Creating, producing, and promoting extraordinary, inclusive theater by women and all underrepresented genders

Post pandemic, the National Women’s Theater Festival (NWTF) is stronger, growing in reach and influence, and committed to virtual programming.

the mission of the National Women’s Theatre Festival (NWTF) has been to create, produce, and promote extraordinary, inclusive theatre by women and all underrepresented genders.

“We are coming out of this phase more confident that we are primarily a festival, not a theater company that produces a season of plays,” says Executive Artistic Director Johannah Maynard Edwards.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, NWTF was already in a rebuilding phase after the departure of the founder in late 2019. Covid put the process into overdrive. A board member living in Beijing gave Edwards early warning of what was coming. Edwards immediately began worrying how they could stage their signature event, a summer festival.

Edwards had just attended the Southeastern Theater Conference and had purchased scripts to read. “I  thought, why don’t we do a play-reading club online, just relax together, and talk about it?”

One week after everything shut down, NWTF had already conducted its first experiment with virtual programming. Mikki Marvel, a colleague who is active in the gaming community, helped launch the play-reading club on Twitch. A contact who works in theater marketing invited Clare Barron, Pulitzer-nominated author of “Dance Nation” to join the discussion of her play. For its next event, NWTF landed rising star Kaja Dunn to perform a virtual reading of “Natural Shocks” by playwright Lauren Gunderson. NWTF’s early successes were noticed in the theater community and soon they were helping other companies stage virtual performances, Edwards says.

Technology was easier than ensuring equity, Edwards says. The company, historically led by white women, has a mission of “leveling the playing field” in theater for women, people of color, and anyone who has been marginalized, Edwards says. This means taking extra care to ensure standards of fairness and inclusion are sustained in virtual spaces. “Being the kind of white woman leader in theater that black women trust is a lot harder than setting up a webcam,” she says.

Edwards is optimistic about the future and certain technology will continue in a leading role. This year, NWTF’s festival will be both “venue-based” and virtual. “We need to do both. I think this is the future of theater in the VR world,” Edwards says.