One might expect the artists at the helm of Theatre Unbound, perhaps the leading women's-theater company in town, to be militant feminists; combat-boot-clad figures cut from Andrea Dworkin and the like. Then again, one might expect the leader of the free world to be reasonably articulate, and that's not true either. For simplicity's sake, I file Theatre Unbound artistic director and actress Stacey Poirier under "third wave feminist"--and that places her left of where she really lies. "I never identify myself as a feminist, but I guess I am," she laughs. A fiery, no-nonsense performer, her impetus for founding Theatre Unbound was less idealistic than it was career-driven. Tired of cattle-call auditions where hundreds of women fought it out for one or two parts (while a handful of men competed for, well, a smaller handful of parts), Poirier was excited about doing work by women playwrights. "Cool!" she remembers thinking, "That means there are going to be lots of women in them."
Theatre Unbound's managing director, artistic associate, and occasional commissioned playwright Anne Bertram is more avowedly feminist. "It puzzles me that feminism has a negative connotation," she says evenly. With longish, mousy brown hair and thick glasses, Bertram is bookish, a sharp contrast to the less formal, hip Poirier. I meet this unlikely pair at Bertram's Longfellow home, a Xanadu of domesticity that she shares with her husband. Bertram directs me to my chair--a great, dusty blue Lay-Z-Boy--and I sink in for our talk. Freshly brewed coffee is served in delicate china cups. I daintily set mine on the tray provided, careful not to let it spill onto the puffy place setting. Padded with crochet and embroidery, this house tempts me to linger all afternoon.
Poirier speaks first and she speaks quickly, flailing her arms, fast to jump to her feet for her next appointment. All the while, Bertram seems a fixture on her living-room sofa. She's purposeful and well spoken as she describes her unusual entrance into professional theater. Unlike the artists she works with day to day, Bertram has no formal theater training. Equipped with an English degree and a dossier of poetry, she used to move in circles with short-story writers and poets until she stumbled on a commission to write her first play. "I never looked back," she says. "The experience of being able to invite other people into creativity as this sort of social act changed my writing forever."
Ten years later Bertram is still an active playwright, with several commissions and Playwrights' Center awards to show for it. She rules a writerly influence over the Theatre Unbound roost, inspiring a commitment to new, dialogue-driven texts. Her most recent venture, Theatre Unbound's Sherry's Basement, premiered at the Playwrights' Center last season.
The company's insatiable appetite for new work spawned its 24-hour Play Project, now an annual fundraiser in its fourth year. The event launches on a late Friday evening when teams of writers are given eight hours to write a new ten-minute play. When that time is up, they convene with directors and actors for three-hour rehearsals, just enough time to pull something together for a Saturday evening audience.
Poirier takes an instinctive approach to theater, while Bertram leans toward intellectualism, which seems to make for a complementary partnership. They've worked together since 1999 when, along with five other women (most of whom have moved on to other work), Theatre Unbound was founded. From the start, the company's formula allowed them to avoid archetypal female characters, most of which Poirier played with abandon before her troupe formed. "There were a lot of misses this and misses that," she quips. Along with Bertram, she lists "catty waitress, boss's fuddy-duddy wife, and comfortable auntie" among the clichéd parts seen on American stages. With Theatre Unbound, however, Poirier gets more opportunities to play complex characters that "are not misses anybody," she says.
The behind-the-scenes characters are mostly women, too. Theatre Unbound's tech staff is a band of handy ladies--prop masters, set designers, electricians, and such. However, with none of their plays to date being set on Amazon Island, male actors are often required.
Theatre Unbound gained recognition with each of its first four seasons, cultivating a decent audience, of which about 30 percent is male (compare that to 40 percent at your average theater). Both Poirier and Bertram get a little peeved when I ask questions about men coming to see their shows. In a world where women spend most of their leisure consuming art by men, they figure it shouldn't make headlines when a few fellows return the favor. "You're going to see an interesting story with strong performances and the best theater craft we can give it," promises Bertram. "Why would you go see any play?" snaps Poirier, a little righteous anger under her collar. "Those are the things you look for in any theater production! Why does it matter if it's written by a woman or about a woman?"
But it will matter for Poirier this season when she gets to play the tough Theresa in Theatre Unbound's season opener Boy Gets Girl by emerging playwright Rebecca Gilman, who enjoyed considerable success with her 1999 work Spinning Into Butter, an exploration of racism and political correctness set on a college campus in Vermont. The "girl" in Boy Gets Girl is Theresa, a hardworking, über-successful writer-journalist. Neither flamboyant nor wanton, she's a self-assured, irresistible thing--Chekhov's Trigorin in a pantsuit. When a friend introduces her to Tony, a seemingly nice guy, Theresa is swept off on two dates before nosing him as a dud. Initially, she avoids being forthright with her disinterest, making ladylike attempts to deflect Tony's advances (yes, gentlemen, that means she uses the old I'm just not ready for a relationship trick, which Tony misconstrues as coyness). The rest is a stalker's frightful tango of incessant phone calling and gift giving, plus unwanted and regular drives by Theresa's apartment.
Bertram's interest in the Boy Gets Girl author was piqued in 1999 when Gilman was commissioned by Chicago's Circle Theatre to write The Crime of the Century, a play about serial murderer Richard Speck (Speck is infamous for killing eight Chicago nursing students in 1966). "She said, 'I don't want to write about this man, I want to write about these women!' and I thought, Right on!" says Bertram. Poirier became a Gilman fan after she read Boy Gets Girl two years ago, after which she made a steady stream of calls to the publisher to secure rights to the play--some stalker-like persistence, after all, is justified.
Poirier and Bertram are on a constant hunt for voices like Gilman's, seeking to unleash work that's contemporary, feminine, and literate, never anything of the politically correct high school gymnasium sort. "One of the greatest things about the company is all of us, mostly women, sitting there in the dark during tech rehearsals watching this incredible play about women," whispers Bertram from her sofa perch. "This incredible feeling just washes over me."