In 2009, Kristen van Ginhoven, a longtime actor and theater educator, was reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and human rights advocates Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. “I put down the book, and the idea just came to me,” van Ginhoven recalls. “I thought, I have to use what I do to benefit women and girls—theater as philanthropy.”
In 2010, she launched the nonprofit WAM Theatre in the Berkshires with a two-fold mission: to create theatrical events for wide-ranging audiences that focus on women theater artists and the stories of women and girls, and to donate a portion of the proceeds from those events to organizations that benefit women and girls. The proposition seemed, well, risky. “In theory, one would think it would be very hard to operate a theater on a philanthropic model, because nonprofits have to be careful to meet their budgets to begin with,” Kristen explains. “To then say, ‘We also have to donate some of the money we make’ . . . A lot of people couldn’t see it working.”
In practice, however, the concept has been embraced by the Berkshire community, and the buzz is building. Kristen says, “People come to our shows because they’re doing two things with their dollar: they’re helping theater artists and a philanthropic cause.” Now in its sixth year, WAM has donated more than $15,000 to seven beneficiaries, and with ticket sales on the rise, this promises to be the company’s most successful year yet. Part of the proceeds of their fall mainstage production, Catherine Trieschmann’s Holy Laughter, a comedy about the struggle to build community, will benefit Hands in Outreach and Sisters for Peace, two Berkshire-based organizations that are helping to fund girls’ education and post-earthquake rebuilding efforts in Nepal.
Besides its model of giving back, WAM Theatre works so brilliantly because of enthusiastic buy-in from professional actors, directors, playwrights, and crew members, who are thrilled to be making a difference just by practicing their craft. The company has even amassed a loyal group of celebrity participants, including Jayne Atkinson and Michel Gill of House of Cards, Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under, Jane Kaczmarek of Malcolm in the Middle; playwrights Ellen Kaplan and Susan Dworkin; and Tony-nominated actress Marin Mazzie.
WAM has also brought in a variety of theater and film artists for outreach programs, such as a writing intensive with In Darfur playwright Winter Miller and panel discussions on topics like effecting global change through the arts. Even Nick Kristof, whose book inspired Kristen to create WAM Theatre, is a fan. “He is so complementary about what we’re doing,” she says. “Half the Sky is really talking about solutions, and he loves that our model results in solutions. He has mentioned us in a speech. He’s helped to spread the word. He even donated a voice mail to the auction of our latest benefit. To have his stamp of approval is priceless.”
This year, WAM is expanding into education with a program called Girls Ensemble, in which young women ages 14 to 19 will create, with the help of professional mentors, their own original theater piece, with an emphasis on themes and perspectives that are relevant to them. Students from 10 local high schools have been invited to participate—at no cost, thanks to donations and grants from a variety of local and regional foundations. After nearly three months of workshopping, the finished play will be presented, with high production values, on December 11 at Barrington Stage, one of the best-regarded theater venues in the Berkshires.
It’s just one more highlight in a season full of high points, including moving into WAM’s first dedicated office space in Lenox, Massachusetts, formalizing a new program for dedicated volunteers, a staged reading of Lauren Gunderson’s Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight (one of Kristen’s favorite plays and a huge success for the company when it first ran the show in 2013), and a sold-out summer benefit at Hilltop Orchards.
But most of all, Kristen is looking forward to the moment when she passes the donation checks to Hands in Outreach and Sisters for Peace, and to the dozens of beneficiaries who will no doubt follow in future seasons. “This is why we exist,” she notes. “We want to make a difference in areas of oppression for women and girls. . . . I used to be afraid no one would come to the shows, but now I know we’ll always have an audience. People believe in what we’re doing.”