The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival Celebrates 25 Years of Female Voices

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by Lara J. Altunian

The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival (LAWTF) was founded in 1993 by Adilah Barnes and Miriam Reed, who met at a California Arts Council Touring Roster Conference in Pasadena and discussed the possibility of giving solo artists within Los Angeles their own festival and circle of support. The duo was shortly joined by Helene McCardle, Joyce Guy, Judith Heineman, Nina Kaufman, and Phylise Smith. Their wide-ranging backgrounds in the performing arts led them to become LAWTF’s seven co-founders.

They were inspired by the already-established Women’s Theatre Festival in Philadelphia, which came to LA in 1992 looking for a satellite in order to expand their organization into what they were hoping to call the “National Women’s Theatre Festival”. However, opinions quickly changed as the Philadelphia Festival decided not to say in Los Angeles, unknowingly allowing the city to come into its own:

“They felt it was too schmoozy here, it was too celebrity-driven. It really wasn’t, they felt, their cup of tea,” says Barnes. “The beauty is that by the time our group came together the following year, I said, ‘Why don’t we pick up the torch where they left off last year. They brought something wonderful here, something we did not have here—let us not end it.’”

It wasn’t long before soloists flocked to the group and sent them submissions in the form of video tapes of their performances in the hopes of being selected for the festival. According to Barnes and Guy, solo acts were less common in the early ’90s, which made LAWTF that much more attractive to the often overlooked theater community in this city, although acting was not the only category that was showcased.

“We wanted a variety of people,” says McCardle, “Not only actors, but dancers and movement and poetry—as much of a broad range as we could.”

Now, LAWTF is the oldest and longest running festival of female solo artists in Los Angeles. The organization has also expanded to include multiple services designed to help aspiring performers all over the city. Barnes says that part of their mission statement from the very beginning was to include community outreach programs. As of 2018, the organization has served over 5,000 youths through the LA Unified School District and continues to offer classes for adults, seniors, underserved artists and women recently released from prison.

“It’s become a landmark in LA that people look forward to happening each March of the year,” says Guy. “The number of women performers has widened. It’s not just LA people—it’s people from all over.”

Freda Payne as Ella Fitzgerald.

Capping off March 2018’s International Women’s History Month, LAWTF commemorated 25 years with a saga of workshops, an opening night gala, and three days of performances by female soloists. The milestone comes at a critical point with Time’s Up and #MeToo directly fueling the fire behind some of the productions and making this year’s featured shows as powerful as ever.

“Over the last 25 years, pieces probably in some cases have been bolder because women have been more empowered to tell their own stories,” says co-Barnes.

Though sexual themes at LAWTF are nothing new, March’s festival strongly emphasized the concept by featuring stories centered around “Love, Sex and #MeToo”. Many of the reproduced segments or abridged portions of their shows premiered in last year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival and continue to play this year as well. Additional themes such as “Obsessions,” “My Mother, My Self,” and “Angels, Culture and Coming of Age,” helped round out tales about the female experience.

Culver City will be adding to the celebration of women for the eighth year in a row thanks to the Culver City Performing Arts Grant and Sony Pictures Entertainment. Florence LaRue and Kym Whitley will be hosting the event.

Musical presentations will include LaRue performing songs she has personally selected for the evening, and an excerpt by R&B singer Freda Payne (accompanied by Rahn Coleman on piano) from her show Ella Fitzgerald, First Lady of Song.

Payne’s performance as the famous starlet may come as a surprise to those unaware of Fitzgerald’s tamer and more subtle nature. However, in a festival that celebrates women’s variety as well their bravery, Payne will show viewers that it’s not necessary to have a larger than life personality in order to become the “Queen of Jazz.” Her piece showcases Fitzgerald’s strength as a pioneer who allowed herself to pursue her passion rather than giving it up to settle down and have children.

“Ella was a nice person. She was a sweetheart,” says Payne. “[But] she didn’t have success in her personal life. As a successful career woman, she was always on the road. It was that dichotomy between, ‘do I work all the time and be on the road?’ or ‘do I stay at home and take care of my family?’”

Continuing in that same vein of chasing artistic dreams is actor and dancer Alina Cenal’s Words from a Cuban Father—a piece about mambo, revolution, Miami, and other chapters of her life, which her father guided her through. Her story starts in childhood and continues through her journey as a Latina artist.

Cenal also delves into another common motif of LAWTF shows: immigration. She begins with her family’s escape to the US after the Cuban Revolution. Her 30-minute piece explores the passage of time through the evolution of dance and examines the advice her father gave her with each challenge she faced.

“He had four daughters,” says Cenal. “He was raising four daughters in America. All of my sisters still live in Miami. I’m the black sheep; I’m the artist. So when I [left] Miami at 18…he was always supportive: ‘Alina, you follow your dreams! Just be careful, be smart, but live life with your heart and you’ll do good.’”

Cenal’s father’s positive voice about moving forward directly contrasts the backlash final presenter, Juli Kim, has experienced for stepping outside her culture’s box of tradition.

Kim will present two Korean dances: Five Drum Dance and New Leaf. The first takes on a more classical approach to the choreography. But the latter is her interpretation of Korean dance—a contemporary fusion, which she describes as being “more expressive and poetic.”

“I am criticized,” says Kim. “And I always say, ‘It’s a dance! People enjoy it, they love it. So?’”

Another reason for people’s negative view of her style is because she is a woman.

“Korean women’s image is traditionally portrayed as very submissive. It just makes my stomach turn. But to be part of this movement…we all have to do our part to make sure it doesn’t die down.”

Her rebellious sentiment against societal norms that strike down women’s will to be seen as equal to men embodies the spirit the festival has captured since the beginning of its 25-year run.

Juli Kim performing the Five Drum Dance.

As Los Angeles’ theatre scene grows, LAWTF continues to put women’s personal accounts and perspectives at the forefront with their continual support of solo artists. People whose stories have been ignored can find courage in the festival’s long-standing legacy and the changing times which indicate that these experiences, though endlessly varied and old as time, are finally getting more of the attention they deserve.

On June 24, LAWTF will be hosting a one-night-only show called Legends, Movement and Memories in Culver City at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City CA 90232. As the name implies, the evening of entertainment will feature an array of solo performances reinforcing women’s long-standing presence in this city as they continue to discuss their perspectives and experiences through their art.

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Lara J. Altunian

Lara J. Altunian

Lara is an LA-based dance writer and arts journalist. She is a master’s graduate from the University of Southern California who is interested in visual and interactive storytelling, and also loves reading, writing and crafting. Follow her on Twitter @larajian90.