Ruby O’Gray and Karen Moore

Ruby O’Gray
Karen Moore

for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Ruby O’Gray and Karen Moore

Did you know that 63% of theatre audiences are women or that Broadway shows written by women are 18% more profitable than shows written by men? Yet only 20% of professional theatre artists are women. Only 17% of produced plays are written by women. And only 16% of produced plays are directed by women.

Ruby O’Gray and Karen Moore knew all this and they did something about it. In 2012, due to their vision and hard work, the first biennial Women’s Theatre Festival of Memphis (WTFM) was held. One of only two women’s theatre festivals in the country, it is the only one in the South.

The path leading to WTFM was long.

Ruby’s career in theatre began in Beale Street kindergarten’s talent show and never stopped. By sixth grade after seeing Front Street Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she was totally hooked. She dropped out of school in 11th grade to care for her mother. At age 17, after her mother’s death, she got her GED and headed to New York. She came back at age 18, started her family, and then became active in local theatre. She says, “Memphis is my Hollywood.”

Karen says that she was pushed into theatre. By age 14 she was deeply involved in music. It became her major in college. She auditioned for a touring choir and didn’t get in but not from lack of talent. The college was concerned that white board members who housed students on the tour would not welcome her. The good news for us is that a theatre professor who taught her in an Introduction to Theatre class told her that she showed great promise and encouraged her to give theatre a try. She did and she liked it. After graduation, she worked for a television affiliate in Little Rock before moving to Memphis in 1977. While working at the local CBS affiliate by day, she was soon hired to direct a play for Beale Street Repertory Company.

These two forces first met after Karen saw Ruby’s performance at the former Shelby State Community College. They made an instant connection and Karen asked Ruby to audition for a play she was directing at Beale Street Rep. Of course she got the role and they’ve been friends and collaborators ever since.

Their list of individual accomplishments is huge.

Ruby has written 63 plays – 63! She has acted, directed and produced many plays and is the recipient of an Ostrander Award, the Oscar of the local theatre world. Co-founder of Bluff City Tri-Art Theatre Company, she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre Production from the University of Memphis, which she completed after raising six children.

Karen holds a Bachelor in Theatre Arts from Hendrix College. She spent eleven years living in Italy. While there, she made 9 films as an actress, recorded 8 albums as a recording artist and produced, directed and acted in numerous plays for the U.S. Navy Sixth Fleet Naples, Italy and NATO. She is creator and executive producer of “This House is Cooking!” an innovative television show that combines real estate and the culinary arts. She creates the show with one of her daughters and it has aired monthly since its debut in July 2008. She has produced, directed and acted in more than 70 theatrical productions. Currently she works as the Director of Marketing Strategies for Sweet Potato Baby, her daughter’s catering and baked goods company.

Women are underrepresented in the theatre and media and face enormous employment challenges in the arts. This led Ruby to the idea for the Women’s Theatre Festival of Memphis. She called Karen who immediately signed on. Weekly meetings started in 2011. The first festival was held in 2012. With two more produced in 2014 and 2016, the festival is now well-established.

They believe the festival allows exploration of the female experience in theatre and attracts significant visitors to Memphis. They are right. The third festival brought women from all over the United States and even some from outside the country.

The Women’s Festival showcases performances about women, performances directed by women, plays and musicals written by women, and a range of workshops. The group established the Gyneka Awards. “Gyneka” is Greek for woman. Greek women were denied the right to perform in theatre and this award represents strong women who have broken barriers and never allowed their talent to be denied.

One of the amazing things about the Women’s Theatre Festival Memphis is that, like Women of Achievement, it has no paid staff. All the work is done by volunteers. Planning has already started for WTFM 2018. Ruby and Karen hope to reach out to girls, letting them know about careers in theatre including not only acting and directing but lighting and set building. They also hope to inspire more women to become theatre critics.

We thank Ruby O’Gray and Karen Moore for bringing the vision of the Women’s Theatre Festival of Memphis to life!

Local Treasures: Ruby O’Gray” – by Jon W. Sparks, 3 January 2024. Memphis Magazine.