“Women’s Voices: Memory in Motion,” an evening of stories about love, injustice, tenacity and survival, debuted in September at Fairmont State University. Created by students working under the direction of Dr. Francene Kirk, the original theatre piece is based on interviews with women who are age 55 and older.
Kirk is the Abelina Suarez Professor of Communication and Theatre at FSU. She has been interviewing women who were educated before Title IX, the law that protects people from gender discrimination in schools, was enacted.
“Title IX is sort of a watershed moment for women, and yet many people only associate it with sports. It opened up opportunities for women in all kinds of educational programs including medical and law school. Some of the stories in the show illustrate the limited options women had. The show isn’t about Title IX; it’s about women’s lives,” Kirk said.
Kirk was awarded the Abelina Suarez Professorship in 2013, and this performance is made possible through research conducted as part of the professorship.
The performance included scenes, monologues and movement. “The process is labor-intensive, but extremely rewarding,” Kirk said. “I met with the students in the evenings for more than three weeks. They looked for stories in the transcripts of interviews I have conducted over the past couple of years as a part of my Suarez Professorship project. Then, they improvised dialogue and movement for the stories. The process took a great deal of negotiation because the students had so many creative ideas, but at the end of each rehearsal it was so rewarding to watch these women’s stories come to life.”
The students involved in the project were Tristian Burns, Morgan Carder, Sabrina Cheuvront, Kelli Cooper, Colleen Dorsey, Gary Hayes, Jacqueline Jelacic, Devinn Moore, Paige Shircliff-Bowser, Abigail VanScoy, Dino Vergura, Travis Wilson and Samantha Young. Tate Thompson is the stage manager.
“My favorite story was the one about school integration,” said junior Theatre major Morgan Carder. “It was collected from a woman who had grown up in a coal camp. Her father convinced their neighbors to accept the integration of the local school in 1964.”
Carder transcribed the interviews from recordings and served as the script supervisor for the project. Since the students started with nothing but the interview transcripts, Carder was responsible for keeping track of all the revisions made to the text during the rehearsal process.
“It was a challenge,” Carder said. “Sometimes we had people talking over each other. It was hard to know what to write down when everyone has so many ideas.”
Kirk noted that her favorite interview was with a woman who was her mother’s best friend in high school.
“My mother had often said she didn’t have the options I had,” Kirk said. “I never really fully understood that until I started these interviews. Working with the interview text has been a real eye-opener for me and for the students.”
A bequest by the estate of Abelina Suarez established FSU’s first named professorship, which carries her name and that of the discipline of the honoree. Honorees carry the title in perpetuity, but a new award will be made every five years. The presentation of this professorship is intended to recognize extended and continued excellence by a member of the University faculty.
“The performance of ‘Women’s Voices’ was a way to share my Suarez Professorship research with people who would not otherwise hear these stories,” Kirk said. “Interestingly, Abelina Suarez faced discrimination. Her degree was in chemistry, and she could not find a job as a chemist. She even started using her initial instead of her first name on her resume to hide her gender. Not being able to find a job is what spurred her to become a teacher, a job deemed suitable for young women during her lifetime.”
Abelina Suarez, who was born in 1910 in Spain but grew up in Anmoore, W.Va., was the first woman to graduate from Ohio University in a field called German chemistry. She was a math and science teacher in Harrison County for more than 30 years. She attended Fairmont State Teachers College in the 1940s and also earned a master’s degree in education from West Virginia University. Through her generosity and foresight, Suarez designated a portion of her estate to support educational opportunities at Fairmont State.
Kirk of Morgantown teaches communication, puppetry, children’s theatre, creative drama and theatre education. Since coming to FSU in 2000, Kirk has directed numerous plays and musicals for the Masquers season and for Town & Gown. Kirk has mentored undergraduate research projects and facilitated the creation of student-devised theatre pieces. She was honored for her work in Theatre Education by the City of Fairmont Arts and Humanities Commission. In 2008, she received the William A. Boram Award for Teaching Excellence. A former public school teacher, Kirk served as the Coordinator for Fine Arts at the West Virginia Department of Education for two years. Kirk earned her B.A. from Glenville State College and her master’s degree from West Virginia University. She received her Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with content emphases in Theatre and English in 1998 from WVU.