see the ability of their colleagues to imagine at that scale and they think, ‘Maybe I should write that play that I’ve been dreaming about.’”
It’s also an opportunity for theatre lovers to see new and exciting works, engage with creators, and participate if they so choose (there will be an event where folks can put their name in a hat for a chance to get up and read their own work).
As the effects of the pandemic linger, Mengesha hopes the festival will provide a space for community gathering — an opportunity to come together over a shared love of theatre and uplifting women artists.
“There’s something for everyone,” Mengesha said. “The work on stage is irreverent, it’s uplifting, it’s hilarious, it’s quite moving — it’s going to have everything on stage, including you.”
Her Words runs at Soulpepper Theatre until November 26. You can learn more about the festival here.