‘Hear Them Roar:’ Questions for Nan Smithner on Women’s Rights and Environmental Theatre

Hear Them Roar:  The Fight for Women’s Rights is an environmental theatre production directed by Nan Smithner, clinical associate professor of educational theatre.  The play begins in Steinhardt’s Black Box Theatre, then takes the audience into the streets of Washington Square to experience the women’s rightsmovement firsthand.  We spoke to Smither about the evolution of the project which premiered on October 20. 2017.

NYUSteinhardt:  Your new play, Hear Them Roar was written by an ensemble of fifteen actors.  Can you tell us how your actors’ own experiences shaped a historical play about the suffragette movement in the United States?

Nan Smithner

NS:  The ensemble of fifteen actors are all passionate about the theme of women’s rights. The cast is very diverse, bringing different points of view to the table, creating the opportunity for rich discussions to occur. To begin the process, we broke into research groups in which the ensemble investigated subtopics of the suffrage movement of the times, including family, racism, immigration, prohibition, religion, politics, and much more. We had two dramaturgs who helped unravel many details. We focused on the untold stories of the times, such as the fight between anti and pro-suffrage women, the struggle of women of color and immigrants in the suffrage movement, as well as that of the “suffragents,” the men who helped achieve the vote. We also have several historical figures represented in our tale.

In the devising process, the ensemble improvised and wrote scenes, monologues, letters and poetry, out of which characters emerged and were formed into a storyline. We added extra six actors to the cast to fill the needs of the scenes that were chosen to be in the final script. In the last portion of our show, in a surprise ending, we connect past events to the present, and to create this section we brainstormed issues that mattered to us as a group. We were amazed at both the many things that have changed and the multitude of issues that still remain today.

NYUSteinhardt:  This is play that requires the audience to follow the actors into the street, which is a very unique way of experiencing theatre.   What does the participatory experience give the audience?

NS:  The environmental aspect of the performance engages the audience in a new way of viewing our story. In this case, the characters are dressed in period costumes of 1917, and their presence in the park summons another era, requiring the audience to suspend disbelief and imagine how people of that era interacted and moved about the city. Our suffrage rally in the Garabaldi Square attempts to convey the passionate beliefs and controversies of pro and anti-suffrage groups.

NYUSteinhardt:  Tell me something I don’t know about the suffragette movement in America.

 NS:  The suffrage movement in New York City was influenced by WW I.  (The anti-suffrage women focused their energies on helping the war effort and strengthening family ties, while the pro-suffrage group offered patriotic support to the war, while continuing their work — organizing and spreading the voting rights message.)

Woodrow Wilson’s daughters were pro-suffrage and may very well have influenced their father, who passed the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote nationwide.

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