The arts are known as liberal and inclusive, with some even calling it a safe haven for the marginalized. Despite this, leadership roles amongst the arts are overwhelmingly male. The Guardian reports that of the 10 biggest theatre companies in England, the boards had an average of 33% female-identified individuals present. That’s alarmingly low.
Emily Messana, Missy Hamblet, and Sophia Rizzuto, however, actually did something about this kind of statistic. As mere sophomores, these 19 year old students at The New School for Drama founded their own company, the No Man’s Land Theatre Company Inc. No Man’s Land aims to, “challenge societal gender norms and to create work by and for marginalized artists.” Those artists are entirely female-identified, non-binary, and genderqueer.
With only a month to go until their breakthrough performance, William Shakespeare’s “Othello,” the cast and crew has received an overwhelming amount of support from their community. An initial Kickstarter campaign for the production raised hundreds of dollars more than intended, and they’ll now be performing a three-night, free of charge, weekend show at the Alchemical Studios. As such, ticket reservations sold out in a matter of hours. When this interview was first conducted, the Facebook page for the production had just hit the 700 mark for those interested, but it has now reached well over 1,200.
HC: Why “Othello”?
Emily Messana: We came up with wanting to do “Othello” and were gonna do it through The New School, but there were a few complications with that, so we thought, “Let’s just make a theatre company of our own!”
Sophia Rizzuto: We wanted to do Shakespeare with all women, it was an appealing concept to the three of us, especially because women- particularly at this school- get cast way less than men do. With “Othello” though, aside from making it queer, one issue we wanted to explore was racism between women, especially between black and white women, and it’s not something that’s often seen on stage even though it’s so pressing in society.
HC: What does it take to start the company?
EM: Lots of dedication, time, research, and headaches. Our first question was, “How do we form a theatre company and how do we get it to a point where it can run while we get our degrees?” We looked into non-profit status, but that didn’t really work for us, so we found not-for-profit and that ended up matching what we wanted for No Man’s Land a lot more.
HC: Why do you think so many people believe in this project? Just this morning, you even added a third production due to your overwhelming amount of support.
Missy Hamblet: There’s generally a very liberal attitude in the arts, but very few companies have sat down and wanted to make women, non-binary, and genderqueer people a priority. We’ve already heard support from people outside The New School who have never heard of a space for non-binary artists, and they’re thrilled to have found us.
SR: Theatre is such a community, and it’s really highlighted coming from our peers who share our work with people who don’t go to The New School. They want to celebrate work and the stories, and it comes from all kinds of people, and that’s the most overwhelming thing. Just the fact that straight white men support this company as well, gives me hope.
HC: Your support has really translated monetarily, especially after launching a Kickstarter campaign that raised a lot more money than originally intended. What does that support allow you to continue doing?
SR: The support has been amazing, which pushed us to fight to do a third show for sure. We want to help people produce work that they want to workshop, or connect them to actors, directors, spaces, rehearsals; we want to say to them, “We will help you.” It’s not just us forming a season, we want you to help us form this season.
EM: We want to become a producing hub, and we’re gaining the resources to make this realized. The three of us can’t speak for all the groups we represent, but we can seek the people who can.
MH: Far too often, companies say they feature voices of marginalized groups but they don’t have a board that represents that at all. What we can do in our position of power and privilege, is listen and provide a platform and space for other people to do their work.
HC: How do you infuse that inclusive mission into the production of “Othello” as a show?
EM: The characters are women, and they’re in relationships with other women or people who don’t identify with a particular gender. The relationships that Shakespeare built between men and women are not at all in line in our production. Every actress was asked to explore the sexuality and gender of their character in line with the playwright’s text. Someone might decide they aren’t female identifying, but then the question is how does their identification build off of someone else’s and establish those bonds.
HC: What have been some of the greatest moments, or points of challenge, for you as young leaders?
EM: We’re trying to differentiate between this being a New School production and a No Man’s Land one, and we want to enunciate that difference and expect it from our cast.
SR: The whole thing has been a learning process, we’re formulating as we go since it’s our first production, especially since the company formed right before we began rehearsal. It makes me very happy because the people we’re working with have been so gracious in opening their minds, giving us their time, and developing this show. We’ve reached so many people, I mean the last time I checked there were over 700 people interested on the “Othello” Facebook page, which shows that this really is something people are excited about.
MH: A huge part of it has been trust between the three of us, and with the people we work with. Most of what we’ve done has been a matter of looking at each other and saying, “Should we do it?” And we fill out the paperwork and mail it off and put deposits down, and having that trust to push off has really been huge.
HC: Tell me about your name, “No Man’s Land.” How did you arrive at the name, is there room for male-identifying people, and how does the work of a male playwright play into it?
EM: The name came about because the theater industry is mostly male. There’s a company in London also doing an all-female “Othello,” but the artistic director is a man. There seems to be a lack of trust for the women in that company, and we’re in this position where we can produce a show that doesn’t need a man to oversee us. So from the board’s standpoint, it will remain all-female, genderqueer, and non-binary.
SR: We want to create a safe space, and our way to do that now is to not have men on the board. We’re building a community of trust, feeling safe, and giving artists the ability to explore their work.
MH: We’re still only beginning to explore what it means to have a room full of women and non-binary identifying people, because it’s rare. We communicate it to our creative team and our actors as much as possible that it is a remarkable situation, and the energy feels different, it feels right. This is a new energy.
HC: Finally, what is the relationship between No Man’s Land and The New School?
SR: We’ve had an overwhelming amount of support from our professors, with many of them showing heavy interest in seeing the show and supporting the company. One of my professors who I mentioned the company to said she’d heard of it and that it was going around amongst the faculty. I’ve gotten nothing but support and congratulations. Although, this company did spark because the way in which work is produced here didn’t work for us, and we didn’t feel supported or challenged; we just didn’t want to produce this kind of work here.
EM: The New School is part of our roots, and we’re learning from people who teach here and experience New York City through The New School’s lens. In class we’re encouraged to think about the now and how do we make art that connects to how we’re living outside these walls. That support has resonated into our company, and it wouldn’t be possible without this school. Just the fact that the three of us met because we all attend The New School is the reason why this company exists.
To donate funds to support No Man’s Land’s production of “Othello,” visit their Kickstarter page. To keep up with future events or learn more about the company, check out their Facebook and Instagram accounts.
[Feature Image by Cearah Peck, secondary images courtesy of No Man’s Land and Cearah Peck]