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The Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival (PWTF) theme for 2022, “Head and HeART,” nurtures mental health awareness through performances and events aimed at breaking down stigmas around discussion and treatment. This year’s lineup includes seven new plays by Philadelphia playwrights featuring stories of loss, love, and hope, in addition to a wellness fair offering live music, theater for young audiences, yoga, meditation, and mental health resources. Founded by Polly Edelstein and Christine Petrini to foster and encourage women in the performing arts, PWTF is currently in its eighth year of providing unique opportunities for professional, artistic, and personal development.
Theater for mind, body, and soul
Theater pairs effectively with the theme of wellness, since it provides a unique sense of community for both viewers and participants. “The sense of community led me to be involved in theater almost as much as the art itself,” said Edelstein, the artistic director of PWTF. Yet she noticed parity gaps in theater, particularly for women. PWTF works to address these gaps by centering women artists, providing opportunities to women playwrights and directors, and including women in positions of power. “Theater is such a good vehicle to create community and make change,” Edelstein explained. “There’s a lot wrong in the world and I can’t change it, but you can make a micro impact through art.”
The lineup of plays features When We Fall by Emma Gibson, Death Valley: A Love Story by Sandra Fenichel Asher, and Stella for Star by Megan McDermott, which considers the fate of Stella Kowalski, her child, and her marriage after the events of A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams.
On Saturday, PWTF presents four short plays about suicide. The topic may be a difficult one, but it needs attention. Suicide is a major public health issue and a leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People between the ages of 10 and 44 are especially at risk.
Kanako Neale, a drummer, composer, and writer, noted that people who experience suicidal thoughts and feelings “don’t have to be ashamed to reach out. Somebody’s going to care about you.” Inspiration for her play, The Slippery Season came from trips to the train station with her young, train-loving son. “One day I saw a sign that said ‘The slippery season is here,’” Neale recounted. Cautioning passengers from standing too close to the edge of wet, leaf-covered rail platforms, the sign stood beside others about suicide. “That got me thinking,” Neale said.
Radical theater and loss-inspired director, producer, and actress Reva Stover, who also serves as co-artistic director of Philadelphia’s Azuka Theater. Her play Moments draws from the style of Bertolt Brecht, the 20th-century German playwright and theater practitioner who aimed “to jolt the audience out of a stupor of watching and into a place of living,” as Stover put it. “I started writing plays after my mother passed away in 2017,” she added. “That’s how Moments was born; it is for my mother.” Through a series of vignettes that highlight archetypes of struggling with mental illness, Moments explores experiences of marginalization. Family Tradition by Lori Felipe-Barkin, a playwright and voiceover actor, uses humor to consider the legacy of mental health across families and generations. Felipe-Barkin wrote the play during the pandemic, and she said, “I want people to be able to laugh in the face of darkness.”
"Well-being is for everyone"
PWTF is poised to accomplish this in a range of ways. “I would really love for people to come and see the shows and think about all the different types of wellness that exist—physical, mental, emotional, resiliency,” Edelstein said, as well as “the role that community plays in wellness.” She pointed out that corporations co-opt and monetize wellness, yet well-being is for everyone. Toward that end, Saturday’s wellness fair is free, with no tickets required for the activities and resources provided by vendors including the Shambhala Meditation Center of Philadelphia, the LiveWell Foundation, Ground Up Training, and WOAR Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence. On the heels of International Mother Artist Day, Saturday’s program also features a presentation of plays in progress by Brie Knight and Julie Zaffarano that address mental health in parenthood. At the beginning of the workshop, a representative from the Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL) will give a short presentation and discuss resources for parenting artists.
Representing mental health in art is incredibly important, Stover observed. “Everybody suffers, everybody deals with this,” she said. “We all need to come together,” and PWTF creates space for this, which “so rarely happens, for women specifically.” Edelstein described the 2022 festival as a celebratory moment. With art, conversation, and resources promoting connection, community, and well-being, PWTF has something to offer—including support—to audiences of all backgrounds.
What, When, Where
The 2022 Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival. $20-$30. August 4-7, 2022, at Arden Hamilton Family Arts Center, 62 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (267) 571-9255 or phillywomenstheatrefest.org.
Participating artists and vendors must be vaccinated and masked, subject to religious or medical conditions. Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival does not require guests to be vaccinated, but masks will be required at staged readings.
Individuals in crisis can reach the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential.
The Arden is a wheelchair-accessible venue. For questions, reach out to the Arden staff at (215) 922-1122.
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