On Parity, Project Y, and Emilia Clarke: An Interview With Michole Biancosino

This Saturday, between a dress rehearsal, a coffee run, and a stress-inducing email chain, I sat down with Michole Biancosino, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Project Y Theatre, to talk about the Fourth Annual Women In Theatre Festival.

“I know. I’ve got a vibe.” Michole says with a wry almost-smile that smacks of self-awareness. For a couple of weeks now, I’ve officially been working as the assistant to Project Y’s Artistic Director on their fourth annual Women in Theatre Festival, but I don’t do much assisting. Most of my time is actually spent doggedly trying to follow Michole around and find something to do that she hasn’t already finished. She’s bold, unapologetic, and wholly sure of herself and her opinions, with a face that makes very clear whether she does or does not agree with what’s going on at any given moment. She’s also personable, hilarious, and essentially without ego, constantly pointing out the contributions of others in lieu of mentioning her own. When I ask her about her commanding presence, the sort of brash, crackling energy that allows her to keep all of these moving parts, well, moving, her response is clear, concise, and confident: “I know. I’ve got a vibe.” And she does.

Together with co-Artistic Director Andrew Smith, Michole founded Project Y in Washington D.C. in 1999, just after graduating college. “I was sick of auditioning for all these plays that I wasn’t actually interested in, so I rented a dingy little theatre in D.C. and decided to put something up. Andrew and I knew each other from college, and he told me he’d help me put up my show if I helped him with his a few months later. When the time came to name our “company” or whatever you want to call it for the program, we decided to use “Project Y” as a placeholder name. Like a play on Gen X or something. The plan was always to change it later. We didn’t think we were actually starting something.” Now, more than 20 years later, Project Y has produced a number of critically-acclaimed, artist-centric shows (including world premiers by people like Charles Mee and Karl Gajdusek), and still has yet to change its name. Most recently, they’ve kept busy producing New York’s annual Women in Theatre festival, which is about to open for its fourth summer this month. So, between a dress rehearsal, a coffee run, and a stress-inducing email chain (her schedule, not mine), I sat down with Michole to talk about what Project Y’s doing these days and why it’s so important.

C: Could you talk a little bit about the genesis of the Women in Theatre Festival? How did all of this come about?

M: Many years ago, I was reading an article where someone had done the numbers about the unsettling lack of women in positions of leadership in American theatre. At that time, I felt pretty distraught about it because I was trying to find my own path in life and looking at the numbers made me feel like there was sort of an unbreakable barrier for women in theatre, let alone the in the greater world. That sort of started the idea that we would start dedicating some of Project Y’s programming specifically to supporting work written by women in order to, in some small way, change those statistics.

The first thing that we did was a reading called “Parity Plays,” [“Parity, not parody,” Michole clarifies for me, clearly not trusting my capacity to know words.] where we included plays written for casts of at least 50% women. Women, like men, write about all sorts of characters, but we also knew that there are already way more opportunities for men on stage. So we brought in plays by playwrights, both men and women, who had a different sort of a gender breakdown in their plays. People were really excited about that, the idea that you would look at the numbers of the people involved and make a make a reading based on that rather than around a particular theme or anything else. So from there we thought about doing a festival of only plays written by women and that had 50% or more women in the cast, which turned out to be a very important move for our company. The Women in Theatre Festival has galvanized our programming over the past four years around something that allows people to write whatever kinds of plays they want. We aren’t dictating the content or the form or the genre but we are making a choice to support work that will provide more rolls, on and offstage, for women.

C: There’s a lot to be proud of in what you’re doing here; what have been some of your favorite things to come out of this?

M: It’s actually been so positive for us as a company because, just through doing plays by women that have 50% or more women in them, our programming has become way more diverse in all sorts of ways that we hadn’t anticipated. For one thing, our audience has diversified, which we started to notice it in the second Women in Theatre Festival. We had people coming in who were not our regular people, from all different sorts of racial backgrounds and different levels of education and we accomplished that just by working with women writers. Part of that, in my opinion, is that many women playwrights are inherently socially conscious, socially minded, and politically knowledgeable. Even the smaller, more private plays in the festival often mean something more profound when you step back to look at the greater social context. Now our audience is made up of the types of people who want to see plays about difficult issues, who are the absolute best people to have in those seats.

The other thing that Women in Theatre has allowed us to do is take more chances on more projects. Because New York is so expensive, we used to fully produce one quote “big play” play every 18 months, but by doing a festival model and scaling down the idea of what the set or the lights need to be, we’re able to support much more work and many more artists each season. We choose to focus on paying writers and seeing new work and not worrying so much about churning out a perfectly-polished product. Many of the artists who’ve collaborated with us have gone on to take their productions all over the country (and even internationally!), so the festival has become a kind launching pad for them. That was one of our goals from the very beginning, to help new female artists move their careers forward.

C: The types of plays coming out of the festival are so diverse as well. Just look at the two “big plays” that Project Y is producing for the festival this year: one is a children’s play that turns classic fairytale conventions on their head and the other is a female retelling of The Three Musketeers, set in 1941. I would imagine that part of the reason that your audience has become so diverse is because the plays that you’re supporting are also very diverse, in everything from form to genre. 

M: I completely agree. We used to center our season around one play or playwright and now it’s become more about accumulating different voices and allowing them to talk to each other.  Which, we realized, is actually really cool! By having these different plays in the same festival, audience members are able to take chances on new plays because of the other works that might be more familiar. The reaction has generally been very positive, and people who see shows with us often come to really connect with a play or playwright that they otherwise might not have discovered. 

C: The national dialogue surrounding these issues seems to have become a lot more mainstream in recent years, especially through social media and the help of advocacy groups like Time’s Up. What progress, if any, have you seen in the industry since Project Y started hosting this festival three years ago?

M: This month, actually, there’s a feature in Vogue Magazine on the playwrights on Broadway right now, and it would have looked completely different even five years ago. Now we’re seeing people of color, trans people, all different sorts of voices, and I think there’s been a lot of momentum in the theatre community to try to support these voices that for so long were left out of the conversation. It’s great!

C: Absolutely. Speaking Emilia Clarke, how did you feel about that Game of Thrones finale?

M: I loved it. There was never going to be a perfect ending to it, you know? I’ve read all the books before, I’m like a die-hard fan. [Editor’s note: It’s unclear if she’s still talking about Game of Thrones or if she’s off-handedly mentioning that she loves the 1988 Bruce Willis film “Die Hard”] I loved it. I thought it was great. 

The fourth annual Women in Theatre Festival will go up from June 5th to June 30th. Interview by Cole Merrell. For more information, visit https://www.witfestival.projectytheatre.org