On June 28, 2018, a gunman walked into the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland and killed five of the newspaper’s employees. It was one of hundreds of mass shootings in America that year, but to me it was a singular tragedy. Because this shooting took my friend.
At the time of her death, Wendi Winters was a writer for both the Capital Gazette and DC Theater Arts, the local media outlet I publish. She was known for telling stories about everyday people in her community who did extraordinary things. At the Capital Gazette, Wendi wrote a popular “teen of the week” column. For DC Theater Arts, she was always willing to jump in her car to cover a small theater in an out-of-the-way suburb. Writers like Wendi, who take the time to focus on the beautiful, magical everyday acts of their neighbors, are a treasure in any community.
Wendi and her colleagues were never far from my thoughts in the years after the shooting. I was in awe of the fortitude shown by the surviving journalists at the Capital Gazette who were so dedicated to their craft that they published a newspaper the morning after the attack. I think about that a lot when I consider what it means to be a journalist in tumultuous times, and I wasn’t the only one impressed by their act of bravery. Journalists were named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 2018 and the Capital Gazette shooting survivors were featured on the magazine’s cover.
This spring, nearly four years after Wendi’s death, I received an email from her son Phoenix. The Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation — run by Wendi’s four children, who were young adults at the time of her death — had selected DC Theater Arts as the recipient of a grant in their mother’s name.
The timing of the email was uncanny. DC Theater Arts had just converted to a nonprofit, but we hadn’t made the news public. I had spent the previous months scratching my head, wondering how to plunge into this strange new world of foundations and donations, questioning if I had the fortitude to manage it. Here was someone who came along at just the right time and believed in me. It felt like a hug from a lost friend, and it was just what I needed to believe in myself.
The Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation approached us with very few stipulations. They had raised some money in their mom’s name, and wanted someone to use it to carry on her work writing stories about local community members. And boy, did I have ideas on how to do that. The biggest challenge in operating a niche journalism venture like DC Theater Arts is finding ways to compensate people adequately for their hard work.
Finding inspiring things to write about is always the easy part. We collaborated and came up with a plan for DC Theater Arts to use the funds raised by the Wendi Winters Memorial Foundation to create a series of articles celebrating to create a series of articles celebrating the achievements of local theater artists.
Our Wendi Winters Memorial coverage will begin in September, typically the start of a new theatre season. The centerpiece will be a monthly series called “The Companies We Keep,” a deep dive into local theater companies that don’t get enough attention. We will explore each company’s goals, accomplishments and leadership style. We also plan to do regular profiles on local theater-makers: the people who are doing inspiring work with the goal of making our community a better place.
Why is this coverage necessary? Because so much of the good that happens in our arts community doesn’t get reported. Did you know, for example, that Washington, D.C. is home to nearly 80 professional theatre companies? Most people aren’t aware of this because despite the robust quantity — and quality — of art being produced in the region, mainstream publications have continually decreased their arts coverage in recent years. There is real magic happening here, but so much of the good work that is happening in our arts community doesn’t get covered. DC Theater Art wants to change that.
Here are just a few of the amazing artists I look forward to profiling in the coming months:
Eva Thorpe was 23 years old when she founded Heart House Inclusive Productions in 2017. The nonprofit theater invites performers with disabilities to perform in mainstream theatre productions. Eva was inspired by her brother Michael, a Broadway aficionado with Down syndrome, to create an organization that would give him a place to let his inner thespian shine. Wendi’s grant will enable us to share Eva’s story.
Or Vera Oyé Yaa-Anna. Vera is a West African storyteller who founded Oyé Palaver Hut, an organization using West African storytelling performances, dance, music and culinary arts to promote physical and emotional wellness. Vera hopes that by teaching people to value themselves she can steer them away from violence. Her dream is to “help children find their role in a larger story.”
Then there are the many traditional theaters doing amazing work despite the incredibly difficult circumstances created by Covid. D.C. boasts top-notch theatre companies that focus on a variety of niche genres: Commedia dell’Arte (Faction of Fools), nerd culture (Flying V), Irish theater (Solas Nua) and Spanish-language theater (GALA Hispanic Theatre) to name just a few.
Despite its reputation as a political capital, D.C. is a city full of arts professionals brimming with skill and passion. We want to sing their praises.
Knowing that this work will bear Wendi’s name is bittersweet. It is also an honor — one I don’t take lightly. The best way I can think to honor Wendi’s memory is to carry forward the good that she put into the world. Wendi’s special skill was telling stories that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. Now, thanks to Wendi’s loved ones, DC Theater Arts will be able to tell the stories of our local artists.
Now let’s go put some good into the world.