Dig Baton Rouge

Ladies of the Stage

A new female-driven theatre company in Baton Rouge

Michele Johnson, a local community theatre actor, aspired to create opportunities for women in all facets of the theatre industry, not just the usual status quo. This want led her to form Red Magnolia Theatre Company, along with Paula Shreve and Lindsey Short, and co-founders Melissa Venable, Beth Bordelon, and Elizabeth Canfield.

“When I lived in Wilmington, North Carolina, I acted in ‘Steel Magnolias’ there, but the theatre that produced it was an all-female theatre company,” Johnson said. “Female directors, production, costume, really every aspect.”

That experience was the inspiration for Red Magnolia Theatre Company.

“There are so many amazing theater companies in Baton Rouge, but there wasn’t one that was female driven that focused on modern female plays, not necessarily female playwrights, but strong female roles,” said Johnson.

She gathered a group of acquaintances from the theatre industry to get together to read plays. Their comradery was instant, and it morphed into the group deciding to put on a full production.

“Because I’m an actress I knew that I needed to involve people that knew about other elements of theatre,” said Johnson. “I needed people who understood directing and stage managing and producing. It gave me the opportunity to reach out to these different elements of women that I’d met and was willing to collaborate with.”

Ideally, they would like their productions to be female led. However, men are welcome to read for parts and work on the set. There is no sense of exclusivity.   

“Our goal is to give women the opportunity first, but not to exclude men,” said Shreve.

“We’re not against having men participate at all. That is not our goal. The goal is to give women more opportunities.”

Johnson believes many of the plays featuring female roles are inadequate, in part due to scripts often placing women in minor, stereotypical parts. The group hopes to change that narrative by seeking well-rounded plays with developed leading roles for women.

“If you look at plays written in certain time periods, something that may have been written in the 1950s, ‘60s or ‘70s, it is going to typecast women,” said Bordelon. “So we’re looking for something that brings us into the 21st century, and we want modern, strong women stories.”

The company, founded in August 2017, was named Pelagia Productions, St. Pelagia being the Patron Saint of Actresses. It was changed to Red Magnolia Theatre Company in March of 2018. The Red stands for ‘Red Stick,’ a nickname of the city, and the Magnolia is a symbol of stability and grace throughout time, and is also the Louisiana state flower. In creating the theatre, the women would like for it to serve as conduit to keep local talent.    

“Being in Baton Rouge the art scene is limited,” said Canfield. “For us it was really important to create more opportunities for women who love the arts and are passionate about theatre. Whether it’s engineering, set design, costume, lighting—it’s just creating additional opportunities.”

Baton Rouge native Dori Huffty agreed. “As a young artist trying to start out a career in theatre in my hometown, Red Magnolia opened their arms to me,” said Huffty, who received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Theatre from Northwestern State University. “I thought I would have to move out of state in order to have a chance of working in my field. I was working anywhere I could, while I was yearning to paint a set again.”

Their goal is to produce their first play in October during Baton Rouge Women’s week. For more information check out their Facebook page: Red Magnolia Theatre Company.

Photos by Sean Gasser

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