Back to the 34th Annual Festival of New Musicals

The Female Pope

2022 Festival

Music Director
Kris Kukul

Kirstyn Cae Ballard, Matilda Luz Concha, Tsebiyah Derry, Wes Garlington, Michelle Rodriguez, Hannah Shankman, Kristen Sieh, Mary Testa, Mariand Torres and Ching Valdes-Aran

Number of Acts: 2
Total Cast Size: 9
Orchestra Breakdown:

1. pianist/ organist 2. percussionist (rock kit with orchestral add ons: timpani, tubular bells, marching snare and chimes) 3. electric bassist who can also play upright 4. Guitarist (with pedalboard— electric guitar, not acoustic) 5. violinist 6. reeds multi-instrumentalist (dream additions) 7. cellist 8. second violinist 9. viola 10. trumpet or french horn 11. trombone or sousaphone

Casting Notes:

If budget and concept allows, there could be a cast member for every role.

Genre & Style:

Young Adult

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The Female Pope is highly disputed story about a woman in the 9th century who rose to the papacy. A young girl’s father – desperate to keep her safe – disguises her as a boy, with the promise of an education. This unlocks a passion for learning that propels her to the most powerful position in the world. A stunning achievement that threatens the very existence of the Catholic Church itself

Development History

At their initial meeting, Heather and Shannon bonded over their love of Greek food, mathematics, science, spirituality, and their desire to create musicals rooted in their passions (minus the Greek food) that was appealing and inspiring to young people. The Female Pope is a semifinalist for Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s (NMTC). Shannon is an affiliated artist with New Georges, where this piece has their support and are hosting an upcoming roundtable. Other exciting development news includes upcoming readings/workshops at Wellesley and Smith, the alma maters of some of the nation’s fiercest female leaders.

5 Things You Should Know

  1. Was there a female pope? According to legend, a woman – disguised as a man – rose to the papacy in the 9th century. A prominent scholar, she was elected as Pope John VIII between Pope Leo IV and Benedict III. Believers in her existence cite chronicles of her life that started as early as 1250 AD, numerous works of arts portraying her image, and a bust of Pope Joan was featured in Siena Cathedra until 1601 when Pope Clement VIII issued a decree – after intense pressure from anti-polemicists – promulgating The Female Pope a myth. Subsequently, an artist was commissioned to change the face of the bust from Pope Joan to Pope Zacharia. Whether or not The Female Pope existed is no longer the pertinent question but –why the vociferous push back against the notion of a women in the most powerful position in world history? By giving voice to a strong female character who was “erased” by a patriarchal institution, our musical aims to impact social and political discourse surrounding gender roles and institutionalized power, forcing skepticism of accepted histories. With renewed attempts to ban books, censor educators, and the successful rollback of women’s bodily rights, a revisionist history such as Pope Joan is pertinent to our times.
  2. Why is the musical mostly sung through (with small exceptions)? A character crosses over from dialogue into song when the emotions are too great for mere spoken word. Our piece is almost entirely sung through because the stakes are so high that this story can only truly live inside an aural environment. This musical strives to bridge the gap between science and spirituality; utilizing tonal sounds encased in letters to connect the soul with the intellect.
  3. Why is the cast comprised of women? In honor of Joan’s rebellion against gender roles, the cast should be comprised of women. To further clarify, all persons (apart from cis men) who see themselves in any of the characters should be considered. In accordance with the World Soul, the concept first created in Plato’s Timeaus and later adopted by Catholic scholars, which believes we are all one, the cast should be racially and ethnically diverse and representative of all.
  4. What does this show mean to me personally, as the writer? For hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, women have been disguising themselves as men to achieve basic human rights. The right to go outside by oneself. The right to an education. The right to hold a job. One of the pivotal dramaturgical questions I had when I began this journey —why did Joan disguise herself as a man? What was the catalyst? —sent me on a research scavenger hunt until I ran across an article about a tradition still practiced today in parts of the middle east where families disguise their daughters as sons. This happens for a variety of reasons: income (as only men can work), shame of having too many daughters, but for some parents, they just want basic human rights for their daughters. I am a registered nurse who works in women’s health, specializing in lactation in both Well Baby and NICU. As politicians wedge themselves between a woman and her healthcare team, the catastrophic effects ripple through and touch not only the patients and their families, but all of us who care for this population. My work, be it professional or artistic, lives to counter the marginalization of women and their families.
  5. What could the future look like for The Female Pope?> The Female Pope is a meditative folk-rock musical that breaks conventional form in ways that will bring new audiences to the genre. Heather’s unique score is haunting, with a liturgical, spiritual sound and modern twists that draws young people in. Written for a diverse ensemble of women, the piece breaks traditional gender roles and encourages the audience to do the same. The Female Pope is conceived to be flexible and adaptable to any space. We envision it to be equally suitable in a modest-sized black-box to a thousand seat theater. The interpretations of the projections in the script will be left to the discretion of the creative team, but I envisioned the projections to be like frescos in the Sistine Chapel; A stark white canvas enveloping the ceiling, magically morphing into the endless night sky. Engaging visuals will aid the audience in grasping the complex mathematical and astrological concepts of the times.