This genre-bending theatrical piece is written and performed by Moores School of Music alumni, faculty, and staff.

The Women Have Something to Say tells the stories of women finding their voices through monologues and song texts written by Moores School of Music faculty, staff, and alumni and is set to music by composer and University of Houston alum Madeline Styskal. The show premiered in Houston in 2021 and is making its New York City debut on May 12, 2023, at the Cell Theatre as a part of the Company-in-Residence The Why Collective’s festival series.  

Born from the idea of creating an all-women cast comprised of those with impactful stories, writer and creator,  Nicole Kenley-Miller, hand-picked each cast member and began to workshop some ideas. “The first workshop we did was about our voices as women — what our voices mean to us, how they've been silenced, how we've overcome that silence to find our voice and use it, and the difference between our inner voice and our outer voice. This show defies category in that it's like The Vagina Monologues or The Moth Radio Hour but with classical music. Since the pieces that the women wrote and perform are their own stories, it’s more of a reality theatre,” says Kenley-Miller. 

After fruitful workshops and discovering the resonance of a woman’s experience, they met with Houston’s former poet laureate, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton. It was through these meetings and additional workshop time that Mouton helped each cast member craft their story into a monologue. Madeline Styskal then took each monologue and composed the accompanying music. For the singers involved that meant music being written to accompany their original song text and for the instrumentalists, that meant an instrumental piece was developed and adapted from their monologue.

Once all artist’s monologues and music were established, graphic design artist and Moores School of music alum, Janine Dworin, created visuals that represented each of their stories. As each artist performed, their unique graphics were projected behind them. “This was the first time I’ve created a piece for a stage production before, so I was excited and challenged by the opportunity. I’ve always used art as a therapeutic way to work through how I’m feeling, and I was hopeful that my creations would help the women performing experience their stories in a new way,” said Dworin. 

“This is not something that classical singers do a lot. Usually, we’re singing a text written by someone else, and that someone else is typically a man. Although there are texts by women in the classical music canon, it’s male-dominated. So, the ability to share the stage with a cast of women who are performing their own text developed from their own experiences rather than singing what a man thinks a woman’s experience is, was therapeutic. Since its conception and debut in 2021, some women in the cast made some decisions and changes in their life after the show because it was a becoming process. In fact, we have to change some of the monologues for the New York performance because their stories have changed so much,” explained Kenley-Miller. 

The New York version of the show will be more theatrical and have added characters, dance numbers, and new scenes created and performed by women involved with Sydney Anderson’s collective group of multidisciplinary artists, The Why Collective. 

“Sydney and I were both students at the University of Houston. I knew from the start we were kindred artists. We both have the desire to push the boundaries of what classical music and opera can do and tell the stories that are underrepresented in that world. I was overjoyed when she asked to bring The Women Have Something to Say to the Cell Theatre,” said Kenley-Miller. 

Founder and Artistic Director of The Why Collective, Sydney Anderson, has gathered a diverse group of thinkers across many artistic disciplines to tell stories together without a hierarchy of roles. “The dancer can speak just as loudly as the actor, and the painter can find expression in movement just like the violinist. My experience as a multi-hyphenate artist seemed to be celebrated during my college years, but I discovered very quickly that wasn't the case in most professional settings. When I put on the hat of "singer" in a professional setting, I was rarely allowed to have ideas about anything other than my vocal line. I felt like I had to hide my other artistic skills to be taken seriously as a performer. I got tired of asking the leadership in arts organizations, ‘Why are we doing it this way?’ and hearing some version of ‘That’s just the way we’ve always done it.’ I realized with a growing passion that that answer was not sufficient for me. I believe that if we stop asking why, we stagnate and eventually become irrelevant.  To me, the only thing that moves something into the category of “art” is intention,” Anderson said. 

When Anderson first saw Kenley-Miller's concept for The Women Have Something to Say, she was blown away at how aligned the project was with her dream for projects that The Why Collective would one day support. “I was so inspired by the authenticity with which the women were being encouraged to share their voices, and it struck me as such a powerful tool to write one's own stories into monologues; by placing ourselves in the role of a character it somehow makes it feel safer to tell our most vulnerable truths to an audience. In true The Why Collective fashion, I immediately thought about how my interdisciplinary model could widen the access points to this workshop-style creation process. So, this iteration will include dance, visual art, and theatre-in-the-round staging to bring the audience into these all-too-relatable stories, hopefully seeing themselves in the performers,” said Anderson. 

When Cynthia Clayton, Professor of Voice and Voice Division Head at Moores School of Music was approached by Kenley-Miller, she knew that this opportunity would allow her to tap into her rock’n’roll roots from childhood. “I got this I-am-woman-hear-me-roar song out of it and it's extremely fun to perform. The experience I drew from was a time when I'm like can you believe the audacity of this mediocre man? Back then, I didn't feel like I could call him out, so I made light of it. It’s a moment in time that stuck with me, and it was something that someone would get fired for saying today. It was entirely inappropriate for the professional setting we were in, and it was a person in power,” said Clayton.  

The big challenge for her [Clayton] with this performance was delivering the monologue that set up her song. “I’m used to a composer telling me my timing, when to be loud and when to be soft, but when I’m delivering my monologue, that’s entirely up to me. I'm in the business of interpreting other people's stuff, not my own, so it’s been a rewarding challenge to be a part of this project,” said Clayton. 

Moores School of Music alumni and Texas Southern University Voice Area Coordinator and Associate Professor of Voice, Gwendolyn Alfred, decided to speak of a time she showed courage and bravery to pursue her dream. “When I was in high school, I wanted to compete to make the All-State Choir. My director at the time advised me not to because of past experiences of discrimination she had with the competition. I went ahead and competed with the support of my family and ended up becoming the first person to join the chorus in over 25 years from my school. I made a promise to myself that if I made the All-State Choir, I would become a professional musician. Making that decision spearheaded everything moving forward. I’m not only a professional musician, but a college professor and I use this story in my teachings to motivate my students. I’m excited to bring my story to New York and reach a wider audience. My song is centered around taking the road less traveled and breaking barriers,” said Alfred. 

This genre-bending show that explores discriminatory industry standards in the arts, racism, ageism, body image, immigrant experience, and motherhoods will be at the Cell Theatre May 12-14, 2023. New York locals have the opportunity to attend a creative workshop exploring their inner voices and can purchase tickets here. Houston residents can support these local artists by purchasing a livestream ticket for the Friday May 12 or Sunday May 14 performances here.