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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

How CreateHer is Bringing Up the New Generation of Theater

While the theater world can be hard to break into, the New York City-based nonprofit CreateHer gives female and gender non-binary high school playwrights and producers the tools to transform their creativity into reality.
Tammy Lam
In rehearsal, playwright Liliana Giselle explains their notes to the actors of their play, ‘Nietzsche Walks Into a Bar.’

The house lights dim as the overture begins to play — the audience waits in quiet anticipation. Then, a lone performer enters the stage and begins the first line, to rapturous applause. The show has begun. Welcome to the world of theater.

The art of theater is known first and foremost as a beacon of creativity. From decorative set designs to expressive actors gracing the stage, the art of performance provides a sense of wonder, magic, and entertainment to millions around the world. 

Whether it’s on the high stage of Broadway or one’s local theater troupe, live productions are a marvel to experience. Yet, theater education, especially for the youth, is often limited to what is more tangible to the eye — acting.

What audiences oftentimes do not see is the work off the stage, such as a headset-wearing stage manager, the complex overseeing of operations from a company manager, or the painstaking months of writing a piece.

So what happens behind the scenes? Who writes the script? Who coordinates the hundreds of people that may be involved in a show?

Under the bright lights of New York City’s theater scene, a unique opportunity emerges for those seeking to harness their creativity, peeling back the curtain into the vastness of the theatrical landscape.

It’s called CreateHer, a free weekend program for young, aspiring playwrights and producers. Specifically, CreateHer aims to break down barriers of a surprisingly male-dominated field by providing a space for women and non-binary young creatives to engage themselves in the theater world — the group of students speak with guest speakers in the industry, attend shows in the city, and take lessons about theater. The playwrights and producers even work together to craft their own short plays which are then performed in a final presentation.

But how exactly did such a program come to be? 

The founders of the program are Shira Wolf, general manager at KGM Theatrical and Hannah Rosenthal, associate producer at production company NETworks Presentations, who collaborated with Danielle DeMatteo from SheNYC Arts, a nonprofit organization that advocates for gender equity in arts and entertainment. To the latter point, CreateHer’s collaboration with the greater community of SheNYC Arts contributes to its mission of giving gender minorities a seat at the table in the theater industry.

While many associate theater on stage as a creative outlet with celebration of gender diversity, the industry off stage paints a different picture. According to a ProductionPro’s report, in 2019, 85% of writers in the 2019 Broadway season were men. While stage and company managers were 47% and 57% female respectively, progress is still needed in these fields.   

“We’ve all absolutely been the only woman in the room,” said Bess Frankel, Head of the Playwriting at CreateHer, “We’ve taken solace not just in each other as friends, but as colleagues, that when you can be in a room that has more gender diversity people are just a little more relaxed and people are a little more calm.… And I think that’s good for creativity.”

Jenna Nieves, a playwright in the most recent cohort at CreateHer, is a ninth grade student at the Marble Hill High School for International Studies and agrees with such a sentiment. “I think it’s a safer space,” said Nieves.

Like many things, however, CreateHer did not start as a fully oiled machine. 

“In retrospect, Hannah and I are like, who gave us the right to create this program? We had never taught a class like [CreateHer]. And not only that, neither of us were playwrights,” said Wolf, Co-Director of CreateHer. “We knew we wanted to do both, a producer track and a playwright track, because both felt important to us…But we had no idea what we were doing.”

Over time, however, the program expanded.

 “We were so thankful for Bess to come in and really help shepherd [the playwriting] part of the program,” Shira continued. 

Bess Frankel is a director and playwright and joined as the Head of Playwriting for CreateHer — along with Hannah and Shira, the program’s walls started to grow.

Today, upon applying, each applicant of CreateHer is faced with two options to embark on: the producer track, typically with four students, and the playwright track, with another four.

The program typically only includes eight students each semester. “It’s a small group, and if you’re going to commit to the program, you have to commit to the program… Because there are only eight sessions, and we want everyone to feel like they are part of this collective,” said Shira. With the tight-knit group, however, the students that make up each ‘cohort’ have a plethora of different backgrounds. From LaGuardia Arts High School in Manhattan to Wethersfield High School in Connecticut, CreateHer opens doors. 

The cohort’s journey begins in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. On the first meeting, each student is invited into a room with eight strangers, a mix of those on the playwright and producer tracks, and five instructors, Shira, Hannah, Bess, Sierra Miliziano — Head of Producer Concentration — and Aydan Cohen — CreateHer Intern.

Soon, however, these unfamiliar faces turn into collaborators. As Bess noted, “It’s really important to us that all of the students are supporting each other equally, that there’s enough room for everyone, for everyone’s risky, weird ideas, and everyone can have their moment.”

The most recent cohort semester had an engaging semester at CreateHer, this type of environment was a highlight of the experience. Najia Sultana, a playwright at CreateHer, is in her sophomore year at Queens High School for the Sciences. “Everyone’s really interested in theater, playwriting, directing, and they’re all welcoming. They’re like, ‘Ask me anything, we’ll give you the support you need,’” said Sultana.

Over the course of eighteen weeks, the producers spend their time delving into the logistics of the theater world such as managing budgets and delving into theater marketing.

Despite the title of ‘producer,’ the producers at CreateHer are introduced to other positions that involve organizational skills. With such an expansive job, the people at CreateHer take the initiative to provide a holistic experience. “[We want to] give the students the opportunity to bear witness,” said Bess. “Bear witness to other fields in theater that they’ve never worked.”

Grace Selvers, on the producer track, and a sophomore at Riverdale High School seconded this sentiment. “This is the first time I’ve ever kind of stepped into the role of a producer rather than an actress…this is very different from anything I’ve ever done before, which has been really nice,” said Selvers.

“My favorite lesson was probably advertising. It wasn’t as much sitting and listening…We were bringing up examples and comparing with the other producers in the room,” said Daphne Evans, a senior from Hendrick Hudson High School and on the producer track.  

CreateHer also tries to develop other general skills applicable in the professional world at large. “I think they really put an emphasis on emailing [professionals], making it less scary to be outward, to not being afraid to put yourself out there and talk to people,” said Eden Adamek,  a junior from LaGuardia High School on the producer track.

Sierra Miliziano, Head of Producing Concentration, talks to the cohort about planning in their second-to-last-session. (Photo Credit: Fiona McLaughlin; used by permission)

The other track is the playwright track. Where students write their own ten-minute short plays, in a culmination of a final presentation. The lessons throughout the sessions include ones on building writing skills, accompanied by reading different plays and discussing them. Other days the lesson is more than just the script.

 “My favorite class that I like teaching is spectacle where we talk about all the other different ways to write a play that isn’t text-based, so we talked about costumes, we talked about puppetry and dance,” said Bess. In this way, CreateHer weaves both writing and stage elements of the curriculum, introducing the greater landscape of theater to their eager students. 

For many in the cohort, the detailed curriculum made an impact. “I’ve always been a writer since I was little, but for some reason, always found being a playwright such a daunting idea,” said Liliana Giselle, a senior at Wethersfield High School and incoming first year student at Sarah Lawrence College, on the playwright track. “I love theater, but CreateHer was very thorough…there was a really good balance of instruction and creative freedom. ”

The wonders of seeing a live show are often unmatched. However, while avid film lovers can pay a minimal fee to see their favorite work on the silver screen, the same cannot be said for theater. 

Last Broadway season, the average ticket for a show on Broadway was more than $128, reaching an all-time high. A combination of factors such as rising production costs and rising celebrity headliners, viewing theater at its most mainstream level isn’t feasible for many. While resources like the Theater Development Fund (TDF) and TodayTix offer more reasonably priced ticket offers, access is still an issue.

CreateHer allows its students to access the rich toolbox of the New York City theater scene through viewings of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows — all for free.

These complimentary tickets open doors for these up-and-coming theatermakers, harnessing access to authentic theater in ways that many of these students may not have had the chance to experience. 

Once, the cohort got to see what went behind the scenes of the Illinoise, a story about love and grief told through the medium of dance and the songs of Sufjan Stevens. Produced by the company of CreateHer Co-Director Hannah, the cohort got an inside look.

“It was just so magical…I got to speak a lot with [the cast and crew] after the show as well and hear about [the] kind of journey it took to get to Broadway, ” said Selvers.

Other shows included Water for Elephants, a whimsical tale filled with acrobatic wonders, and the revival of Orlando, inspired by Virgina Woolf’s novel.

In addition to seeing shows, the cohort often hears from leading women in the industry, ranging from producers to company managers to directors.

This past semester, producers like Anna Mack Pardee shed light on the reality of the job, a vital perspective in the theater industry.

“I loved that lesson so much. It was nice to hear how you can have a creative job in theater without feeling like you can’t survive in terms of money,” said Eden.

Others like director Sammi Cannold inspired the cohort. “I saw a lot of myself in her,” said Wismeiry Pichardo, a senior at Fordham High School for the Arts in the Bronx and incoming class at New York University.

Just as CreateHer fosters an inclusive environment, guest speakers like Faith Porter teach the cohort the vital lessons in diversity, equity, and inclusion. “As a person of color, I’m very passionate about inclusion within the arts,” said Giselle. “I learned a lot [from Faith].”

As the cohort’s sessions end for the year the final presentation of each play brings the program to a close. Instead of their work on a page, this day brings the students together with professional directors and actors in the theater industry to bring the pieces to life in a read-through of the student-written material.

Actors (from left to right) Sydney Skye, Nicholas Leung, Fedly Daniel, Robert Ariza, and Ruby Rakos rehearse for Najia’s play The Right Wrong Room. (Tammy Lam)

This year, the cohort graced the stage of the Connelly Theater in the East Village, a hub for SheNYC Arts productions. 

A vengeful blogger. A spy support group invaded by a stressed office worker. A paranoid, murderous girlfriend lashing out at her unfaithful, (doppelgänger?) partner. A 2010 sapphic speed-dating event in a speakeasy. 

These four plays, all written by CreateHer students, were performed with the direction of female directors Sam Ozeas and Danielle Cohn

In the flurry of the final presentation day, the students and mentors were joined by the bustle of the ten actors and two directors. Binders and coffees in hand, the read-throughs and workshop began.

For the students, dedication to their craft was clear, with energy and excitement in the air.

“I feel like [CreateHer] is the most real thing I’ve done as a teenager. Today, it’s so crazy, the fact that we’re putting on the show — we’re doing stage readings of our shows with actual New York City-based actors and directors,” said Giselle.

“It’s surreal to see everything come to life,” said producer Fiona McLaughlin ’25, a current junior at Bronx Science.

Playwright Jenna Nieves and producer Fiona McLaughlin introduce their play, My Perfect Stranger. (Tammy Lam)

Presentation day gives tools to the cohort for a first-hand professional experience, enlightening their interests while expanding their knowledge about the interworking of rehearsal in theater.

“I see myself as both a writer and a director. So, being able to just be [here] in this space, seeing and observing how the director reacts, talks to the actors, what kind of questions she asks — that really helped me. That was kind of like a mini-lesson,” said Wismeiry.

Nonetheless, perfect coordination for such an elaborate day is an impossible feat. “We really want to make best efforts to fulfill their dreams of specific gender identity, specific race, specific looks,” said Shira. The diversity of the students and the stories they want to tell are a highlight of CreateHer. Yet, with such a wide range of types of people, this goal cannot always be actualized. 

“Sometimes, ultimately, we can’t find someone that fits a specific character description,” continued Wolf. “When that happens, we really do our best to reach out to the playwright and explain the situation, and make sure that they are comfortable with who we are able to find as the play is written.” 

Aside from these casting qualms, the result still carries the magic of the stories themselves. “The casting on the day ends up being such a meaningful experience for the students. Not only are [the actors] really talented, but they are really excited to be there with high school students to realize their vision,” said Frankel.

CreateHer at its core is a mission to inspire young producers and playwrights, and on the final day, it is the students who make it special and full of life. 

During the performances, I saw the passion in such works as they became fully actualized. Unlike rehearsal, the audience became another character in their story, playing along and reacting to every line with energy. 

Some moments sparked rapturous laughter like, “How’d the recession treat you?” from Nietzsche Walks Into a Bar.

Actors (from left to right) Gabi Nail, Marth Brown, and Sadie Lee perform Liliana’s play Nietzsche Walks Into A Bar. (Tammy Lam)

Other lines intrigued in unexpected, comedic ways, such as  — “I know about the doppelgänger…” from My Perfect Stranger and “Bad news for his wife and kids that they couldn’t make a getaway,” from Adeam.

On this day, with the reaction of the audience and energy of the actors, the weeks of lessons and preparation became something tangible. Words on the paper became a reality. “I feel very aware that people’s lives change hearing your work aloud for the first time,” said Frankel. “Suddenly you went from being someone with some ideas [saying] ‘maybe I’m a little shy, but I think there’s some creativity inside me somewhere,’ to ‘now I’m a playwright.’” 

While the flame that carried the CreateHer students to apply and stick with such a program propelled them to the final day, the impact of the presentation struck a chord.

“I think it’s just seeing that awe and that excitement at that first rehearsal read-through and the pride that they have at the end of the night. It’s why we keep doing it,” added Wolf.

The mission of CreateHer is multifaceted, both empowering the students within its community and promoting inclusive environments while giving them the tools to navigate theater in college and in the workforce. 

CreateHer nourishes the new generation of theater makers through these opportunities, carving technical and creative skills alongside personal relationships. “The CreateHer family doesn’t end just because the semester is ending,” said Wolf. “The CreateHer family is always there for you, and people really take it to heart.

As Bess Frankel, the Head of Playwriting for CreateHer, noted, “It’s really important to us that all of the students are supporting each other equally, that there’s enough room for everyone, for everyone’s risky, weird ideas, and everyone can have their moment.”

About the Contributor
Tammy Lam, Staff Reporter
Tammy Lam is an Arts & Entertainment Editor for ‘The Science Survey.’ She believes that journalistic writing is important for enabling truths that reach audiences, so a diversity of voices in society can be heard. She finds journalism photography to be an immersive vector to capture the complexities of the real world while exploring emotional depths that go beyond words in an article. Tammy’s favorite hobbies outside of school include drawing, listening to indie music, browsing bookstores, and watching horror movies. In the future, she sees herself pursuing careers in the humanities with the hope of finding a greater understanding of the world at large.