Two Decades of Solo Shows at LA Women’s Festival

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(Originally published in LA STAGE Times)

At this year’s Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival (LAWTF), more than two dozen performers will showcase solo works, five women will receive special awards for their contributions to theater at a star-studded gala, and hundreds of attendees will come together to celebrate the power of women in the arts. It all takes place Thursday through Sunday at the LA Gay & Lesbian Center’s Renberg Theatre and Wednesday, March 27 at the Ivy Substation in Culver City.

The festival’s jam-packed lineup masks a surprisingly humble beginning.

From her home in Ashland, Ore., LAWTF co-founder Miriam Reed explains that the inspiration for a women’s theater festival was born out of her discovery, while a PhD student in comparative literature at UCLA, of how little she knew about female historical figures and the field of women’s studies.

“I was so angry to think I’d gone through all this education and you’re supposed to have this broad, general background and understanding of life, and I never knew who Elizabeth Cady Stanton was and how severely women were repressed,” Reed says.

The newfound knowledge inspired Reed to begin putting on one-woman shows — “Women’s Studies 101 as theater pieces,” she explains — about notable women in history, hoping stories of these strong, powerful figures would inspire others as they had inspired her.

In 1993, at the California Arts Council Touring Roster conference in Pasadena, Reed metAdilah Barnes, also a solo artist who portrayed female historical figures through theater. The two realized they were “kindred spirits,” Barnes says, and Reed had the idea to announce, at the end of the conference, that any women artists who wanted to discuss how they could support each other and mount shows on a regular basis should meet at the back of the conference hall.

“So when it was over, all these women bombard us — actors, dancers, storytellers, poets, performance artists, vision singers, comedians,” says Barnes one afternoon at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.

The core group of seven women had its first meeting at the Burbank Little Theater. The following July it presented its first festival at UCLA as a satellite of the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival, in which each performer had 30 minutes to do an excerpt of a solo show.

“I thought, ‘Wow’,” Barnes says. “Where else would you see an actor, a dancer, a storyteller, all women, in the same building? This is fantastic.”

Though the show was a success, the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival decided not to return to Los Angeles, so Reed and Barnes continued the festival in L.A. on their own. With guidance from Philadelphia and a lot of trial and error, Barnes says, they continued to hold the LAWTF every year in honor of Women’s History Month.

The organization is funded by government agencies at the city, county and state levels as well as sponsors, memberships and donations. In addition to the festival, LAWTF hosts writing and acting workshops for local youth, female ex-offenders and low-income actors throughout the year. Barnes is the only original founder who still runs the day-to-day operations of the organization. Interns and dozens of volunteers help put on the festival every year.

A screening panel made up of artists from various disciplines selects the festival performers each year. Applicants must submit a DVD of their piece, which must be fully staged, not a work in progress, and other application materials. Barnes said the panel looks for professional solo works that cover universal themes and represent a wide range of disciplines, ethnicities and ages. The panel selected 25 works out of 100 applications for this year’s festival.

Honorary LAWTF chairpersons Danny Glover and Hattie Winston will host the opening night gala on Thursday. Five women — Dulce Capadocia, Starletta DuPois, Heidi Duckler, Lissa Reynolds and Lupe Ontiveros, who died last July — will receive awards for their contributions to theater, and Freda Payne and Lee Meriwether will perform. Six of the seven original founders will be on hand to present awards.

Friday’s theme is “Of Culture, of Self,” and features works that deal with each performer’s culture, from Puerto Rican to Arab American. Saturday’s matinee theme is “Not For Children Only,” with works about childhood and coming-of-age, and the evening theme is “Encore!,” featuring artists who have performed at the LAWTF in the past.

The Sunday matinee theme is “Speaking of Men,” dealing with relationships and including the festival’s male performers, and the evening theme, “Keeping it Real!,” will feature works of particular irony, humor and irreverence.

Five more solo works will be staged at the Culver City performance on Wednesday, March 27, including Juliette Jeffers’ exploration of online dating and Mzuri Moyo’s account of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.

Reed says one of the most important lessons to be learned from the LAWTF is the power of one-person shows. For young people in particular, putting on a solo show offers an education in many theatrical basics, from research and costume design to self-confidence, and allows a group of people to work together to bring a single artwork to life, she says.

“A one-person show is so accessible and so portable,” Reed says. “Kids can start out with an idea and they can involve so many other people. As they involve all these other people, each of these other people would find a kind of development within herself or himself. All these are tools to expand the individual and expand the individual performer.”

Barnes says audience members may relate to the stories being told on a very personal level. They may recognize themselves in pieces about sexuality, loss of a loved one or abusive relationships, for example — and be encouraged and soothed by the experience. Other stories may simply introduce audiences to cultures and ways of life they haven’t encountered.

LAWTF volunteer Audrey Rachelle, an actress and musician, will attend the festival for the first time this year and says the performances may inspire her to create a solo show of her own. She agrees with Barnes — live theater has the power to move people in ways movies or other art forms cannot.

“When you watch a sad movie you may cry, but when you’re in the audience and we’re this far away from each other and you see her emotion and you see the tears actually, that’s how theater affects me,” Rachelle says. “You feel the emotions more than watching it on a big screen. You’re in the room and everyone’s vibing off each other.”

Though it’s called the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival, Barnes says the festival isn’t just for women. The stories the artists tell may be highly personal, but the more personal the story, the more universal the message, she says. People of diverse identities, communities and ways of life will be represented by the performances onstage.

“Identity is universal,” Barnes says. “Male, female, we all struggle with identity until we find acceptance.”

Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival, March 21-24 at Renberg Theatre, 1125 McCadden Place, Hollywood, and March 27 at Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Tickets: $22 – $128. www.lawtf.org. 818-760-0408.

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