In 1983 Sophie Parker and Tita Wernimont cofounded Watermelon Studio, Inc. (later Next Stage Theatre), a theatrical company in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, creating a venue in which local women theater professionals could present original work. The following year, Watermelon Studio began planning a women’s theatre festival, offering performances from a broad range of cultures and viewpoints.
The first Boston Women's Theatre Festival was held March 27–31, 1985, and primarily included work by women from Boston and the New England area. Over the following years, the festival, held annually, gradually expanded into an international multidisciplinary, multicultural event. In addition to plays, the festival, often in collaboration with other artistic organizations, arranged art installations and exhibitions. In 1988, the festival, in cooperation with the AAMARP Gallery and Northeastern University’s Fine Arts Division, brought Judy Chicago’s Birth Project to the Boston area, with Chicago giving a lecture.
In 1988, Watermelon Studio held the first annual Electra Festival, coproduced with Double Edge Theatre of Brighton, Massachusetts. Theatrical troupes featured at the festival included Jamaica’s Sistren Theatre Collective, Northern Ireland’s Charabanc Theatre Company, and South Africa’s Vusisizwe Players, as well as theatrical troupes and individual performers from across the United States.
The festival was renamed the Women in Theatre Festival in 1986—a name change that troubled some attendees, who felt that it depoliticized the festival. The decision to include plays featuring male actors and plays by male playwrights also drew some criticism. The festival organizers responded to these charges in a letter to Sojourner, stating that the name change was intended to make the festival’s focus clearer, and that they sought to include not only “traditional” women’s theatre pieces (defined as plays written, directed, and performed by, for, and about women) but also “women playwrights and actors who do not strictly adhere to that definition of women’s theatre, but whose work is powerful, effective, and significant in illuminating the conditions of women, society, and the world today.”
In regard to the inclusion of male actors, the organizers noted that “as most women in the world today still have to deal with men in the workplace, on the streets, and/or in the home, we feel that to refuse to produce pieces about these issues in women’s lives would be to silence important dialogue.” They also noted, in terms of male directors or playwrights: “We do not wish to exclude women working in theatre who through necessity or choice work with men as collaborators. . . . We trust strong, independent, self-determined women to hold true to their own vision regardless of whom they work with.”
Despite occasional criticisms, the festival was enthusiastically received by attendees and participants alike, with many participants, including award-winning author and playwright Pearl Cleage, offering to speak to funding sources on the festival’s behalf. Despite this, funding was a perpetual challenge, and it disbanded in the 1990s.
For further information on the Women in Theatre Festival, see the Papers of Sophie Parker at the Schlesinger Library.