By Mary Boyle
In the world of the Olympics, the US Women's Rowing team is a dynasty: they haven't lost a world championship or a gold medal in over a decade, making them the most dominating sports team in history, despite the fact that the women in the boat change in every competition. Our country has a seemingly endless supply of very talented women rowers, and we owe it all to Title IX — the Education Amendments Act of 1972 that states: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance;" that, and a crew of women rowers from Yale who decided to take a stand. It's a legendary story that is still being written, but the time to tell it is now, and the person to tell it is playwright Alice Austen, who specifically chose the First Stage Young Company to stage the World Premiere of Girls in the Boat.
Directed by Milwaukee's Marcella Kearns, Girls in the Boat focuses on that famous team of women from Yale, but spans the entire history of women in rowing, while speaking to the wider subject of equality for women, in general. The characters of the play are composites of many rowers; as such, they are given their position in the boat instead of names: Kayla Salter as Bow, Emily Fedewa as Girl 2, Mary Jensik as Girl 3, Molly Boyle as Girl 4, Ila Koch as Girl 5, Mathilde Prosen-Oldani as Girl 6, Reese Parish as Girl 7, Selma Rivera as Coxswain, Sylvie Arnold as Stroke, Jennie Babisch as Coach/Dad and Kate Lepianka as a male Journalist and Rower.
Acclaimed writer, producer, playwright, and novelist, Alice Austen, happens to live right here in Milwaukee; her grandfather was a rower, and her sons are both First Stage alumni and rowers. When John Maclay, Director of Artistic Development at First Stage, found out one of the student's parents was a playwright, a collaboration developed, and the outcome is an ode to rowing, as well as a timely comment on equality for women. The play is remarkable in that the writer and the entire cast and crew of this production, save the assistant stage manager, are women, including the handful of male characters in the play, and the reason this is remarkable is that it was not intentional
The play, itself, has a lyrical rhythm, like the oars of the rowers, and it is fast-paced, engaging, funny, inspiring, emotional, and powerful. First Stage is known for supporting new works, which is a risk, but this production demonstrates why taking those risks is so important, beyond being an incredible opportunity for the local theatre community. The First Stage Young Company, consisting primarily of High School aged students, has never failed to impress me, and is truly one of the best kept theatre secrets in the area. Watching this play, you are seeing history being made, but I feel that the play, itself, is also history being made, and we are so lucky to be able to witness its beginnings. This is an opportunity you do not want to miss.
Girls in the Boat runs through December 16th at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, located at 325 W. Walnut Street in Milwaukee. Tickets are available by calling (414) 267-2961 or online at www.firststage.org.
About First Stage
First Stage is one of the nation’s leading theaters for young people and families. First Stage touches hearts, engages minds and transforms lives by creating extraordinary theater experiences through professional theater productions that inspire, enlighten and entertain. Its Theater Academy, the nation’s largest high-impact theater training program for young people, fosters life skills through stage skills and serves over 2,100 students each year. As Wisconsin’s leader in arts-integrated education in schools, First Stage’s dynamic Theater in Education programs promote literacy, character building and experiential learning throughout the curriculum, serving over 20,000 students each year. First Stage was selected to participate in the Partners in Education program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2012), and was the recipient of the Milwaukee Business Journal’sEureka Award, recognizing creativity and innovation in business, education and the arts for its Next Steps program for students on the autism spectrum (2013, 2015). First Stage is a member of TYA/USA, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, Milwaukee Arts Partners and is a cornerstone member of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF).