Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton opened the Women in the World Summit with a production of SEVEN at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway. The high-profile cast included Meryl Streep, Marcia Gay Harden, and Lauren Velez. SEVEN, which has been performed all over the world since 2008, is a collaboration between seven female human rights activists and seven award-winning female playwrights. One of those writers was screenwriting instructor Paula Cizmar who was paired with Marina Pisklakova, a woman who singlehandedly started the anti-domestic violence movement in Russia.
Curious about how such a collaborative and ambitious project came about, I chatted with Paula recently about the challenges of telling someone else’s story and the potential of one person to make change.
Writers’ Program: How did you get involved with SEVEN?
Paula Cizmar: Carol Mack, who is a playwright in New York, had the idea. Carol and I were mentored by the Women’s Project, a production company in New York. Carol became involved in Vital Voices, an NGO that provides support for women who are trying to effect change in their countries. When Carol heard Farida Azizi speak at a Vital Voices meeting, she immediately realized the theatrical potential of telling her story—and thought it would be great to reunite some of us from the Women’s Project. Vital Voices identified women whom they considered to be extraordinary and put them together with us. Some of the women are working to end human trafficking. One of them organized ways to get medical supplies to women who were prohibited from seeing doctors under the Taliban and another set up a school for girls in rural Pakistan where education for females was forbidden. Some of them work against governmental corruption or work to support trade unions or poor people.
WP: Tell us about Marina.
PC: Marina is amazing in that this was not really her field—she MADE it her field. After university, she worked for the Institute for Socioeconomic Studies of the Population. The director of her institute had an idea that they should branch out and do a survey of women, their jobs, and so forth. Some of these women were victims of domestic violence, though they didn’t even have a phrase for it at the time. So she decided to do something about it even though she had no money, no help, and not much knowledge about the issue. In Russia, 14,000 women are killed each year by their spouses, but the police told Marina that it was “a private matter,” operating under the widespread belief that “he beats you because he loves you.” Marina just stayed with it and in the 18 years that she has been doing this work, it has grown. There is now a network of domestic violence crisis centers, hotlines, training centers; the police and judiciary systems have become a part of the training.
WP: What is it like writing someone else’s story?
PC: It’s tremendously difficult to tell someone else’s story and make it dramatic, make it fit together with the other pieces, etc. From the very beginning, we decided that we were not going to fictionalize the stories and that we were going to tell the tales in the women’s own words. As dramatic writers, we’re used to creating characters, dreaming up stories, shaping structure, and massaging the language to create a specific tone, atmosphere, to evoke a feeling. But in this case, we had the women’s own words and nothing more.
WP: Extremely high profile women, including Hillary Rodham Clinton and Diane von Furstenberg have gotten involved in promoting or performing SEVEN. Why do you think it has resonated with so many different women?
PC: The play is about the things women care about—justice, equal opportunity, freedom, nonviolence. It’s always interesting to me to see that so many women are committed to public service, to volunteerism, to making sure that the rights of others are protected. I think women can see the possibility that they could easily be in the same position if circumstances were a tiny bit altered in their lives.
For a list of performances and more information about SEVEN, click here. Katy Flaherty is the interim Program Representative for Creative Writing Onsite and Screenwriting Online Courses. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.