Woman Around Town: Melanie Moyer Williams—
Addressing Social Issues Through Theater

Melanie Moyer Williams, Executive Artistic Director of the philanthropic Red Fern Theatre Company, believes that theater can change the world. Through its productions and outreach, the RFTC provokes social awareness and social change, producing plays that address social issues that range in scope from local to global. They pair each of their productions with a philanthropy whose work relates to the social themes of the play and a portion of the ticket sales from each play is donated to the designated philanthropy. For their upcoming production, the World Premiere of We in Silence Hear a Whisper, the RFTC has chosen to partner with the Save Darfur Coalition.

Melanie told us about her inspirations, her intentions, and her theater plans.

Tell us about Red Fern Theater Company.

The Red Fern Theatre Company has been a labor of love for the past 5 ½ years. It started with a production of only 4 artists, and our winter show last year was the collaboration of over 50 extremely diverse, talented artists. We produce issue based plays and partner them with other organizations in the city whose mission addresses the issues in the play. It has been a way to link socially conscious theater with a tangible way to create change in our community. We not only give light to a problem; we bridge that gap between education and action. We celebrated our Fifth Anniversary Season last year and are growing tremendously. I am really excited to be collaborating with Ken Hall, our new Managing Director as well producing more world premieres of some of the most exciting and established and up and coming playwrights in NYC.

How did you come to the world of social justice theater?

I graduated from Duke University which has a program for freshmen called FOCUS that allows first semester students to focus their classes in one area. I was a part of Arts in Contemporary Society, which explored political theater. I saw how many ways theater could create change and the seed was planted. I was also an international relations/human rights violation major along with my theater major. Red Fern marries those two passions of mine and along the way we make a difference one person at a time.

Who are your role models as writers? As directors? As actors?

I have a very unconventional answer to this question. My role models are those people we bring to life in our plays. Many of the plays we have produced have been based on true stories. These stories inspire me to produce and direct the work we do. We often give voice to those who would not ordinarily have one, and meeting these people in person and watching them see their stories on the stage provides the most inspirational role model I can imagine.

What are you hoping from your audiences?

At the very least, first and foremost – a realization that the conflict in DARFUR has not gotten any better. It’s just been replaced in the media by other current issues and unfortunately largely forgotten. It is a beautiful, tragic story seen through the eyes of an innocent child. I hope they see how one young girl whose curiosity and propensity for living is much like any other young girl; however, she is literally hunted simply because of the tribe to which she belongs. I hope it enrages them to contact their representatives but also to pay attention to similar conflicts happening all around the world. We can’t just turn a blind eye or things will never improve.

How did you choose the DARFUR production?

Since visiting Africa 5 years ago, I had been looking for a play dealing with the people there and about Darfur in particular given how forgotten the genocide had become. I had directed multiple plays about the Holocaust and could not help but realize that history was repeating itself. I loved We in Silence Hear a Whisper because of its subject matter, but also because of its beautiful story telling. The play incorporates the use of puppetry, which I have used before and was excited to find a play that utilized this again.

What was the path that led you to theater?

I came to NYC as a performer and while I haven’t given up that “side of the table,” since starting the company, directing and producing has been my focus. My mom initially brought me to the theater (I accompanied her to an audition for the community production of Oliver as a kid). I went to Duke University as an actor and initially when I moved to NYC I made a living as an actor. While at Duke I saw the power of political theater and found a passion for directing with two of my professors. I also had the opportunity to work on two Broadway Previews at Duke – one as an actor and one as a company manager. When I started the company, I found I could produce what I wanted and choose my collaborators. We aren’t making a ton of money (if any) indie theater so we better love what we do and the people with whom we work. Having my own company ensured this. I’ve been really proud of our work to date and look forward to an exciting future.

What are your future plans?

If you had asked me this question a year ago, I would have said to find and own our own theater space. Now that we have found such an amazing partner with the 14th Street Y, my next goal is to be able to pay our artists a living wage. We have some amazing scripts in the works and we just keep raising the bar. We have gotten this far and survived for five years in a volatile economy by taking one step at a time. We’ll continue to grow in the same manner!

We in Silence Hear a Whisper
The Red Fern Theatre Company
14th Street Y, 344 East 14 Street
Written by Jon Kern (member of Ma-Yi Writers Lab, Civilians R&D Group & Ars Nova Play Group)
Directed by Melanie Moyer Williams (Founder/Executive Artistic Director of Red Fern)
The play runs through October 23, 2011
For more information, visit the Red Fern Theatre website.

Photo of We in Silence Hear a Prayer:
(L-R): Matthew Park, Keona Welch, Parker Leventer