Before a career in journalism took her to the heights of becoming a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Kimberly A.C. Wilson was the child of two “serious readers,” getting out of her childhood chores by tucking herself away with a book. During her time in Seattle, working at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, she knew of Hedgebrook as a place women writers could go to remove themselves from the distractions of the world and focus on their writing. It was a seemingly magical place that she was happy existed in the world, but not something she was quite ready for at the time.
In March 2021, the right time came, as Wilson joined Hedgebrook as its new executive director. In doing so, she joined a cohort of women leading Seattle arts organizations and creating spaces for writers to find, hone and grow their unique voices. For Hedgebrook and Seattle’s Macha Theatre Works, that effort means explicitly creating space to uplift the work of women. Meanwhile Seattle Arts & Lectures’ new leader is looking to create a space where everyone feels truly welcome enjoying the literary arts. Central to all of these organizations is providing alternatives around barriers of entry that face the literary industry, and do so despite the difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many of them, this is the first time they’ve left their home to go somewhere,” Wilson said of writers journeying to Hedgebrook. “This is the first time theirs haven’t been the hands preparing the meals or taking care of other people or doing the dishes, doing the laundry, whatever it is that is required to take care of a family or loved ones. They come to Hedgebrook and their hands — they’re not idle, but they’re able to be doing whatever they want to do.”
Hedgebrook was formed by philanthropist Nancy Skinner Nordhoff, who had bought a working farm on Whidbey Island in the mid-1980s. While Nordhoff had intended to make the farm her home, she saw its potential to welcome women to experience both the solitude the location provided and the community of other women writers. Since welcoming its first writers in 1988, Hedgebrook has seen over 2,000 writers — playwrights, nonfiction writers, screenwriters, poets and more — come through its cottages. Since its creation, other women-centric writing retreats like Storyknife Writers Retreat in Homer, Alaska, have been developed to provide the chance for writers to separate their work from the responsibilities of the outside world.
With the pandemic forcing Hedgebrook’s closure, and subsequent reduced-capacity reopening in 2021, Wilson said their work, and the community Hedgebrook is able to provide, are even more intensely necessary, even if they have to manifest a bit differently. An antique farmhouse table where writers would gather at Hedgebrook hasn’t seen the same use, but virtual programming has seen around 1,700 writers participating in Hedgebrook offerings online. These relationships, Wilson said, grow into friendships and writing groups that can last for decades.
“Having a space like this is a blessing that writers always dream of,” said Wilson. “But women-identified writers? This was the first, and for a long time the only, writing retreat that was created just for them so they could feel safe and supported and that we could pour hospitality on them and let them flourish.”
Wilson pointed to Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” saying that creating a space for writers who identify as women and whose voices struggle to be heard is a persistent and necessary need.
“The challenges that women-identified writers can face even to get into the pipeline to find the resources they need, to find empathetic, well-informed graphics folks or editors or agents,” Wilson said, “those things continue to be challenges.”
Adjusting to a changing landscape
At Seattle Arts & Lectures, executive director Rebecca Hoogs said they’ve been working to diversify the work seen in their programming by committing to featuring 50% women-identifying, trans or nonbinary people as well as 50% people of color on their stages. The response, Hoogs said, has been “entirely, 100% positive,” with SAL seeing an increase in overall audience attendance and attendees of color.
“Culture’s always changing, the literary world’s always changing, the world of books and authors is always changing, our community needs are always changing,” said Hoogs. “Part of what is most fun about the work is tracking that and figuring out how to constantly shift and evolve our programming to meet that.”
Like Hedgebrook, SAL’s first season was in 1988. Since then, SAL has seen only one male executive director in its 34-year history, culminating in Hoogs stepping into the leadership role in October. Hoogs, who has been with SAL in various roles since 2004, said the organization is constantly in the process of reinventing and rethinking itself. Though SAL has a staff and board of almost entirely women (two male board members remain the exception), Hoogs sees this as more a result of society often seeing creative writing as something for women than intentional design. Hoogs, who has taught creative writing as part of the University of Washington’s study abroad program, noted that she could have a class of 25, with 21 of them being women.
“I want more people, all people, to feel like creative writing, poetry, literature are for them,” said Hoogs.
This desire means SAL dedicates time to discussing how they can make their programming accessible to everyone. SAL’s Writers in the Schools program embeds writers in public schools to empower young people and encourage them to feel like creative writing is, in fact, for them. One of the first WITS writers, Lauri Conner, now sits as SAL’s board president, a position that, alongside being named Lake Washington Girls Middle School’s head of school in July, feels full circle for her.
Having known and followed SAL since the WITS program began in the early 1990s and joining the SAL board six years ago, Conner said she saw a company that wasn’t needing to make reactionary moves when arts organizations were being pushed for better diversity over the last couple of years. As SAL was growing, Conner saw it making a concerted effort to add voices like hers and other Black voices to its ranks in an effort to diversify the perspectives around the table.
“It’s an institution that has always talked about equity and has always tried to make sure that — for lack of a better term — representation was happening and happening in a real way, not just for the sake of representation,” said Conner. “And I looked at them and I go, ‘I can’t write a fat check.’ And they said, ‘We don’t care.’ They were more interested in the perspective.”
Still, both Hoogs and Conner acknowledged that SAL still has work to do and diversifying is an ongoing process.
Finding a niche
A combination of interest in unique perspectives and the kind of artistic freedom that Hedgebrook provides has found playwright Maggie Lee at home at Seattle’s Macha Theatre Works. With Macha, a “fearless female nonprofit arts organization” where Lee is resident playwright, Lee said she was able to find a place where she could be herself.
“I’m very fantastical and I do a lot of world building,” Lee explained. “I do a lot of science fiction. I often felt like, when I was coming up, growing as a playwright, it was really hard to find a place for that. If you’re a woman, they’re like, ‘You’ve got to write about the women’s issues or else you’re not really helping.’ And I’m like, ‘I just want to write my stories. That’s my voice.’”
Being a science fiction writer, Lee said she was surprised when she had a chance to attend Hedgebrook. But being able to be herself and be nourished in an environment that includes alumnae like Booker Prize-winner Bernardine Evaristo, journalist and activist Gloria Steinem, Pulitzer finalist Dael Orlandersmith and best-selling author Ijeoma Oluo boosted her confidence.
“Having that is such a strange experience in this artistic world where you’re trying to scrabble out your little niche and you’re trying to fit yourself into, ‘Oh, what are they going to want this season,’” said Lee. “To have somebody be like, ‘No, you know what? We’re interested in you, whoever this is, so just be yourself’ — that was great.”
That desire from Lee also aligned with what producing artistic director Amy Poisson was hearing in meetings with other Seattle theater leaders: that women of color wanted to have their voices heard, and heard in the way they wanted them to be heard. So Macha launched “17 Minute Stories,” offering artists complete latitude in their work rather than having them try to fit their work into an organization’s idea of what a show should be or what show would work best in a season.
Poisson, who took over Macha in 2017, changing the name from Macha Monkey Productions to a name that references a Celtic goddess of war, said that the last two years of working through the pandemic has solidified even more what the company stands for. For Poisson, a key part of feminism is making room for who people are and not pigeonholing them.
“It affects the audience,” Lee said, “when you’re watching art made by people who want to be there and who feel like they’re valued, and the audience knows it.”
Recovering from pandemic
The challenge now facing all of these nonprofits is their attempted recovery from the pandemic.
Hedgebrook, which houses its writers and provides them with chef-cooked meals, was able to get loans last year, but Wilson said she knows that the same money isn’t coming this year and they’re still working on restoring fundraising to pre-pandemic levels.
SAL is now looking at ticket revenue that is half of what it was two years ago, in part because of a decision to increase accessibility by reducing ticket prices, which had been in the works before the pandemic began. Hoogs said it’s now in a period of deep thinking about what their business model could and should look like post-pandemic.
While both of those organizations were operating with around $2 million in expenses before the pandemic began, Macha’s budget sits around $112,000, stuck in a “fringe world,” as Poisson put it, as larger checks head to male-led theaters in the area.
“It’s really hard for us to compete for the dollars,” Poisson said. “As much as I don’t want to worry about that, I really would like us to grow.”
While being small had made it easier for her company to pivot during the pandemic, Poisson is still left hoping the company can hold on long enough to become a theater where they can afford, say, more than one person on an Actors’ Equity Association contract per year. Even reaching a budget of half a million dollars, she said, would allow them to remain nimble while also paying people better. Still, more than simply looking to succeed financially, their goal is to give women the opportunity to do their own art their own way.
“I keep saying, someday we’re going to be obsolete because there’ll be so much female theater that we won’t have to be a female theater,” Poisson said. “That day has yet to come.”