It is Womens Work

by Lisa Mulcahy
Tara Mallen of Chicago’s Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
Tara Mallen of Chicago’s Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

Chicago’s Rivendell Theatre Ensemble produces brave work bringing feminist ideals to the forefront

In today’s socially awakening America, women’s voices are ringing out regarding issues of equality, the fight against sexual harassment, and feminist pride. Although many women are newly empowered by the courage it takes to speak their truth, Tara Mallen of Chicago’s Rivendell Theatre Ensemble has been fighting this good fight, and expressing her commitment artistically, as the company’s artistic director/producer since 1994.

Rivendell’s many award-winning productions delve deeply into the everyday challenges and perspectives of female protagonists. It has also become a haven for new writers, pouring its energy and resources into new play development. Rivendell’s acclaimed premieres have been numerous in their 24 year history from Anne McGravie’s Wrens to most recently Jennifer Blackmer’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. The stirring production received excellent reviews, and spurred intense social examination and conversation among its audiences.

SD recently spoke with Mallen about her company’s mission and trajectory and how Rivendell is contributing to our current feminist tide and national conversation. She has produced, directed, and/or acted in over 30 productions at Rivendell. The company itself was founded when Mallen met Karen Kessler, who subsequently would become Rivendell’s director and co-founder. Mallen and Kessler soon made a name for Rivendell with the 1996 world premiere of McGravie’s WRENS, a semi-autobiographical examination of loyalty, morality and duty during World War II centered on a group of young Women’s Royal Navy Servicewomen that delved into the complex emotions of the women when confronted with the bittersweet prospect of peace at last and the impending loss of their newfound wartime independence. The play was very well-received, earning three Joseph Jefferson awards. “In Chicago, people really applaud and support you, and push you to have your own voice,” Mallen notes. “Rivendell was serving a need in the Chicago theater community, and I still think we are doing so today. That’s how we’ve managed to hang on for so many years.”
Wrens produced at Rivendell

A Cultural Exchange
From the start, Rivendell’s mission has been summed up by its tagline, “It’s Women’s Work.” One of the company’s most significant and successful shows, 2014’s Women at War, exemplifies this ideal, and expands upon it by bringing an important message to as many audience members as possible. Mallen co-conceived and directed Women at War as a theatrical exploration of women in today’s military. “I have this deeply-held belief that stories can change our culture,” she says. “Women at War is a perfect example of this—the entire experience was like a Ph. D course for me. This play reminded me why I want to make theater that is activist-based on conversation, that gives an opportunity to voices that otherwise would be silenced.” The play began life when Mallen read a book called The Lonely Soldier by Helen Benedict, which was then developed into a play. “This was during a time where there was huge debate as to whether women should serve on the front lines—but women already were serving on the front lines with their male colleagues,” she remembers. “And while male veterans were applauded when they returned home, female veterans were ignored. This was so detrimental to their lives and psyches.”

Mallen threw herself into the task of understanding these female veterans’ plights. “I got involved with veterans’ social service organizations, meeting female veterans and hearing their stories,” she says. “We got a $50,000 grant, developed partnerships with organizations like the Department of Veterans Affairs, and I started working on the play, interviewing female veterans.”

Women at War became a box office sellout when it opened at Rivendell’s black box space, and received huge critical acclaim. The next logical step, to maximize the play’s impact, was to tour it to serve audiences of military veterans and their families. “We’ve done Women at War in big, beautiful theaters, and we’ve done it in small restaurants—even in rooms with stripper poles,” Mallen says. “We’ve done it for veterans, but also, we’ve done it for civilians—without including both sides, there can be no conversation.”

Supporting Social Change
Speaking of crucial societal conversation, Mallen sees Rivendell’s role as part of the current women’s movement, and fight for social justice, as one of focused and unwavering support. Understanding the idea that equality is really a human issue, and that men must be feminist as well, helps bring awareness. “As a feminist, and in the work we do at Rivendell, there’s no delineation between being a male or a female,” Mallen stresses. “When I was growing up on my family’s farm, we all had to bale hay, male or female—there was real parity. We’re all up against these problems in our culture. Over the last couple of years, I’ve really challenged the group of phenomenal artists I work with, who teach me every day, to build projects for the betterment of all. I believe this can be a catalyst for vital conversation, if I can use my theater to do this.”