Taking the stage for social justice

| 16 Feb 2016 | 10:43

Gun violence, sex trafficking, rape in war zones, domestic violence and bullying are some of the topics Ashley Marinaccio mentioned when asked to outline the subjects Girl Be Heard has tackled in its ever-growing repertoire.

What makes the nonprofit theater troupe, co-founded by Marinaccio, stand out is that its all-female cast tell their own stories or those of women they’ve interviewed. This brand of theater aspires to evoke a real sense of truth, and audiences respond favorably. Its honesty regarding issues of social justice has even taken the company to the White House and the United Nations.

Their newest show, “Embodi(ED),” which runs until Feb. 21 at HERE Arts Center in SoHo, is based on the realities behind eating disorders. “There’s a lot of personal shame around body issues, eating disorders and relationships with food,” Marinaccio explained. “I think something the show really touches upon is that we’re part of a system that makes a lot of money on keeping women down and making us feel bad about our bodies … and sometimes there’s no way of avoiding it, but this really puts the blame on looking at a much larger system as opposed to an individual.”

Explain how the idea for Girl Be Heard came about.Girl Be Heard came about through the EstroGenius festival which is a festival of women’s voices done at the Manhattan Theatre Source each year. I was hired to direct and write a show for teen girls and once I got the girls in the room, it was clear that they should be empowered to write their own stories. They were all super capable, smart and really great writers and actors. So I put it into their hands to write their own stories about the issues that they cared about and we strung those together into a show and that was the very first “GirlPower” show. And it evolved from there. We create new “GirlPower” shows each year through our weekly Sunday workshop programming where girls, ages 12 to 21, meet to write, perform and discuss social justice issues. We help them weave their work into a cohesive theatrical piece at the end of the season in May.

What’s the audition process like?Auditions are held annually. We get about 1,000 submissions and we’ll see about 50 girls. And we always say that they pick us more than we pick them. It’s very clear if somebody’s a good fit and they want it and they would do well in this kind of atmosphere. It’s not for everyone. We’re helping girls realize that they are artists and don’t need to rely on anybody to give them work because they have stories to tell and they can have a stage and a platform for themselves.

Explain your role at the United Nations.We’re an NGO [non-governmental organization]. Our work at the UN has included presenting and performing at conferences and events in addition to advocating for issues pertaining to women and girls across the world. Other NGOs enjoy working with us because they find theater and art put names and faces on statistics of the issues that the UN is dealing with every day. Additionally, we teach our company members how to be advocates for correcting human rights and social justice issues.

Michelle Obama invited you to perform at the White House.

We were invited to perform our show “Girl Be Heard: Congo” which was made in collaboration with Congolese activists about the race epidemic in the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo]. And it coincided with Michelle Obama’s trip to South Africa to work around access to education. She asked us to come and perform that piece to raise awareness of what’s going on in other countries.

Tell us about some of the stories told in “Embodi(ED).”Some are the stories of the women performers, some are stories based on people in their communities and some are stories based on interviews. There’s a story where one of the women speaks about her life acting and getting parts and feeling like she needs to be skinny and struggling to land roles. And there’s another story about a girl who, growing up, felt that the Cover Girl campaign framed her view of herself and how she thought that that’s what she needed to be. There’s a lot on how family has an impact on how we view ourselves.

I’m sure it’s hard to choose, but what’s one play you did that really affected you?They all do that in a way because they’re all different. One of the shows that really had an impact on me was when we did a tour of our show “Traffic,” which is on sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of children, and we brought it to Dallas. Following the show, we had people lined up, men and women of all ages, saying things like, “I was incested when I was young. I’m a survivor of sexual abuse and I’ve never told anyone and this really inspired me to tell my story and go back into my community and see how I can make a difference for people there who’ve been through this.”

What feedback do you get from male audiences?Men love it. They identify with it. These stories might be coming from young women, but they’re universal in that people identity with them. People come forward and say, “Hey, me too. I’ve struggled with that. That’s been something that’s in my life.” We haven’t had bad feedback from men at all. We’ve haven’t had anything but positive feedback from men of all ages.

To learn more, visit www.girlbeheard.org