Plays inspire girls’ night out

Theater productions show every stage of a woman’s life.

After enjoying the thea- trical production of “Menopause the Musical” a few years ago with a group of women from her office in Dunwoody, Donna Dravis was primed for “Motherhood the Musical.”

“I’m just in my 30s, but it was hysterical,” Dravis said recently about “Menopause.”

In fact, Dravis enjoyed “Menopause” so much she went to see it twice — once with a group of friends from work and again with her sister and aunt.

So when she heard about “Motherhood,” which opened Sept. 22 and runs through Nov. 20 at the 14th Street Playhouse, Dravis invited fellow members of the Women’s Circle at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church to come along.

They were all too happy to oblige.

If there seems to be a play for every stage of a woman’s life these days, there is at least an equal number of women showing up in groups, either formally or informally, for female-centric productions such as “Bachelorette” by Pinch ‘N’ Ouch and “Three Sistahs” at Horizon Theatre. And anticipation is already building for Synchronicity’s late-October production of “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).”

“Motherhood” takes a comedic look at the blessings and perils of being a mom and is produced by Florida-based GFour Productions, the same team that successfully brought “Menopause” to every major market in the United States. The production grossed close to $6 million during its Atlanta productions, which spanned three years.

But are these so-called life-cycle plays part of a long and profitable trend for playhouses here and across the country or, as one local theater professor suggested, a smart connection to an eager demographic?

David Thompson, a theater professor at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, believes it’s the latter.

“As with many things, women are driving ticket purchases,” Thompson said. “But I think the trend, if there is one, might be that we are more willing to talk about our present experiences in a vastly different range of possibilities.”

One hundred years ago there would not have been a play titled “Menopause,” Thompson said, but attitudes have changed and topics once considered inappropriate in mixed company are now being mined for entertainment value.

“We are a little more open, a little more honest and the facts of life are no longer off limits,” he said.

Sara Freeman, a theater professor at the University of Puget Sound who has researched women playwrights and feminist theory, said Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” gave shape to the trend in the mid-1990s by bringing the idea of consciousness raising about women’s issues through theater into high visibility.

“The roots of theater marking life events and community celebrations explain how theater outings still function as ‘special events’ for groups of women friends or mothers, daughters and sisters,” she said.

Lisa Adler, co-artistic director of Horizon Theatre Company, likened the wave of women coming to plays in groups to the surge of female book clubs that gave women a place to talk about their shared experiences.

Such coming together has become even more important in the digital age when people are more connected but still feel isolated because communities and families are so spread out.

When women go out together to share movies or books and plays, not only are they supporting the arts in a tangible way, Adler and others say, they are essentially feeding their urge to celebrate and create community.

In all, 13 women at Dravis’ church responded to her invitation to go see the opening of “Motherhood the Musical” last week.

Tina McRae, a 35-year-old mother of three from Brookhaven, was among them.

It was the second time in recent months, she said, that she’d attended a play with a group of women because theater-going is something her husband prefers she do without him.

“Generally when I go to a musical or play, it’s a lot easier to convince a group of women to go with me,” she said.

Thomasina Barnes, a former corporate trust officer, has been going on theater outings with groups of retired women friends and family since at least 1994.

“We agreed we all needed to get out, have some fun and enjoy our retirement,” said Barnes, 67, of Atlanta.

Some time in the late 1990s, Sallie Daniel, chief development and diversity officer for Troutman Sanders law firm, formed a formal group of theater goers call Playgirls, women she met in Atlanta’s philanthropic community.

“We were basically women who liked each other and liked theater,” Daniel said.

Initially the group included Daniel and four or five others, but in recent years it has fluctuated between about 12 and 15 women who range in age from 50 to 60 and who enjoy theater, especially anything about issues important to women.

“They tackle controversial issues but educate, inspire and entertain at the same time,” Daniel said. “Plus the fact that they’re being supportive about women and women’s issues makes these plays particularly attractive.”

Although Freeman doubts the life-cycle trend is simply the result of marketing strategy by theater companies, she said the plays have the “helpful side benefit of appealing to a built-in audience and addressing the central question about what makes people come out to a show.

“It’s a question that theaters have been asking themselves since the early 20th century when technology made it so that theater wasn’t necessarily a mass medium anymore,” she said. “Two things that happen when groups of people get together for a live event are community building and consciousness raising. The life-cycle plays allow women to experience community and recognize their personal experience in a wider social and political context.”