Kerstin Vanhuss was sick of it. Sick of trying out for school productions again and again, working to earn one of the three roles for women. Meanwhile, the script had room for 10 men. Why were there so little roles for women when they dominated the enrollment of the theatre department? Frustrated, she and two fellow students at Appalachian State University decided they’d had enough. Branching out on their own, the three founded a new theatre troupe with the goal of producing women-only productions. While the group eventually decided to focus more on choosing playwrights who were women, it still provided a space for women and minorities to find the roles they’d been desperately vying for. Years later, it continues under the name WITT, the Women’s and Inclusive Theatre Troupe.
Only a few years post-graduation, Vanhuss is in a woman-dominated cast yet again in Three Bone Theatre’s production of “The Daffodil Girls” where she plays the main character Shelly. The play, an adapted version of the Tony-winning play by David Mamet, “Glengarry Glen Ross,” follows the story of a hardcore version of the Girl Scouts known as The Daffodil Girls, where they are pushed to sell cookies in order to keep their troop alive. The wit is biting, the insults hurt and the play feels more intense than it has any right to be.
Three Bone Theatre is a local nonprofit theatre company. It was founded in 2012 and specializes in “adult contemporary theatre.” In the past, it has been drawn to works that wrestle with relevant and sometimes difficult ideas, such as “Fahrenheit 451” and “Motherhood Out Loud.” There is also a civic engagement element as the company works with community partners for each production. For “The Daffodil Girls,” Three Bone is partnering with the nonprofit Girls Rock Charlotte, an organization founded by UNC Charlotte professor Kelly Finley that aims to empower girls through rock music.
One of the reasons that “The Daffodil Girls” is so interesting is because it takes what is typically a story centered around men and centers it around women. Specifically, it centers it around young girls. Here, it is not the men who are the powerful and greedy corporate stereotypes. Instead, it is the girls that are deceitful and mean. They’re power hungry. They will do anything it takes to get ahead. This depiction of girls and women is incredibly rare in any media form, where they are seldom showcased in leadership roles at all, let alone allowed to be desperate for power and money. The show breaks these stereotypes and gives actresses the chance to flex those nuanced emotional muscles. Every role is a different complex and strong female character. While the characters’ ages range from five to 12, the entire cast is composed of adults; all are women. The creative team, with the exception of the excellent lighting, set and sound design (Ryan Maloney and Benjamin Stickels), mirrors this as well.
According to Director Amanda Liles, this isn’t typical of theatre productions. She stated, “You’ll find that the majority of artistic directors, the majority of executive directors are going to be men. And the majority of stage managers are men too…but it’s unusual to find, like, a production company where a majority of people are female, and I think that [what] is really interesting about Three Bone is that we have so many people in these power positions who are female, which is great.” Most all of the other production teams she has worked on have been male-dominated.
Does being involved in a woman-centric production team change anything? Based on interviews, the answer seems to be an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’ However, the difference is hard to quantify. Liles references a more supportive and enthusiastic working environment (though she also says it may be more organized). Vanhuss, though clear about her preference for working in woman-dominated casts, found it hard to explain why. One of her reasons was that “…a lot of times, women get more committed because there are so little plays for us so we put a lot more work into it.” Another was a feeling of frankness; that “you can open up with your emotions a lot more.”
However, there are other larger reasons. Vanhuss recounted the story of one of her friends who was asked to lose 15 pounds for a role in a local college production. “I saw her not eat things sometimes and spend hours on a treadmill. For college theatre.” she stated. She also indicated that’d she’d feel safer bringing up concerns to a woman director than a man, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Liles seconded the idea that theatre isn’t immune to the reckoning of #MeToo. She said, “I know from friends and other people’s experiences that sometimes it can be icky. Like there can be people who are predatory or a little too touchy-feely or inappropriate at times in the theatre community.”
But while Three Bone Theatre’s production of “The Daffodil Girls” may be an uplifting, safe and more collaborative experience behind the scenes, watching it is hard. It hurts to watch these young girls tear each other down and insult one another in the worst ways. It is painful to witness them tear each other apart, especially while wondering why their parents won’t listen or do anything to stop it. Yet, that’s the point. “The Daffodil Girls” wants to demonstrate just how cruel and hard being a young girl can be. It tells us that they can be mean to one another and that they still have valid problems, even if they are young. Director Amanda Liles emphasizes this as well. In her director’s note, she writes, “We need to do right by our young people. Love them, encourage them, advocate for them and inspire them to stand up for themselves and others.” Hopefully, “The Daffodil Girls” encourages audiences to do just that.
Featured photo by Click Witch Photography.