Spoken Word Program Puts Women Writers in the Spotlight

By Phyllis Sigal

First, there was “Empty Step,” created in the 1980s. Then there was Oglebay Institute’s “The Prosers.” And most recently, the “Women of Appalachia Project “(WOAP) graced the Towngate stage.

And now, inspired by those spoken word programs of the past, Women of Wheeling (WOW) will take the spotlight Saturday, Dec. 3, at Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre for an evening of “Winter Poems for Light in Darkness.”

Tim Thompson, OI director of performing arts, was determined to continue presenting spoken word and poetry at the facility. “So I thought, ‘hey, why don’t we bring back Empty Step,’” he said. “I got the idea of celebrating our local women poets/actors, and ‘WOW’ just came to me,” Thompson said.


Tim Thompson has fond memories of performing with the spoken word program Empty Step, founded by Maribeth Thompson, Patricia Paton, and the late Tom Stobart. The first Empty Step was held on Wheeling Island at the iconic red brick building where flood levels were posted for decades. “The building is gone now, but the pillar with [flood] levels remains. It was very informal. [We] sat around and shared poems and stories,” he recalled.

“Sto [as Stobart was referred to] would seek out different poets to feature and venues — usually bars — like The Office and Cork & Bottle … also the YWCA to name a few. Everyone would want to read … Hal [O’Leary], Bettie Steele, Maribeth Thompson, Stobart, Howard Monroe, Terry Gurley, Debbie Hynes, Kate Crosbie, Kathleen Gurley, Rick Call, Arlene Merryman, Michael Ramsay, Dee Gregg, etc. … All the best of the best in town. It was special … and I wanted to bring it back in some way,” Tim Thompson explained.

Each Empty Step program was thematic, and, in addition to the featured poet, included readings and open mic portions. “It was a wonderful success,” Maribeth Thompson said, noting that Empty Step spanned around 10 years, from the early 1980s to the 1990s.

Her favorite Empty Step featured Beat poetry with musical accompaniment — a bongo drum, of course, along with other instruments. Held at Ernie’s Cork & Bottle, then located on 12th Street in downtown Wheeling, the “ambiance led to the power of the performance,” she said.

Maribeth Thompson is ecstatic that the program has been resurrected. “Oh, I love the idea! It’s very special … and so satisfying on so many levels. It tickles me to death!” she shared. “Often we’d find the featured poet from the open mic. Tom and I would be so excited and plan a program around them. … We unearthed a lot of talent.”


“I wanted to celebrate the incredibly talented women in our city and give them a platform to share their voices,” Tim Thompson said. “Our local men have many more opportunities to be onstage than women. More roles are for men, but yet more women audition. So, I found it important to give our talented women a spotlight.”

Maribeth Thompson echoed his sentiments. “Anything that presents women in an insightful light is very important. That’s very dear to my heart.”

As a nod back to the original Empty Step presentations, there will be three segments, each lasting around 40 minutes — featured poet, dramatic readings, and open mic.

Featured poet at the inaugural program is Bonnie Thurston. “Bonnie is brilliant, creative, an excellent and seasoned speaker, and accomplished poet. She is a pillar of our community and needs to be recognized by more people as such. Bonnie has been published many times over in the U.S. and U.K.,” Tim Thompson said

In fact, Thurston was an inspiration for the program. “After we had WOAP perform, Bonnie reached out to me to say she would love the opportunity to read her poetry at Towngate. I said, ‘Enough said … let’s do it!’ So I started to think how we could rethink a spoken word program, and between Bonnie and WOAP… I came up with WOW,” he said. He also noted that “WOW” is a “good way to describe Bonnie.”


Thurston, who doesn’t consider herself a nature poet, admits that her work “does tend to deal with the natural world.” While winter is a season, she believes it is “a metaphor for interior things as well,” she said.

“Things have generally been so awful in the world that a gentle theme like ‘light in darkness’ might be of comfort to people, not in a Pollyanna way, but in a way that takes seriously the darkness … but isn’t ‘overcome’ by it,” she added.

Reading mostly her own poems along with work from a few other poets, Thurston said the poems will focus “on the season of winter and some of the religious holidays that occur therein, poems which invite us to find the light in the darkness.”

Bonnie Thurston

Thurston began writing poetry as a child and published her first poems while attending Bethany College. She has taught English and theology at the University of Virginia, Wheeling Jesuit University, and Bethany College, to name a few. Her work is widely published in periodicals and anthologized in the U.S. and U.K. She has published seven collections of poetry, including her 2022 collection, “Forgotten Futures,” which won the Cinnamon Press (Wales) chapbook contest. A lover of her native West Virginia hills, Thurston is an avid reader, gardener, cook, and classical music lover.


For the second segment of the evening, Maribeth Thompson has selected powerful passages that involve women from 17 of Shakespeare’s plays — “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Taming of the Shrew,” “Twelfth Night,” and “Julius Caesar,” to name a few.

“Excerpts — both light and dark — are reflections of [women’s] relationships with others …. Their husbands, their lovers, their fathers, their friends … how some women can be strong in the face of adversity and how some are not strong in the face of adversity, as shown through Shakespeare’s characters,” she explained.

The readers — C.J. Farnsworth, Cathie Spencer, Dee Gregg, Rachel Thompson, and Grace Thompson (“Five of Towngate’s best,” Tim Thompson said) — will be directed by Maribeth Thompson.


The evening will end with an open mic. Poets and storytellers, new and experienced, shy and bold, can bring their original poetry and prose to share. “… something they have written or want to share. We want to hear your voice,” Tim Thompson said.

Readers may sign up during intermission.


The second installment of WOW, set for Feb. 25, 2023, features poet C.J. Farnsworth. The theme is “Free Love.”

“Historically, women’s voices on the subject of love have been repressed, regulated, and ridiculed, but the literary arts have always provided women with some agency to speak freely, openly, truthfully on the subject of love … and so the evening would celebrate women’s voices, free of sentiment and stereotype, on the subject of love,” Farnsworth explained.

Future programs, Tim Thompson said, will likely take on the name “Empty Step,” with blessings from Maribeth Thompson. Both men and women will be featured.

Maribeth Thompson — a retired English teacher and current library associate at the Schiappa Library in Steubenville — said she’d be delighted to continue working with the program.

“It’s a real joy to me,” she said, noting that she loves to have her artistic needs met this way.

Her history with Towngate runs deep — as an actor (Dorine in “Tartuffe,” Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Bella in “Lost in Yonkers,” Emily Dickinson in “Belle of Amherst,”) and as a director of several Parcel Players Shakespeare productions and “The Dresser.” Produced several years ago, “The Dresser” is her all-time favorite. “That was a joy of my life doing that show,” she said.


Part of the OI mission reads: “… to foster appreciation, expression, and discovery by engaging people of all ages and abilities,” Tim Thompson said. “This is one reason we include the spoken word program. Another is part of the Towngate mission … to offer many different types of top-notch, quality performances to our community — not only plays — but all performing arts and let the people in our community select what they want to see and hear. And just maybe, by being at one event, it may inspire them to try another. Something for everyone to perform in or come and see … a win-win!”


Women of Wheeling “Winter Poems for Light in Darkness” begins at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, at Towngate Theatre. The program is part of Towngate’s “Second Season” series, which includes spoken word programs, live music, improv shows and more. These programs are sponsored by Main Street Bank.

Admission is $7. Purchase tickets online, call 304-242-7700 or purchase at the door.

Theater in Wheeling - Oglebay Institute's Towngate Theatre
Towngate Theatre is located at 2118 Market Street, Wheeling.