A stage for all the world Kristen van Ginhoven and WAM Theatre

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WAM Theatre stands for “Women – Action – Movement.” Its motto is “Theatre for everyone that benefits women and girls.” This philanthropic endeavor donates 25% of every production’s box office proceeds to an organization (which changes for each production) battling global women’s issues. Since its first season in 2010, the organization has donated more than $10,500 to both local and international charities. So how did it all get started?

A Canadian in America

To understand WAM’s origins, one must first understand the organization’s founder and artistic director.
Kristen van Ginhoven grew up outside of Montreal, in a region defined by the beautiful Laurentian mountain range. All the way through eighth grade, van Ginhoven’s primary focus was honing her musical skills on the violin. That year, however, brought with it an enlightening experience.

“I don’t actually remember “knowing” about theater until I took a trip in grade eight with my class, into Montreal to see the musical “CATS,” van Ginhoven noted. “I remember not wanting to leave the theater. I was completely transported into [that]world.”

A few years later, in tenth grade at a tiny high school, she encountered theater in a more personal way. Her English teacher decided they ought to put on a musical. Although the musical itself – a light 1950s-tribute called “Ducktails and Bobbysox” – was not exactly of a profound nature, van Ginhoven credits the experience for introducing her to the captivating realm of acting.

“I just thought it was fantastic,” she laughed. “I was so excited to do it and that was really what made me think I might want to spend my life as a theater artist.”

Canadian high school ends after junior year, which is a relatively young age to decide what to do with one’s life. Since she had enjoyed theater more than any other high school experience, van Ginhoven went into a college liberal arts program, and then a theater program. Going on “to University” in her early twenties, she started to comprehend the incredible role theater artists played in the arts world, and in life.

“At that point,” van Ginhoven said, “that was kind of the adult time when I made the decision that, ‘yes, this is what I want to do with my life.’”

For several years after college, the unpredictable, intensive life of an actor was the definition of her life, but at age 30 she hit a crossroads.

“I really needed to have a standard of life and a way to pay my rent. So I did what many other people do and went and [got]a teaching degree. I was really one of the lucky ones, because I really enjoy teaching, and I really fell in love with the field of education.”

Van Ginhoven feels it is the teaching aspect of her life that informs her abilities as a director. It’s given her the confidence to be a leader in the room, a “facilitator and a guide for students or actors or designers.” 

Traveling as a freelance theater artist for ISTA (International Schools Theatre Association), she spent time in China, Thailand, India, Berlin, London, Portugal and Paris. Her experiences as a traveler and an educator translated into a comprehensive life-perspective.

“Before I did a lot of traveling, my view was quite narrow and really focused on [the Toronto theater scene],” van Ginhoven admitted. “[Traveling] influenced me very much, both as a person and as a theater artist – it really expanded my views in both cases.”

From pages to stages

WAM theatre was born in the fall of 2009, when van Ginhoven read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

“It was very difficult for me to come face to face with all the things that happen to women around the world,” she said. “I was unfortunately one of those people who didn’t think I could make any sort of significant difference, so I was just going to ignore that it was happening.”

The book came at a frustrating time in her life.

Van Ginhoven and her husband had just moved to upstate New York. She had a postgraduate degree and a great desire to participate in the amazingly vibrant arts community. But she lacked the Green Card necessary to gain employment.

“I found that really, really hard, especially [because]women have fought for so long to be able to work, and earn a paycheck.”

Reading Half the Sky was a turning point for her. Reading about the incredible horrors of sex trafficking, maternity mortality, and lack of female education, established conditions in many parts of the world – as well as about groups that are fighting such oppression – she felt compelled to take action in some way.

“I don’t have the resilience myself to go to Thailand and deal with sexual trafficking, or not even Thailand, just deal with it here in our backyard,” van Ginhoven admitted, “but I have such respect for the people that are doing that with their life and I want to support them.”

After approaching a few theater colleagues, van Ginhoven found a co-founder in Leigh Strimbeck, an actor, director, writer and theater educator, whose work with the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble gave her an invaluable sense of how to build and structure a company.

“In January of 2010, we literally sent out a letter to our hundred closest family and friends,” van Ginhoven said. “[It said,] ‘we want to put on theater shows that give jobs to . . . local professional theater artists, and are at least 50/50 in terms of men and women . . . And then we also want to take those shows, and we want to make them our philanthropy, by choosing an organization that’s out there, on the front lines, doing something for women and girls – and we want to donate a portion of the box office proceeds to that organization.’”

The idea came from the heart, but seemed utterly unsustainable. For a theater to raise the funds needed for productions and general expenses alone was challenge enough. To also commit to donating funds from the box office seemed a castle in the sky. However, van Ginhoven believes the multiple impacts of WAM are intrinsic to its success.
“That actually seems to be what has really spoken to people,” van Ginhoven said, “the fact that [the supporters’]dollar does two things.”

An evening of WAM

So what is WAM theatre like? Activist? Feminist?  Van Ginhoven has a different definition.

“Feminism as a term is a very charged and complex issue. There are many people who kind of associate that with negativity, as opposed to just the fact that it means you believe in equality of the sexes.”

Van Ginhoven noted that the book Half the Sky has a subtitle about “turning oppression into opportunity” – and that’s a central value to WAM productions.

“It really focuses on the glass half-full, on empowerment, on opportunity.”

Van Ginhoven’s personal preferences are indicative of this focus. Her admired playwrights include the likes of Caryl Churchill, voyager into the interconnected natures of power, politics and feminism; Lauren Gunderson, whose perceptive plays are based around historical, scientific or literary women; and Sarah Ruhl for her “intelligent and clever and witty” way of writing – and indeed, Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play” was WAM’s very first main stage production in 2010.

Audience turnout is definitely stacked in terms of women (in their 30s-40s) with their daughters and mothers; and some young families. But van Ginhoven would like to see more men, noting how critical it is for them to be “involved in the conversation.” She sees theater as a unique, interactive opportunity for communicating profound ideas. 

“The thing that sets theater apart is that it brings people together into one room,” she said. “And for that performance, everybody forms a community. There’s a bond that happens with being live in a room with other people and having that experience together.”

The American Dream

Van Ginhoven noted she has found the perfect area to realize her theatrical philanthropy. She sees the Capital Region and the Berkshires as very interested, receptive communities.

“As a Canadian, to come into America and really have a first-hand sense of America’s belief in helping people achieve that American dream was always a metaphor for me,” van Ginhoven said. “And now I’m here, and I’m really having first-hand experience: of having people from all walks of life asking how they can support WAM [and help others]achieve this dream.”

To learn more visit www.wamtheatre.com

WAM Summer 2014 Productions & Events
Note: WAM typically does its main stage production in the fall, with play-readings and other events throughout the year. Go to www.wamtheatre.com for event information.

Fresh Takes: Play-Reading Series
What: “Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England” by Madeleine George.  As a college dean attempts to close down the school’s decaying museum, she finds her life complicated by the return of an old lover, and the presence of a new, much younger one. The relationship between what’s worth preserving and what should be chucked is explored in this witty piece. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, an Artistic Associate at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA.
When: August 17, 3pm
Where:  No. Six Depot Roastery and Café on 6 Depot Street,West Stockbridge, MA

What: “Change Makers.” A fascinating panel discussion by documentary filmmakers, playwrights and actors about advocating positive changes for women & girls through art. Additionally, there will be a sneak peak of WAM’s fall 2014 production.
When: August 24, 7cpm
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle Street, Great Barrington, MA

What: “Waxworks” by Trina Davies. A historical play dealing with the Madame Tassaud of waxwork fame, who travels to Paris on the edge of the French Revelation. As she witnesses the fall of many people, she must decide whether to label their waxen images as patriots or traitors. A work that promises to question established ideas about categorization, labeling, and the deeper meaning of terms, this is one of the first public readings of this not-yet published play. Director TBA.
When: September 21, 3pm
Where:  No. Six Depot Roastery and Café on 6 Depot Street,West Stockbridge, MA
Summer Benefit Event

 

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