THE BLOG
05/31/2013 09:30 am ET Updated May 31, 2013

Infinite Variety Productions: Shedding Light on Untold Women's Stories

Infinite Variety Productions (IVP) (infinitevarietynyc.com) is a female-focused, not-for-profit theater company whose mission is to

produce plays that bring to life pivotal moments in women's history, offer strong roles to a diverse, New York community of female actors and shed light on some women's stories that have not been told.

One such story is IVP's production of Eclipsed by Patricia Burke-Brogan based on Brogan's experience as a novice nun in one of the Magdalene Laundries in the 1960s. Eclipsed has been performed by several theater companies in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States and has won numerous awards.

Despite all of the material available about the Magdalene Laundries--including the 1997 documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate, the 2002 film, The Magdalene Sisters, books, poetry and songs by famous artists such as Sinéad O'Connor who spent time in a Magdalene asylum as a teen--it is still a relatively unknown subject.

Beginning in the 18th century in England, The Magdalene asylums were institutions for young girls in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Canada and the United States (an institution in Philadelphia was founded by an Episcopalian bishop). The first institution run by the Catholic Church was founded in Cork in 1809. What began as homes or adoption centers later became convent laundries run by nuns, where young "penitents," who were not allowed to use their real names, toiled in prison-like conditions. Young women, who were unwed and pregnant, developmentally challenged, deemed rebellious, promiscuous or even too beautiful were sent to these institutions by relatives or priests to avoid scandal or bringing shame on their families.

In one case, a Magdalene survivor's family was led to believe that their daughter would receive training as a nun, when instead she was forced to work in the laundry. The women were forced to perform hard, unpaid labor such as laundry (washing by hand and ironing) or sewing and endured long periods of silence as well as prayer for penitence. They also experienced physical, psychological and sexual abuse. The young women were often confined to these institutions for the rest of their lives unless a family member came to claim them. The conservative and religious mores of the communities where the Magdalene Laundries were located created an environment of tacit acceptance. A report recently issued in Ireland found that a woman or girl who ran away from a Magdalene Laundry could be arrested without a warrant and brought back. In 1993, 133 unmarked graves of Magdalene penitents were discovered at the High Park Convent in Ireland. The Magdalen Memorial Committee was formed to establish a memorial gravesite with headstones in remembrance of those forgotten women. The Magdalen Memorial Committee evolved into the larger Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) (http://www.magdalenelaundries.com) in 2004, an international survivor advocacy organization seeking justice for Magdalene survivors and their descendants and insuring that the women who were institutionalized are not forgotten. JFM has offered evidence before the United Nations Committee Against Torture that women were tortured, starved or beaten in these institutions.

On February 19, 2013, Prime Minister Enda Kenny issued a formal apology for the government's role in the operation of ten Magdalene Laundries housing an estimated 10,000 women and girls from 1922 to 1996 in the Republic of Ireland. In addition, now hundreds of survivors of the Magdalene Laundries will receive compensation for unpaid labor at these institutions. JFM recently announced the end of its political campaign having achieved its goals of an official state apology and compensation for the survivors.

IVP has been invited to perform Eclipsed at SNAP's (Survivors of those Abused by Priests) 2013 International Convention in Washington, D.C. on July 24-28. IVP was founded by New York University/Tisch and Actors Studio alumni, Ashley Adelman and Maria Makenna. They have since teamed with director Bridget Leak (a Pace University/Actors Studio alumnus) and producer Petol Weekes to produce, in addition to Eclipsed, successful runs of Shirley Lauro's A Piece of My Heart, a play about women who served in the Vietnam War at The Tank Theatre and the influential Living Theatre. One of the goals of the company is educational outreach through colleges and support groups. The company has teamed with advocacy groups such as JFM and SNAP to inform audiences at after show talkbacks of their missions and encourage them to become active participants. IVP worked with The Vietnam Women's Memorial Foundation during the productions of A Piece of My Heart. The Foundation has invited IVP to perform A Piece of My Heart for its twentieth anniversary in Washington, D.C. on November 9th and 10th, Veterans Day weekend.

Continuing their mission of presenting untold stories in women's history, IVP's production of These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich will open on May 24th. The play is based on the true story of Catherine Donohue and her co-workers who contracted radium poisoning while working at the Radium Dial Factory in Ottawa, Illinois in the 1920s. The women's successful litigation against the company, along with several other cases in the U.S., led to changes in the labor laws regarding occupational safety. Set to run at the Tank Theatre through June 2nd, These Shining Lives is directed by Bridget Leak with a cast that includes Ashley Adelman, Maura Zooey Barry, Holly Kay Benedict, Jake Cullens, Dave Herigstad and Petol Weekes. Watch the production trailer from YouTube:

Sandra Kwesi Cameron is a writer who lives in New York City. She has reviewed the New York International Fringe Festival for nytheatre.com.

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