Last year, during a Scientific and Cultural Facilities District funding evaluation, Industrial Arts Theatre (IAT) director Phil Luna sat mute, listening to others debate the reasons why his nonprofit troupe should be awarded a grant.
"There was a question in the grant application--does your company do works for underserved populations?" Luna remembers. Initially, IAT answered no, but two women in the meeting came to the group's defense, citing last year's inaugural Colorado Women Playwrights Festival, an IAT-sponsored project, as a case in point. "There was a man with gray hair sitting there reading a newspaper," Luna says. "He put it down, looked up and asked, 'Are women playwrights underserved?'"
Beth Foster, co-producer of this year's sophomore event, which opens on March 12 for a month-long run, says they are. A study by Foster reveals concrete proof: Of the 24 twentieth-century playwrights listed as "major" in the New York Public Library Desk Reference, only one--sharp-witted Lillian Hellman--is a woman. And critic Harold Bloom didn't see fit to mention any women's plays in his thorough Western Canon.
Foster says it's not because women don't write plays, either. She and fellow producer Tami Canaday waded through 60 scripts submitted for this year's selection process, up from only 25 received by festival organizers last year. Apparently, there are plenty of unknown voices out there hoping to be heard.
The festival not only gives the public a chance to listen to women's voices, but it also provides a rare venue for work by local and regional artists. "In a way, there shouldn't have to be women's play festivals," says Ellen Graham, a young Denver native whose dark play The Axe Man is included in this year's repertory. "I hope someday there will just be regular playwriting festivals that include plays by women. Now, it's a necessary evil." Graham has no qualms about her involvement, though. "There are very few companies doing this type of thing. For now, it's a bold move; to have a festival of original work written entirely by women is a brave thing to do."
Indeed, there's nothing at all clubby about this effort. "This is not a festival about women's issues," Foster says. "These are plays written by women, not plays specifically about them. It's not some kind of feminist male hate-fest." There are men--like Luna and Dwayne Carrington, who directs Juanita Pope's upbeat, gospel-soaked one-act Come Sunday--involved in the festival; the female facet is just what brings it all together.
Playwright Pope, a church-choir member and past performer in several Eulipions-produced endeavors, appreciates the push the festival has given her into Denver's theater mainstream. But for her, there's more to it. "I like the women angle," she says. "You always find treasures when you focus on smaller segments of community."
Luna agrees. "These are all women, from all different backgrounds, and they're all playwrights--all good playwrights," he says. "We provide an audience and make it worthwhile." Luna adds that he hopes IAT's commitment to providing a local arena for playwrights will keep them here. "We want them to stay in Denver, not go off to New York or L.A."
And Luna, a veteran of numerous theatrical productions with IAT, smiles knowingly when he gives one last reason for staging a festival spotlighting work by women. "I'm encouraged by the fact that you can collaborate," he says. "It's been a good process. There was more room for suggestions, ideas--shared ideas. Artists can come together for a single goal, without any bruised egos."
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If women seem to get along together better, it isn't a detriment to their diversity. As Graham points out, the festival covers a wide variety of motifs, philosophies and cultures. Its subjects, gathered loosely under the thematic banner of Body and Soul, include Henry VIII's last wife, Catherine Parr; the inner workings of an African-American Baptist church; martyred Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno; two sisters intimidated by a stalker; and a truck-stop waitress who married an Elvis look-alike.
"There are as many voices as there are women," Graham says. "This is not some monolithic monument to ovaries or anything. It's gonna be a riot."
Colorado Women Playwrights Festival. Two programs featuring five plays in repertory, March 12-April 12, Dorie Theater, Arts Center of the West, 721 Santa Fe Drive, $12-$15 per program ($20-$25 festival pass), 595-3821.