Even in contemporary theater, a cast led by a majority of women doesn’t happen all that often. A creative team led solely by women? It’s a rarity. A theater board made up of women that call all the shots—now that’s pretty much unheard of.
The chance to hear and witness the voices and dreams of women in the arts — whether it be on the big stage like Hollywood or in a small community theater — is often swept under the rug. Women fight to be heard, both professionally and in the pursuit of passions.
Iowa City has often served as a shining example of what it is like to embrace a woman’s voice, both on and off the stage. And in honor of Women’s History Month, I interviewed the women of Dreamwell Theatre. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the majority of the board for the 21-year-old theater — and the entirety of its executive board — is comprised of women.
The women of the executive board — Madonna Smith, president; Jessica Wilson, vice president; Kristin Brewbaker, treasurer; and Adeara Jean Maurice, secretary — found theater under very different circumstances. For some, they stumbled on their way to it. For others, it was a calling. But these women love the work they do, even if it requires hours of volunteer work.
Dreamwell operates on the generosity of volunteer time — there are only a few area theaters that have a working, rather than advisory, board — therefore it’s a deeply collaborative environment. And when I say deeply, I mean deeply. While some board members of other organizations remain behind a desk and computer, these ladies have a finger on the pulse of every element of the theater. They, with many others, work to create opportunities for everyone — regardless of gender, sexuality, experience or credentials. And they show no signs of stopping.
What brought you to the theatre world?
Kristin Brewbaker: I actually married into the theater world!
Jessica Wilson: Initially? I was in seventh grade and a mediocre-at-best violinist in the school orchestra. During the spring performing arts concert. I realized I was vastly more interested in what the drama club was doing.
Adeara Jean Maurice: I don’t actually remember how I got introduced to theater since I’ve been doing it as long as I can remember. Theater has always been an outlet of creativity and self expression.
What brought you to Dreamwell?
AJM: The first time I became aware of Dreamwell was seeing a poster for Bent in the library in 2012. I remember thinking, “Wow. Who is this theater that is doing such a provocative show?” When I moved to Iowa City that summer I was very interested in doing a show with Dreamwell. For me, they really embodied progressive theater — something that I was very passionate about.
I had just graduated from Cornell College where I had completed a Bachelor of Special Studies in Arts for Social Change. For me, the most interesting theater productions are the ones that have a therapeutic aspect or addresses a social issue. I had been involved in The Vagina Monologues in college, and it had given me some insight on what a performance built around self healing was like. I had posted on Facebook about how I wanted to do The Vagina Monologues in the area and someone from Dreamwell Theatre reached out and mentioned they would be interested in collaborating! In the spring of 2013, I directed Vagina Monologues at Dreamwell.
KB: I came to Dreamwell through a show my niece was in back in 2009. I fancied one of the men in the show, struck up a Facebook conversation after the show and now we’re married!
Madonna Smith: I had taken time off theater while I was in school here at [the University of Iowa]. After I graduated, I was working at the Iowa City Public Library. I took down the information for upcoming auditions at another local theater for the event calendar, and for myself. I was cast and several of the other cast members had previously worked with Dreamwell. I was encouraged to check it out by all of them. I remember Jamie Ewing telling me, “You will love Dreamwell. It is your kind of place.” He was right. After less than a year of involvement, I was volunteering to be part of the board.
Why do you think it’s important to have more women “at the table” — or, in the words of Hamilton, “in the room where it happens” — when it comes to the performing arts industry?
JW: At the professional level, theater has historically been and still largely is male dominated: Most plays produced are written by men (83 percent as of five years ago [ed. note: American Theatre gives 67 percent among Theatre Communications Group member theaters in the 2015-16 season]), and the roles in those plays can range from 84 percent male (Shakespeare [ed. note: scholars vary slightly]) to 63 percent male (contemporary male playwrights). Yet — even so! — more women than men audition for plays and for spots in professional training and educational programs. It’s outrageous.
There’s so much talent that never gets tapped, simply because there’s a collective perception that there’s no room for more women at the table. And this imbalance is reflected at the amateur level as well: Though Dreamwell doesn’t track specific statistics at our auditions, I can tell you anecdotally that women virtually always outnumber men. Getting more women in production positions makes it more likely that we can help achieve gender parity in playwrights, directors, roles and crew — and thereby help our art to better reflect the world in which we actually live. Who better than us to advocate for ourselves?
AJM: I think it’s important to create a community where all voices are represented. I love that Dreamwell does new works and shows that often not done. Not only does it give theater professionals a chance to tackle something new, but it allows new voices to share their story. Also, in this political climate, I think it’s important to see women in positions of authority.
Your executive board is all women; was this intentional? And how do you think this affects the work Dreamwell ends up doing?
KB: The fact that our executive board is all women was not intentional at all. We didn’t even realize we had elected an all-woman executive board until after elections were complete. It was sort of a, “Wait a minute — this is awesome” moment! I think Dreamwell has always been inclusive about women’s opinions and what women can bring to Dreamwell, so in a way, there isn’t any specific ways women drive the vision and actions of our theater of exploration!
What is your favorite show that Dreamwell has done?
AJM: That’s such a tough question. I have so many! I loved our production of Antigone. We did the Mac Wellman version of Antigone that had no stage directions and no indication of who says what. It’s a short play so we had three different directors tackle it and put the three versions back to back in the same night. It produced three very different shows and it was a really interesting experiment.
I also directed Steve Got Raped, a new work, during our 20th season (2017–2018). It was a collaboration with [the University of Iowa’s Rape Victim Advocacy Program], and it tackled an issue that is not often discussed — male sexual assault. Throughout the rehearsal process we talked about masculinity and common myths regarding sexual assault. The cast and crew learned a lot and we got discuss the content with the audience in talk backs each night. Because I am so passionate about drama therapy, this show holds a very special place in my heart.
What roadblocks have you experienced in the theater world as a woman?
KB: My experience with theater has been specific to the local corridor. I’m proud to say there have been little to no roadblocks in the theater world for me as a woman! I think that is a testament to the entire theater community here, that people are becoming more gender-blind and value the contributions of everyone. As mentioned, we are trying to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community. One example of this is demonstrated in our annual volunteer banquet where we present “Dreamies”, which are awards to celebrate the season’s best actor, best actress, etc. This year, we are departing from the gender-specific awards and giving out ‘Best Performer’ awards instead — helping to ensure that we are celebrating people for who they are.
Are there any things that Dreamwell does to specifically celebrate women? How does it feel to work with these groups of women?
JW: We are consistently trying to be sure to create opportunities to showcase women writers and performers, as well as to make production and direction roles available to all interested parties. Beyond that, I can’t think of any specifically celebratory events or practices that celebrate women; rather, we try to conduct our work in a way that’s welcoming to all genders (and all people), all year long. I’m continually inspired by the fierceness, talent and commitment of the women around me. I’m lucky to know them, and to have a part in helping to create art with them.
(to board president Smith) What is it like to lead a strong capable group of women?
MS: Amazing. I feel very fortunate to know these individuals and to work alongside them. I have four sisters. I am used to being around strong, capable women. But as the youngest of my sisters, I am learning new things about what it means to be a good leader. For me, it is about actively listening and finding solutions together that work for our theater as a whole. And sometimes, it’s necessary to make executive decisions and trust you will get the support you need. Or at the very least, knowing that you will receive honest feedback that ultimately leads to the most viable solution.
Dreamwell’s next production, Will Eno’s ‘Tragedy, a Tragedy‘ — directed by Brewbaker and her husband, Matt — opens on April 26.