Thursday, March 4, 2010

Deborah Randall: Putting the "F Word" in Theatre


By the time I saw the world premiere of Carolyn Gage’s powerful and raw play, Ugly Ducklings, Deborah Randall had been running Venus Theatre for over four years. It was April 2004 and I was catching one of the final shows at the Warehouse Theatre in Washington, DC.

Deborah (and her set designer Paul Kelm) had transformed the small auxiliary stage into the Maine all-girls summer camp that is the setting for the unsettling play. For over 90 minutes, an intriguing and diverse cast of no less than thirteen women actors (some as young as eight-years-old), held the audience in rapt attention. As they expertly wove the delicate tale of discovery, pain and betrayal, in the world of tenuous summertime sisterhood, you knew you were seeing something unusual. Not just Gage’s well-written script, but all those women on one stage.

Since 1999, the founder and artistic director of Venus Theatre has been on a mission to create as many opportunities for audiences to see complex and provocative stories told by and performed by women. Deborah’s first indication of the power of theater in women’s lives was during her membership in an interactive improv female troupe, Venus Envy, which provided programming for women in domestic violence shelters. Through broken teeth and blackened eyes, the women embraced the empowering and healing skits and activities that gave them some of their dignity and voices back.


During this period, Deborah was also seeing a “dumbing down” of the already limited roles for women in theatre and she could no longer abide by the worsening opportunities for an entire generation of female actors. In response she created Venus Theatre. Within a year she had incorporated and was now Washington, DC’s only non-profit feminist theatre. Almost immediately she started requesting work from women playwrights, submissions now number in the hundreds, and the wRighting Women Reading Series was born. The series allowed Deborah to cast talented actors in challenging and important roles and introduce fresh stories to hungry audiences.

Deborah has noticed that there are female actors that shy away from auditioning for roles at Venus. When asked why she thinks this is, she is frank in her response. “I think actors who work primarily in mainstream theater, who often contend with paper thin characters and productions, find the material, that Venus is known to produce, intimidating. We want to show life from multiple angles and that means seeing actors on stage who depict stories that are complex, heady and challenging. So, yes, you might see two women kissing.”

Deborah reflects on one of her own earlier challenges when mounting these productions. “For the first seven years of the company, every time we launched a new show or reading, I had to rent a space.” Over the years, Deborah has set up her feminist caravan in every available theater space in Washington, DC (as well NYC , Pennsylvania, and Baltimore). In 2007, she decided it was time to create a permanent home for her mercurial company. Venus Theatre The Play Shack is now located at 21 C Street in Laurel, Maryland. The convenient location makes it accessible to theater lovers coming from DC, Annapolis and Baltimore. “Once we moved into our own black box, I was surprised to discover how much stress I had been feeling having to bounce around D.C., finding venues to do our plays. Now I get to park right in front of my own theatre,” an amused Deborah shared.

Deborah is the first to admit that it takes a great deal of sacrifice to do what she has done. It helps that her partner of 21-years, musician Alan Scott, has been unwavering in his support of her work. He has encouraged her to take more risks and make Venus her chief focus in her artist’s life. She hasn’t had a “day job” in years. She is immensely grateful, that on a daily basis, she has the opportunity to embrace her desire to create a space for women.

But running a theatre company doesn’t mean that she gets to churn out her own plays in any regular frequency. After ten years of producing and directing Deborah has had to put her own writing and performing to the side at times. But this year, she will direct the second play of the Venus season, In the Goldfish Bowl, which focuses on four women on Texas death row. She will also debut and perform in her own one-act play, Tuesday, at the Capital Fringe Festival, later this summer. The play centers on a hotline volunteer that is faced with the truth of her own crumbling life as she tries to support the women who call the hotline. Lee Mikeska Gardner, who Deborah is eternally grateful for her talent and her demand that she stretch herself in this new work, directs Tuesday.

When asked what is her advice for women who want to follow their dreams, Deborah sighs. “Don’t try to do this alone. You don’t have to isolate yourself. As women we are not always in a team environment when we are younger. We are pitted against each other to be the prettiest, smartest, or the center of attention, so we don’t always recognize each other as valuable supports.” Deborah admits she has been guilty of trying to go it alone for a long time. Now as she reflects on this decade milestone, she is happy that she is embracing the idea of collaboration and learning what kind of support is out there for her. “Reach out and ask for help. It is much easier than we think. I think the Internet has become for women artists what the golf course is for men. It cuts down the isolation and opens up a community we might not have access to in any other way.”

What’s next for Venus Theatre? More plays that set flight to the voices of women. “I was born to do this. This is where I feel like I’m in my vein of gold,” Deborah says, as she prepares to get back to work.

On March 11, 2010, Venus Theatre will kick off its 10th season with the world premiere of Zelda at the Oasis, written by P.H. Lin and directed by Lynn Sharp Spears. The play takes a fictional look at the life of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, wife of the noted American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wants nothing better than to be recognized as an artist in her own right. Two things stand in her way: an inherited mental instability, and an overbearing husband. The play runs until April 4, 2010. For more information on tickets click here.


Michelle Sewell is a screenwriter who was horribly miscast as the “wicked witch” in her sixth grade Halloween play, when she really wanted to be the “cute alien,” and has been plotting her revenge ever since.

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