Laurie Flanigan Hegge struck gold when she was interviewing the many women who worked in the Lake Michigan shipyards of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, during World War II. She learned about a woman whose brother was fighting overseas. "She felt he needed a home cooked meal," the Minnesota playwright says. With much love, the sister roasted a chicken, packaged it up and mailed it to him. "Here he opens the box to this rotten chicken."

Switch brother to boyfriend, and Flanigan Hegge had the love-interest plot point for her first play "Loose Lips Sink Ships," a fictional dance musical based on the real lives of women who worked in shipyards when America's men were called off to war.

The idea for the play came about when Flanigan Hegge was a performing member of the Northern Sky Theater, formerly known as American Folklore Theatre, in 1998. She noticed a void of plays with a female perspective and she nudged the company's primary playwright, saying, "You should do a women's story." The playwright nudged back, "Why don't you do it?" The idea took root when she was playing cards with future collaborators on the project, lyricist Jacinda Duffin and music composer James Kaplan. "We leapt in, as if we knew what we were doing," Flanigan Hegge remembers.

Word got out about the play's development, and soon their phones were ringing off the hook with leads for women to interview. "My mom, my aunt, that kind of stuff," says Flanigan Hegge. "All the women said their lives were not very interesting, but they talked for hours."

Common themes of empowerment and transformation emerged. "The women would all say, 'It was the last job I ever had, but I raised my daughter differently, to work.'"

Flanigan Hegge had gone into the research seeing the stories as elderly women who held different expectations, hopes and desires. She emerged seeing stories full of emotional complexity that directly related to her everyday life. "

I realized there was nothing that women can take for granted. We owe our ability to be who we want to be to the women before us who could not be what they wanted to be," she says.

Staging women's history

"See Jane Vote," written by Flanigan Hegge, premiered at the American Folklore Theater in 2006. Her move from Chicago to the Twin Cities gave rise to two History Theater productions - "Hormel Girls" in 2007 and "Twenty Days to Find A Wife" in 2009. "Hormel Girls" is a fictional story of the real-life touring swing band comprised of G.I. Janes home from World War II. The band was sponsored by the Minnesota company Hormel and its brand products, including SPAM.

For "Hormel Girls," created with collaborator Perrin Post, Flanigan Hegge's research and development methods remained much the same. "For six characters, I interviewed 20 women and got 50 stories." Themes emerged and characters were created out of the various perspectives.

"Women's perspectives are not represented on stage enough. It's the same way that we need to hear voices of color and voices that represent a variety of human perspectives," Flanigan Hegge says. She believes that audiences are eager for stories telling the whole human experience, and that theater with its immersive, multi-sensory experience is a powerful conduit to examine our subconscious biases and roles in humanity.

"Music and humor are great mechanisms to create empathy for your characters. When audiences care about vulnerable and accessible characters, their hearts open and there is space to listen."


Who's in the spotlight?

The Dramatist Guild of America, along with The Lilly Awards, studied three years of data from production in regional theaters across America. The 2015 results showed that 63 percent of theater productions are written by American white males. American white women wrote 14 percent, with 9 percent by Americans of color, and less than 1 percent by foreign men and women of color. "It has been said that the reason for the disparity is that there are not enough female playwrights in the pipeline, but that is not true. We are here," Flanigan Hegge says.

Flanigan Hegge's next production is a collaboration with writer and director Post and composer Dina Maccabee. Adapted from the movie of the same name, "Sweet Land, the musical" opens at the end of WWI with Inge Altenberg immigrating to America to marry Olaf, a Norwegian farmer. However, the discovery of Inge's German nationality evokes community scorn. Forbidden to marry and unable to leave, Inge engages in a life-or-death struggle for independence, love and acceptance in a small Minnesota town.

With partial help from the Minnesota State Arts Board, "Sweet Land, the musical" went through five developmental workshops to refine scripts and songs. "Our big challenge was how to use music and movement to capture the scope of the land that is so prominent in the movie," says Flanigan Hegge. The musical premieres April 29, 2017, at the History Theater.

Flanigan Hegge looks forward to opening night. "It's pure joy to watch the audience and see how they engage with the story."

FFI: historytheatre.com