Last year when Ashley was developing Women’s Theatre Festival, I desperately wanted to participate. To speak “theatre geek,” I wanted to be in the room where it happened. I knew this was the most important theatre movement the Triangle had ever seen. But I couldn’t participate. I couldn’t be in the room because, as Ashley puts it, I was busy saving my son’s life.
When I became a mother at age 32, I thought I’d be one of those freelancers who could strap the baby on and keep working, keep inhabiting all of the spaces I did in my professional life as a writer, director, designer, theatre educator, and arts administrator. Just, you know, with a kid. No biggie. But my baby wasn’t that kind of baby. And I didn’t wear motherhood in that easy breezy way.
My high needs baby turned into a high needs toddler. By the time he was diagnosed with autism in early 2015, very little of my career remained. I still managed to devote enough time, energy, and attention to a weekly drama class or two at Raleigh Little Theatre, but my main focus was on my son’s constant care. It’s impossible to encapsulate every overwhelming detail on everything that goes into the care of an autistic child--the research, the planning, the appointments, the consultations, the meltdowns, the preparation, the sleepless nights, the exhaustion, the bending so far that you are certain you will break. So instead, I’ll say this: when we give ourselves over to a life in the theatre, we do it because we love it so much that we cannot fathom doing anything else. My theatre life was excellent preparation for my motherhood life.
Which brings me back to last year. As WTF was launching, I was with my family in our temporary home, a hotel room in Wayne, New Jersey. My son’s feeding issues had snowballed into a very severe and complex feeding disorder. After exhausting the very best resources in our area, we were referred to an intensive feeding clinic in New Jersey for treatment.
By early fall, I was drowning in motherhood. I was desperate to get back into the theater community, some way, some how. But I was plagued by self-doubt. Would anyone remember me? Would anyone like me? Was I any good at anything anymore? I thought acting seemed like a good place to start. The idea of having one part to be in charge of was appealing. I was director of my family, after all. When WTF announced auditions for Little Women, I knew that was the opportunity I wanted. My confidence soared thinking about the nurturing and supportive environment Ashley creates.
Not only was I thrilled to be cast in the show, but it wasn’t long before I was designing the costumes, writing press releases, arranging sensory friendly performances, organizing production elements, sitting in on board meetings, and most excitingly, making deep connections with other women, something that had been missing from my life for way too long. I was back! As the fall progressed, it became increasingly vital to be in a position to do something good, to make the world a little better in whatever way I could. WTF became that place.
The mission of WTF is simple: to create, produce, and promote extraordinary work by women. The goal is to achieve gender equity in the theatre by 2020. It is the way that WTF does this that makes it so radical. With kindness and positivity. By extending a hand to lift other women up. By giving opportunities to mothers who thought their careers were behind them. By ensuring leadership opportunities for women of color. By recognizing talent and giving women the experience to grow. While supporting other local organizations that serve women. While constantly asking how can we be more diverse, more inclusive, more accessible, more equitable?
It is significant to me that WTF is a finalist for “Best Local Activist Group in the Triangle” in The Independent’s Triangle Awards this year. I have experienced first hand how WTF is life-changing for women. If you had told me a year ago that today I would be preparing to premiere a brand new devised piece at this year’s WTF while doing Outreach work and sitting on its Board of Directors and successfully juggling a slate of freelance directing and design projects, a summer full of drama camps, and my precious child who is THRIVING, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.
My story is just one example of what WTF does for women in this community. Please join me in voting for WTF as Best Local Activist Group here: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/BestoftheTriangle2017-Voting/Page#/gallery?category=1015401 Voting ends May 6th!
While you’re voting, please also cast a vote for Ashley Popio for “Best Local Do-Gooder” to reinforce how hard she works for this community. If you haven’t already, join us on Facebook @WTFNC and follow us on Twitter @wtfestivalnc to get in on the action this summer!