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In The Company of (Historical) Women, Part 2

Devon Ellington gives a glimpse into this unique program that cultivates writers to pay homage to nearly forgotten historical female figures.

The 365 Women A Year Playwrighting Project grew out of the hunger to learn about women often forgotten or ignored by history. Finding the inspiration was the first step in creative journeys for the artists.

“I was assigned Harriet Powers from 365 Women a Year Project,” said Danielle Winston, the author of “Stitches in Time” and “Ida & Leonor.” “Harriet was an enormously talented storyteller/artist/quilter. For Harriet Powers, unfortunately, information was extremely limited. Even though I had the freedom to fictionalize, I wanted to reveal as much truth as possible. Especially, when so little was known about Harriet. When I came across information about an event in her life, related to her quilting, I could easily visualize it. That became the first puzzle piece that led me to later periods in Harriet’s life. . . and it all naturally meshed.

Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino

“Ida Lupino and Lenor Fini came about because I was reading about early women directors, and wondered why Ida Lupino wasn’t more well known, and credited, considering her groundbreaking body of work. Ever since I’d seen Fini’s art on display at Sothebys, as part of a Women Surrealist exhibit, I was drawn to her dark magical creations. I began exploring her art and also her life. And I wondered why Frida Khalo is pretty much the only woman surrealist painter who’s a household name. I love Frida, but there were many other spectacular women artists, who also helped shape the surrealist movement. Why don’t we talk about those women? Why aren’t we sharing their works?

[History In Action: Writing the Period Piece Script]

“Originally, I was going to write two plays, one about Ida Lupino, another about Leonor Fini. But as I researched the lives of these two magnificent women, entirely different, yet both living breathing art in everything they did, I became increasingly curious. Since their time periods and locations coincided, I couldn’t help wondering, what would happen if they were in a room together? I really loved this idea. The more I thought about it, the more it took off. And ‘Ida & Leonor’ was born. It’s a play, a reimagining of a situation where Ida Lupino and Leonor Fini meet at a soiree in Midtown Manhattan at pivotal periods in both women’s lives. The play felt like the start of something. . .a seed. . . Eventually, I’ll expand the story into a feature film or full-length play.”

The play as a seed was true for me with Kate Warne. Her life has inspired multiple projects in different formats. The lost richness of these women’s lives inspired me. Giulia Tofana’s loyal apprentices never revealed the formula for her fatal Aqua Tofana. Becoming a widow was the best way under the 17th Century Italian legal system to get away from an abusive husband. Aqua Tofana is believed to be the cause of 600 poisonings over twenty years. Even Mozart claimed he’d been poisoned with it.

Lavinia Fontana’s husband handled childcare while she earned their living as a professional painter in Renaissance Italy. A circle of intelligent, powerful noblewomen in Bologna promoted and supported her work, and several of them had the financial acumen to run their husbands’ businesses. Each one of them deserves her own play.

At forty, after bearing seven children, Jeanne de Clisson was in danger when her third husband was falsely accused of treason by the French king. She sold her land before the king seized it, bought three warships she painted black with red sails, and became the ferocious pirate “the Lioness of Brittany” – raiding only French ships. She fell in love and married an Englishman; her son, Olivier, returned to Brittany and earned the nickname “the Butcher.” These women were much more interesting than the bland, bossy men whose lives took up the history curriculum.

[LEGALLY SPEAKING, IT DEPENDS: Historical Drama Approaches]

“Years ago, when I came out to San Francisco for a winter, I wanted to write a novel set here,” said CJ Verburg, drawn to the stories of Belle Cora, Charlotte King, and Maria Knight for her play “After the Gold Rush.” “I’d lived in San Francisco earlier and returned East to pursue my publishing career in Boston, partly under parental pressure. My mother disdained California as having no history. I wondered, ‘How is that possible?’ and started investigating. The story of star-crossed lovers Belle and Charles Cora – a prostitute and a gambler – epitomized California’s passionate, violent transformation before and after the Gold Rush, from Indian territory to Spanish to Mexican to American, with the inevitable recurring clash of cultures and rebooting of values and priorities. The deeper I dug, the more facets I discovered to that troubled history. Banker-turned-editor James King of William, whose ‘martyrdom’ led to the Vigilance Committee of 1856 and the kangaroo court that hanged gambler Charles Cora, emerged as a taunting fanatic. His wife, Charlotte, the mother of his six children, let herself play the role of supporting character; yet she, like Belle Cora, showed ferocious loyalty to her husband, along with saintly patience as his fate played out. The widow Maria Knight braided herself into their intertwined stories; when the Vigilantes staged their farce of a trial, she stepped forward as an eyewitness to both fatal shootings; a claim that would strain credulity of anyone but a mob bent on hanging, and went on to regale the jury with a bizarre tale of felling Belle’s attempts to poison her. To me, these three remarkable women stood out as vertices of a complicated, poignant triangle at the center of San Francisco’s metamorphosis from wild frontier outpost to mature (though far from tamed) city.”

Women in an early San Francisco bordello

Women in an early San Francisco bordello

I started writing plays while working in wardrobe off-Broadway. Actresses were frustrated by the paucity of women’s monologues. Often, when they used my monologues for auditions, they landed the roles. Expanding monologues into plays, hunting down diaries and letters and references about women who’d been forgotten by history, was a natural expansion in my career. It taught me the social context of history in a way it wasn’t taught in school.

['Suffragette' Screenwriter Abi Morgan and 'The Assassin' Writer/Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien on Adapting Historical Events]

CJ Verburg shared, “My focus has always been learning new things – investigating unfamiliar subjects, figuring out how to utilize familiar art forms in new ways – rather than executing a career plan. Both of my big historic plays were a dramatic departure from the small contemporary plays (and novels and poems and anthologies) I’d done before. Now I’ve been publishing mystery novels for about a decade, and having worked out how to write those, I’ve turned to stories, from flash fiction (under 1000 words) to novellas. Next may be nonfiction – and/or a series of books taking a deeper look at the wonderful post-Gold Rush characters and contexts I’ve explored onstage.”

“When I write a film script/play, or direct, I don’t think about how it fits in with the bigger picture for my career, but maybe I should,” said Danielle Winston. “If I care about the characters, and it’s a story I want to tell, then I intuitively trust that. In film/TV and theatre, women are traditionally portrayed as weak, and victims. So if I want that to change, I need to do my part to write complicated women characters. And there is no shortage of historical women to unearth and write about. “

“Playwrighting is my vocation,” said DS Magid, “I’ve never seen it as merely a career (which I have with performing, directing, and producing). All of my works adhere to certain theme and guidelines, both craft-wise and morally. My oeuvre spans many genres, but each work has in common a basis in empathy – not ‘ooh, I feel so sorry for you’ but a deeply rooted, mutually synaptic, and visceral response among the characters and between play-and-audience – so that we can all begin to see ourselves clearly, and all evolve to find our best place in the world. Together. And what more fem-centric philosophy could there be?”

Danielle Winston summed up the heart of it: “That’s the beauty of the 365 Women a Year Project, it illuminates not just those famous women we already know, but more importantly, all the forgotten women in the shadows, deserving a spotlight.”

Learn more about writing a true story in our upcoming SU course!