Dallas — Creativity can come in the most unexpected places. In the fall of 1997, while ambling through NorthPark Center with baby strollers in front, director Pam Myers-Morgan and actress/producer Linda Marie Ford and their friend, René Moreno, came up with the idea of founding a theater company that produces plays written by women that everyone can enjoy.
The catalyst for forming Echo Theatre was a play Myers-Morgan and Ford had fallen in love with, Dream of a Common Language by Heather McDonald. Set in 1874, the piece examined the complicated balance of a woman's artistic calling, her family life, and the influence of societal limitations and expectations.
The play’s premise: It was OK for a woman to stand naked in a drawing class but not OK for her to join the male artists at the table to discuss the work. At the end of the play the female character’s husband, who is also an artist, takes off his clothes and says, “Draw me.”
“It was so beautiful,” says Ford. “Pam and I thought it needed to be produced so we took it to some producers and while they all said it was a great play they also said ‘it’s just not us.’ ”
Ford knew Suzy Blaylock, a friend and a producer in town, and asked her to get involved. Then Myers-Morgan, Ford, and Blaylock decided that it was their kind of play and Echo Theatre, which would have a mission to produce plays written by women, was born. Dream of a Common Language was Echo’s first mainstage show and was directed by Moreno (who we lost in early 2017).
“We started big,” Blaylock says. “We put on an absolutely beautiful production and we got a lot of unwritten praise from within the theatre community. The three of us worked together. We supported each other’s strengths and worked together to support each other’s weaknesses. That served us well.”
Now, as Echo is wrapping up the first production of its 20th season, an acclaimed staging of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, directed by Myers-Morgan and co-produced with Denise Lee Onstage, Echo has not wavered from its core mission.
Every play—and the occasional musical, such as Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon's Goblin Market—that Echo has produced as a mainstage production, for a festival such as Festival of Independent Theatres or Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, or in its popular staged reading series was written or composed by a woman. That’s more than 150 titles.
They have included works by groundbreaking playwrights such as Susan Glaspell, Maria Irene Fornes, Caryl Churchill, Marsha Norman, and Eve Ensler; as well as emerging and more established voices like Theresa Rebeck, Diana Son, Arlene Hutton and Amy Freed; plus local scribes such as Vicki Caroline Cheatwood, Rhonda Blair, Isabella Russell-Ides, and Shelby-Allison Hibbs.
After Ruined, the 20th anniversary season brings back Her Song in 2018, followed by the regional premiere of Madeleine George's Hurricane Diane.
What’s That Sound?
Echo Theatre was named for Echo, the Greek nymph who was cursed by Zeus’s wife, Hera, who made it so she was only able to speak the last few words spoken to her. The mission of Echo Theatre was and still is to give woman playwrights back their voices.
An independent theater founded at roughly the same time, WingSpan Theatre Company, has a similar mission—to produce plays about or that speak to women, but not always by a woman playwright (that group’s current 20th season has been dedicated to Edward Albee). And almost every professional theater in North Texas now includes at least one woman playwright on each season—which is still not enough.
Globally the number of plays produced by women playwrights remains low. Studies show that 12 to 19 percent of plays that are written by women are produced, and the average continues to hover at around 17 percent. The perception that women write plays for women and men write plays for everyone remains universal. Several years ago, in response to the conversation about the perceived lack of plays by women, a group of Los Angeles-based playwrights, The Kilroys, started releasing an annual list of plays by women.
“I am most proud that Echo is still going,” Myers-Morgan says. “That we had the guts to start it in the first place, and that there is no end to the material that is out there to produce."
In 1999 when David Fisher, then managing director of the Bath House Cultural Center, saw a need for smaller companies, including Echo Theatre, that might not have the advertising budget or space to produce their work, he created the Festival of Independent Theatres, known as FIT.
“Echo and WingSpan are the only remaining companies from the original group,” says Kateri Cale, senior producer, actor, and past co-artistic director of Echo. Cale has been with Echo from the start, having been cast in Echo’s first production in 1998.
“It was exciting at the time and the festival has grown bigger and bigger in popularity each year.” FIT’s four-week festival features eight shows, each less than 60 minutes in length, rotating through performance blocks.
“There’s always something exciting on stage during the festival,” says Cale. “We’ve acquired more audience members through FIT. I think people will come out of curiosity.”
In 2001 the group launched Echo Reads, a series of free performance readings featuring a diverse collection of work by female voices from the past and the present. Since the Echo Reads: Salon Series began in September of 2001, more than 110 women playwrights have had their voices heard through lightly rehearsed staged readings of their work. Some of these scripts were later produced on the mainstage season, largely due to audience talkbacks after the readings.
“We were doing this and thought it would be more interesting if we invited an audience,” Cale explains. “We call it ‘edit performance readings.’ We hire a director, cast the piece, and we lightly rehearse. Generally, we are on someone else’s stage; whoever is in production at the Bath House. They graciously allow us to do readings on their sets. We have a narrator that describes everything. The audience comes and sits in on what a rehearsal is like and experiences the script.”
The point is to hear the words and experience the play, and it’s free.
“You can come to a reading, enjoy some free cookies and sit around with the cast and producers and discuss the play you just saw,” Cale says. “It’s a lot of fun and from our reading series we’ve chosen a lot of shows for our mainstage, which is a great benefit.”
The series is now curated by Elly Lindsay, and readings this fall are Adrienne Dawes’ Teen Dad on Oct. 17 and Lauren McCune’s Cleida Heller’s Last Hurrah on Nov. 28; with three more to-be-announced titles in the spring of 2018.
The Men’s Show
It’s not always all women at Echo. In 2001, Raphael Parry—co-founder of Undermain Theatre and now Executive Director of Shakespeare Dallas—starred in An Almost Holy Picture, a play by Heather McDonald that is affectionately referred to as “the men’s show.”
“What’s different about Echo is that [we] match the production team to the show,” Cale says. “You always have a female writer, but the entire team for [Picture], except the prop designer, was men. We used a male designer and a male director. It doesn’t matter as long as you have the best in expertise and talent. Each script has its own sensibility…and you can feel what it needs.”
That play made its Broadway debut in 2002, starring Kevin Bacon.
Back to Behn
British playwright and poet Aphra Behn (pronounced “bane”) was considered the first professional playwright. Living in the Restoration era, she earned her living as a writer. Her play The Rover is the one that is still produced, often by college theater departments.
“She was a pretty amazing woman,” says Cale. “Behn was a feminist before feminism was a thing. She was on her own, and had married but her husband passed away, so she was accepted in society because of her marriage and moved through the world on her own terms.”
In 2010, Echo launched the Big Shout Out, an international playwriting contest for women writers. The series was a success, leading to four full productions: Catherine Bush's The Executioner's Sons, Cathy Tempelsman's A Most Dangerous Woman, Isabella Russell-Ides' The Early Education of Conrad Eppler, and Briana Pozner’s The Adventures of Flo and Greg. It also fed Echo Reads.
“We have offered this contest twice, and as a result Echo has produced an additional four world premieres,” says managing artistic director Terri Ferguson. “It has helped Echo Theatre become internationally recognized among female playwrights. In fact, the very first play submitted to the first contest was from a playwright in Croatia. Plans are in the works for a third contest within the next two years.”
The Echo team wanted to create a show that celebrated women songwriters, so in 2014, after a yearlong research project, Echo gave birth to Her Song, in which the Bath House Cultural Center was turned into a 1930s-style supper club with American Songbook tunes by women lyricists and/or composers. With a cast of 24 musicians, singers, dancers and more, Echo and audiences celebrated women composers and lyricists. This was done in collaboration with the Matt Tolentino Orchestra and the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group.
Her Song, which was conceived and developed by Annie Benjamin, Cale, Lorena Davey, Terri Ferguson, Shelby-Allison Hibbs and Scott Eckert, became a hit and has been revived every February since.
Annie Benjamin wanted to do a revue or musical with music from Tin Pan Alley, a collection of New York City music publishers and songwriters who dominated popular music in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The number of woman musicians and composers they discovered was astonishing. Many wrote with a man, often their husband. And there were many songs that did not come out of Tin Pan Alley, like the blues.
The group would meet at Cale’s house on Sundays to discuss the music and the production. Eckert was key to getting the scoring done.
“And then we had to throw a big lasso around this and Shelby-Allison Hibbs cut off all the wild corners and laid out the idea that we were going to create characters of a supper club so the audience would feel like they were really there,” Cale says. “Beyond the Box, a wonderful catering company, created craft food and cocktails from the 1930s for us.”
Echo plans to retire the show after its 2018 production.
“It’s bittersweet, but since we only have three slots, we need to get back to our mission and use that slot to present different female playwrights’ work,” Cale says. “It’s been a wonderful experience and we may do something like it again in the future.”
In 2015 when founder/producer Pam Myers-Morgan officially stepped down, new co-artistic directors Cale, Ferguson and Alett Gray worked to bring Echo to new heights. In 2017, Ferguson took over the reins as managing artistic director, with Gray as general manager. The group’s budget for the 2017-18 season is $85,000, the largest annual budget to date.
Echo Theatre is ready to grow. To produce more plays, they would like to expand their board with added leadership to help with fundraising, and they’d like to give their actors and staff a little more money. Echo frequently uses Actor’s Equity Association guest artist contracts.
“Echo Theatre already stands out for producing great works written by women, but I would also like us to be Dallas' most inclusive theatre company,” says Ferguson.
For her, that means actively searching for and hiring directors, designers, and performers that come from a diverse background. The current production of Ruined is a great example; but there are also many women playwrights of color whose work should be explored.
Looking to the group’s 25th and 30th anniversary seasons, Ferguson has more milestones in mind.
“It is my hope that Echo Theatre can grow to produce a full five-show season in the next five years. There are so many great scripts written by women out there that deserve to be produced, and so many fabulous artists in the community that deserve to flex their talents,” she says. “Another dream I have is that within 10 years, Echo creates a network of theater companies in other major cities to co-produce works written by women.”
Looks like Echo Theatre will continue to find more ways to get women seats at the table as an active and equal part of the theater conversation.