The National Women's Theatre Festival

Ruminations on Occupying the Stage: Who Should Theatre Be a Safe Space For?


Emma is a writer, performer, dramaturg, and theatre artist. Her passion for writing plays extends into a deep love for grotesque performance art, devised theatre, and sexual violence activism. She has a BA in Theatre Studies/Playwriting from the University of Connecticut where she has had multiple workshops, staged readings, and productions of her work. As a professional playwright, she has developed theatre throughout Connecticut, New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. She has experience working with companies such as The Brick, Women\’s Theatre Festival, Deviant Theatre, 59E59 Theatre, Studio 570, Theatre L\’Acadie, Cinnamon Summer Series, Bated Breath Theatre Company, Connecticut Repertory Theatre, Jorgensen Theatre, and Out of Chaos Theatre in the United Kingdom. At the present, she is working on a commissioned production for Studio 570 chronicling the Women\’s Suffrage Movement. She is currently based in Connecticut.

Becoming an artist, particularly a theatre-maker, and even more particularly a writer, without a doubt surrounds the idea of finally being understood or, rather, finally understanding the world which surrounds us. Most of us have found the path of storytelling as a means to an end. A way in which we can make sense of the chaos that ensues in our lives and communities. In many ways, it’s not a path we choose, but one that chooses us. The timeless trope of the outcast with a pen and paper, those tortured drama people with their big gestures and quiet conundrums, though postured and a tad bit meta holds a bit of truth.

I spent more time writing stories than playing with friends, and that continues to hold true as I inch towards thirty. I’m not unique in this. Most artists become caged by their work. Constantly observing. Recklessly abandoning realities for the sake of the purposed-piece trailing in and out of our mind’s eye. The more actual reality as I see it. As we trudge through the world, the world so occupied with the surface, the vanity, and the wonderful logic, we find that we ourselves don’t have a place in its fulcrum. We don’t seem to fit in nor do we possess the desire to. For most of us, it isn’t until we discover theatre that we finally make sense of our passions, curiosities, and concerns toward the world. Suddenly, and yet all at once not so suddenly, we stumble upon a shelter on the stage.

Theatre as a safe space interests me. I feel the statement should be true, and yet, is realistically not. Only recently have we understood the visceral need for intersectionality, visibility, and representation. Only occasionally have we introduced intimacy direction, accountability, and the willingness to have difficult conversations. And though as a collective we have made steps to remedy some injustices, I still see far too much suffering. Occupy the Stage’s manifestation within the National Women’s Theatre Festival remedies societal inflictions in the theatre by its very origins. For the past two years, it has solely supported diverse work and playwrights reflecting the large disparity in the industry’s storytelling. It’s institutions like this that take on a prophetic stance, stay rooted in action, and shed light on our need for growth as a community that innately pave a path towards a more equitable practice. We deserve to occupy spaces that are safe as we practice our theatre and we are responsible for creating theatre that acts as a safe space.

At its roots, performance is protest. Giving voice to the silenced, drawing awareness to subjects often turned away from, holding a humanistic and empathetic design — I almost can see no definable difference between the two. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality we occupy. I’m in quite the predicament as a writer. I deal in words, but don’t believe they’re enough. Thankfully, I write for the theatre. I write for the theatre that deals in action. I marry the two. Sometimes we all get along just fine. Sometimes it’s a fortunate marriage, full of love-making, good coffee, healthy rebellion. Though, most of the time, words and deeds are at each other’s throats fighting for the limelight. I’ll be the first to admit I sometimes write theatre that’s masturbatory, self-indulgent, and without a purpose. I’m an artist, but I’m also a human with an ego. I get caught up in the concept of “legacy” or “love”. I get caught up in my own poetry, that I sometimes forget I have a duty as a theatre-maker. As a playwright, I answer to “performance” and “protest”.

Theatre creating a safe space interests me. I feel the statement should never be true and yet, realistically is. I’m certainly a student of Artaud and Brecht. I’m certainly seduced by confrontational art. And I certainly desire a world full of performance that instigates change. We’re at a pivotal time in American theatre. In America. In the world itself. It appears we have ideas of justice in theory. In theory, we understand humanity. In humanity, we see the complexities. Yet, I question whether we put the theories into practice as frequently as they should be on stage. In our societal climate and cancel culture, we’re quick to produce words, but not as quick to follow through with active measures. We become stuck in statements rather than conversations. We present to audiences a duplicity that stands outside of the truth. Occasionally, we hide behind the curtain because it’s safe to do so.

The National Women’s Theatre Festival and the artists they cultivate collectively create work that surrounds feminist themes, draws awareness to inflictions, and innately creates pointed conversations with audiences about how we best instigate productive change in our world. I hold a deep concern for societal constraints against women’s bodies, rape awareness, and sexual violence activism. As a whole, my work concentrates on creating safe spaces for those oppressed. “That Story Again”, first written for Occupy the Stage in 2020, explores the dichotomy of women and the world’s treatment of them, the displacement of bodies, and ritualistic healing between the objectified self and observer. I was particularly interested in writing a piece that reflected the repetitive nature of oppression and how we seemingly can’t break the cycle. The piece exists in an ensemble of divisive renderings, pieces that pointedly produce change by trouble-making playwrights whom I so admire.

Theatre in the sense of space and community should be vital and open. It should be everything we dreamed it would be since we were tiny children who preferred watching couples argue on park benches and confused on what feeds the world’s violence. It should be that sense of belonging, of consoling, of spiritual, of pleasure, of safe. At the same time, I believe the theatre we create should not be so much so. It should not go down so easy for the sake of creating the change we so wish to see in our spaces themselves. The concept of “theatre” occupies various spaces in our mind, our work, and our society. It acts. It acts as a tool. Sledgehammer. Mirror. Molotov Cocktail. Gesture. Reminder. Reason. Treason. Report. Remedy. Theatre as a space, as safe, interests me. It all raises the question of who it should be a safe space for?

Catch Emma Joy Hill’s work in action during the performances of That Story Again on Thursday, February 17th at 8:50 pm EST and Sunday February 27th at 8:50 pm EST.

By purchasing your ticket to Occupy, you help financially support artists, administrators, and staff, as well as an accessible future of programming for the National Women\’s Theatre Festival.

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