#MeToo, female empowerment take center stage at Washington theater festival

Since last year, women across the country have been addressing how they have been treated by the entertainment industry, especially when it comes to sexual harassment. Now, women in Washington theater are flipping the script -- on stage and off -- in the city's second Women's Voices Theater Festival.

"I think people should seek out and see work by women wherever they are across the country, because it is happening," said the festival's coordinating producer Nan Barnett.

The festival, created in 2015, has promoted the work of women in theater and discussed issues of gender parity. Since January, the festival has presented 24 plays, all written by women, in a collaborative effort with Washington's top theaters.

Now, the participants are in the middle of a year of female empowerment. The theme of gender parity is still there, but Barnett embraces the current climate, especially in entertainment.

"The 'Me Too' movement has really shifted the national conversation and so where we were in front of that with the first festival, this time we've been able to be a real significant part of that discussion here in D.C. and across the country," she said.

Hope Villanueva is one of many playwrights in the festival who hopes to make her voice heard -- and not just when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment.

She sat in the small theater at Anacostia Arts Center to watch the premiere of her new play, The Veils -- the last play to debut in the festival. She watched as the actors made use of the small stage, with only a couch on one end, a large rock on the other and the audience watching from the sides.

While some plays are tackling the issue of sexual harassment, Villanueva's is not among them. Instead, The Veils tells the story of a woman in the Marines trying to plan her wedding while emotionally and mentally dealing with her experiences overseas. But she does see a connection between the #MeToo movement and the festival as a whole.

"It does feel like the core problem that has allowed all of these assaults, you know, horrible injustices, to happen is just the fact that, as a society, we don't respect women as human beings on an equal footing with men," Villanueva said.

Schuyler Atkins, the star of Villanueva's show, plays a black woman in the military on stage. Off the stage, she said the #MeToo movement inspires her.

"I think it inspires me as a person to be more open and to be, just like, not just kind of take things as they are, you know," Atkins said.

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Schuyler Atkins, the star of The Veils.  Mara Sherman via Facebook/Nu Sass Productions

Villanueva thinks the most important part of the festival is that women's voices are heard on the stage.

"Women writers are going to draw women artists, are going to draw women directors to really get those voices and those stories out there that we need in order to achieve equity," she said.

Villanueva said those voices, and those stories, won't be silenced anytime soon.