For more than a decade—in fact, for nearly two—Mildred’s Umbrella has dedicated itself to promoting the works of female playwrights, taking on issues of importance to women. When founder and artistic director Jennifer Decker began the theater company, it didn’t have a permanent space. Then, for several years, Mildred’s was housed at Studio 101. When that became too expensive, Decker decamped her company to Chelsea Market—which later abruptly forced all of its tenants, including Mildred’s and the Classical Theatre Company, to leave because it was shutting down.
“We found ourselves without a permanent space all of a sudden, and I was looking for ways to keep honoring our mission of promoting new plays by women that did not need a permanent space,” Decker explains. “The cultural affairs person, Idan Schwartz, at the Israeli Consulate here in Houston had been talking to me about a possible collaboration already. All of these elements inspired me to think outside the box a bit about how to present some new works without a space, and perhaps involve other organizations who would like to be a part of it by focusing on a particular demographic of women each time.”
That led to the creation of FemFest Houston, which launches this weekend with “Voices of Israel.” Mildred's is the producing entity, but both the Israeli Consulate and the Evelyn R. Rubenstein Jewish Community Center were involved with making it happen. The staged readings of three plays by female Israeli playwrights will take place at JCC this weekend.
“As an outreach project, it works well for us, because readings are easier and not as expensive to produce, so it's fairly easy to add a new reading series to our programming, even without having a particular home base,” says Decker. “We plan to continue it every season with a different demographic of women each time.”
Decker and her team went about selecting plays for the series, looking at pieces that were translated into English. Most, she found, were not politically or culturally specific to Israel. “Women, and just humans everywhere, want and need the same things ... love, acceptance, the answers to the big questions like 'why are we here?', family, to protect their children and loved ones,” she says. “These plays are no different than American plays in that way. I think we chose three plays that our Houston audiences will find very relatable.”
The weekend consists of three readings. O God by Anat Gov looks at what would happen if God walked into a troubled psychotherapist’s office, insisting she help him solve the problems of the world. Maternity by Hana Vazana Grinwald is an experimental work that examines the disappearance of thousands of Yemeni refugee babies living in camps in Israel in the 1950s. Versace by Michal Aharoni explores the love story of criminals in the witness protection program.
“This collaboration has been truly delightful, and it's been a pleasure to get to know the people at the consulate and the JCC,” says Decker. “We are particularly excited about one of the playwrights, Michal Aharoni, who is coming in for the reading of her play on Sunday to participate in the talkback. She is an Israeli playwright and international journalist who has served as a spokesperson for many Israeli politicians. She's now based in New York, so we were able to convince her to come in for the readings. I really can't wait to meet her. Google her! She's kind of a big deal.”
Decker is optimistic about both the FemFest collaborations—which continue into 2020 with Voices of Asia in May, in partnership with the Asia Society—and Mildred’s future. “There is a hunt for a permanent space, but the prices inside the loop—where we've been the entire time we've existed—are impossible now for a budget our size,” she says. “We'll be producing full shows at Rec Room in January and The DeLuxe in May. Then we'll see where we are. Obviously, a home base is best, but we've been nomadic before, and we'll survive as long as I decide we survive. I have learned to roll with it over the 19 years we've been around, so that's what we're doing now.”
FemFest performance times are as follows: Saturday, Dec. 7 at 2:30 p.m., O God; Saturday, Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. Maternity; Sunday, Dec. 8 at 2:30 p.m., Versace with a talkback with playwright Michal Aharoni following the reading. All shows at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston, 5601 S. Braeswood Blvd. Single tickets are $15 each, and a pass for all three readings is $35. Go to artful.ly/mildredsumbrella for more information.