Rachel May directed Synchronicity Theatre's first production of Women + War in 2005, as well as the new remount that runs through March 7 at 7 Stages. In a significant way, she's not the same woman who helmed the original.
Since Synchronicity debuted a nearly three-hour version of the ensemble-created work nearly five years ago, May has had three children – a 3-year-old daughter and newborn twin boys – with her husband, ace Atlanta actor Daniel May. Women + War presents kaleidoscopic perspectives on global armed conflicts, ranging from a young soldier who doesn't know when she'll see her infant daughter again, to a Congolese woman who unflinchingly describes being gang-raped and maimed while carrying her infant on her back. Five years and three children later, such vignettes hit May where she lives. "Since I've become a mom, working with anything with characters who are mothers has been different. I can understand them not just intellectually, but from my core."
Arguably, Synchronicity itself is no longer the same company that presented Women + War's's world premiere. Since then, the 12-year-old, female-focused theater company has undergone some typical transitions for a small performing arts group as well as some painful decisions more recently. Not to trivialize the experience of Women + War's subjects, but May has been on the frontlines of the fight to produce new, socially relevant theater in the harshest economic climate of her lifetime.
May founded Synchronicity Performance Group in the late '90s with Hope Mirlis, Julie Oshins and Michele Pearce. "We started because we were young artists and couldn't waltz into any theater company and demand we act and direct. We'd met with other artists and found out very quickly that the four of us were interested in the same kind of work – and we were the ones who kept showing up at the meetings."
By the time Oshins left Atlanta in the early 2000s, Synchronicity had earned a reputation as one of the city's sharpest itinerant theater companies for smart and passionate productions such as Stop Kiss, Be Aggressive and One Flea Spare. The original Women + War clearly represents Synchronicity's mission to tell stories from a female point of view while engaging with the local community. Two dozen women developed the original project, based on interview transcripts with Atlanta-area women. The interviewees ranged from soldiers to peace activists, refugees to an army boot company employee. In 2007, May and actress Courtney Patterson revisited one of the play's subjects in My Name is Rachel Corrie, a one-woman show about the young American activist killed in the Gaza strip.
May acknowledged the original production, at nearly three hours in length, was a little too in love with the interview subjects and their stories. So, she made some painful cuts for the new version. "We knew we had to get it down to six actors and under two hours if we wanted to take it on tour. When we started the process in 2003, we were two years away from Sept. 11. When we opened, we were four years away, so the 9/11 piece didn't feel as immediate, and it doesn't resonate now. We had three Vietnam stories, so we cut one of them." A segment about two Marietta women protesting the Iraq War didn't make the cut either.
The current Women + War feels more timeless compared to the 2005 production, which opened after a summer of Hurricane Katrina, Cindy Sheehan's Iraq protests, and charged criticism of the Bush administration. May emphasizes, however, that "the new one hasn't been de-politicized, because it was never intended to be overtly political in the first place. The Iraq war protesters had their opinions, and Beth Corrie (Rachel Corrie's cousin) has a strong activist voice, but if you put all these women in a room, they'd disagree."
The first Women + War also marked one of May's final productions with Mirlis and Pearce, who have moved on to graduate school and the private sector, respectively. When Synchronicity hired Amy Wratchford as managing director in 2007, May took the title artistic director for the first time. "We switched to a more traditional structure because we wanted to make future succession easier. When we started, we had three people whose titles were based on their strengths, which made job descriptions murkier."
The economic slump forced May to shoulder the burden of some difficult choices. "This year has been very, very hard. I think a lot of theaters thought last year was the worst year, but this year's pretty bad. We decided last fall to cut our final two shows of the season and focus on what we needed to. Next year, we're budgeted for four shows again, instead of six. And I had to lay off two staffers the week before Christmas, [development director] Jenny Clark and [marketing assistant/dramaturg] Kathy Janich. I think we're starting to turn the corner."
Wratchford will depart Atlanta at the beginning of March to rejoin her husband in Richmond, Va., leaving May as Synchronicity's sole full-time employee. She plans to work reduced hours for a "summer vacation" and focus on strengthening the board of directors and finish strategic planning. "I'm in denial until next week, when Amy leaves. Anything that doesn't involve development and planning just can't be dealt with."
May admits she's asked herself whether she should keep Synchronicity going, and says, "I think it's important for people running companies to know why they're doing it. I believe very strongly in what we're doing. It's been hard, and if it was going to stay this hard for a very long time, it would be hard to continue. But I think we have a strong plan for the future. The community support for Women + War and Free to Be is really helping and reinforces what we're trying to do."
And how has May managed all this with a 3-year-old daughter and 4-and-half-month old twin boys? "It's been very exciting," she says, in a dry, deadpan tone of voice that says, maybe a little too exciting.
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