By Laura Connors Hull
We just closed our world premiere musical “Witch” and I am feeling very grateful….grateful to have had the opportunity to tackle such an important and timely subject, and grateful to have had so many incredible professional artists (composers, writers, musicians, actors and designers) working on this artistic project.
With help from all of our believers and supporters (including grants from the Little City CATCH Foundation) our amazing creative team, Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith, have been on a five-year journey creating original musicals for our ”Bold New Works for Intimate Stages” project. “Witch” was the fourth installment, and the boldest to date.
If you had the opportunity to see “Witch,” you know it tackled the painful subject of the demonization of women across the centuries. It featured stories of ‘“Witch”es’—everyone from local Maryland legend, Moll Dyer, Rebecca Nurse of Salem, Joan of Arc, the iconic Margaret Hamilton and modern day “Witch”es of Gambaga—an African colony where women accused of “Witch”craft are banished this very day. Told with humor and pathos and beautifully crafted musical numbers, their stories were sung by a cast with Broadway veterans, a Helen Hayes Award winner, and some talented young performers from our educational theater program.
What made “Witch” so resonant was that our writers set the piece during the 2017 Women’s March. A women’s protest group doing performance art during the march revealed each “Witch” segment. The idea drew inspiration from a real protest organization launched in the ‘60s called W.I.T.C.H. that has recently been revived by a chapter based in Portland, Oregon.
While researching this group for production notes, I came across their online manifesto: “For centuries, the dominant culture has persecuted anyone who dares to be different. The Gentle Healers. The Midwives. The Queers. The Loners. The Wise Elders. The Pagans. The Foreigners. The Wild Women. Those who seek to oppress and suppress us have always called us ‘“Witch”es’ to silence us. Now, we step out of the shadows, embracing this word and all it stands for.” It goes on to say: “A ‘Witch’ is a fearsome creature, inspiring terror and awe, channeling a primal, visceral energy in the name of peace, progress, justice and harmony. A ‘Witch’ is a conduit for transformation. A ‘Witch’ taps into the power within and harnesses the power without in service of a better world.” I really like that last part!
In our production, we learn that the personal lives of our Women’s March protestors sometimes mirror the experiences of our iconic “Witch”es. A single mother who has been the victim of workplace sexual violence tells the story of Margaret Hamilton, a single mother and actress who finally gets her big break in the “Wizard of Oz.” Thinking she would be cast as the Good “Witch,” she soon learns that the men in power in Hollywood have a different idea and that they hold all the cards. For the rest of her life she is powerless to change her image, much like so many other women who have held stardom in Hollywood. And now, with the #MeToo movement we learn just how much abuse women have endured in Hollywood Land. As our actress sings: “What a World, What a World, What a World.”
When our oldest actress finally accepts her status as the wise older “crone” in a symbolic ceremony, she sings beautiful and moving lyrics: “I no longer fear the crone. I will sit upon her throne. I will teach what I have learned. I will honor those who burned. Tell the stories of the past. Make each woman’s story last. Stand up tall and don’t retreat. Or the past we’ll all repeat.”
As a 63-year-old woman, I have lived through a lot of phases of the women’s movement. I joined N.O.W. at 19 and lobbied the Ohio State legislature for what I thought was a no brainer piece of legislation… the Equal Rights Amendment. We encountered a lot of pleasant but patronizing legislators (almost exclusively men) on that lobbying trip, and we also encountered our greatest foe — another group of women, supporters of Phyliss Schlafly, who had come bearing loaves of freshly baked bread. It was an encounter that I would never forget.
Our production of “Witch” gently exposed that fissure that still exists among women today, but it also illuminated a brilliant ray of hope through the voices of the young women. They challenged us to not feed into sexual stereotypes, to move on from being victims and to resist and persist. While we are hoping that all of our “Bold New Works” will be produced by other theaters going forward, it is my greatest hope that the painful subject matter of “Witch” will make this one quickly obsolete. Time to get the broom out. There’s some sweeping to do!
Laura Connors Hull is the founder and producing director of Creative Cauldron.