- OTHER MEDIA
- Women heed call of theaters to shout it out
- Festival enables women to take artistic risks, try new collaborations
- by Robert Hurwitt
- The ongoing battle for women's liberation is the subject of the 1970s
segment of the historical cabaret revue at Original Joe's, the emcee announces,
adding -- in a puzzled, mock-clueless aside -- "How's that going,
- The startled, scoffing laughter of the audience at the fifth annual
DivaFest was as appropriate as it was expected. Sure, gains have been made
in all kinds of areas, from company staffs and corporate boardrooms to
the halls of Congress, the military and many homes. But progress has been
painfully slow and parity far off. We never did get an Equal Rights Amendment,
the glass ceiling and pay inequities persist, women still bear the major
share of housework and a reinvigorated radical right keeps trying to roll
back all kinds of women's (and other) rights.
- Such disparities seem far less obvious in the world of the theater,
however -- which would seem to call into question the need for a festival
like DivaFest, dedicated to encouraging and developing new works by women.
Women serve as artistic directors of two of the Bay Area's four primary
theaters -- the American Conservatory Theater and San Jose Repertory --
and many of its more notable smaller companies, from Brava, the Marsh,
Woman's Will and Crowded Fire to the DivaFest-producing Exit Theatre. Carole
Shorenstein Hays produces Best of Broadway, the region's premiere subscription
series in San Francisco's largest theaters.
- Nor does it seem that plays by women are generally in short supply
though the ratio fluctuates radically from one season to the next. Three
of ACT's seven mainstage works this season were written or co-written by
women ("The Overcoat," "A Number" and "Happy End"),
but only one ("9 Parts of Desire") of Berkeley Rep's (compared
to five of seven the previous season). Half of TheatreWorks' eight current
season offerings are by women, as are half of the Magic Theatre's six plays.
- Such numbers are beside the point, Exit Artistic Director Christina
Augello maintains. "I don't think there are very many women's theater
festivals around the country," she said during a break between shows
Saturday, "and there are a lot of women out there committed to sharing
their visions with no place to develop their work." With limited publicity
for submissions for next year's DivaFest, she received 112 proposals, from
which she had to select four as "the kernels of plays to be developed"
under the Exit's aegis.
- "I want this to be a venue for their voices," she says. "I
don't think we've achieved equality in the theater yet. But even if we
have, encouraging young women to work in the theater is a good thing --
as is encouraging us older, re-emerging artists."
- Augello can include herself among the re-emergers because she returned
to acting in the first DivaFest, after years focused on producing and building
up the three-theater Exit complex. In terms of having a life after the
festival, that show -- Augello's solo performance in "Last of the
Red Hot Dadas" (by Kerry Reid) -- has been the most successful so
far. Augello has taken it to fringe festivals throughout this country,
Canada and Europe, a natural connection given that the Exit produces the
annual San Francisco Fringe. In June, she'll open in the show at New York's
- A few other works have had post-festival lives, and one from this fifth
DivaFest -- Liebe Wetzel's astonishing "Beauty and the Breast"
-- deserves to be as widely seen by as many people as possible. But premiering
works that will go on elsewhere is almost a side effect. From the current
shows and Augello's plans for hooking up diverse artists on projects for
next year, it seems clear that the primary idea is to give women chances
to take artistic risks, try out new material and work with new collaborators.
- Some of the events are one-shot appearances bringing in artists from
other fields. Saturday's DivaFest opening began with a reading by noted
poet Diane di Prima, followed by an art installation by visual artist L.A.
Hyder (it's probably no accident that the "Women on the Edge"
choreography showcase succeeds DivaFest on one of the Exit's stages beginning
- The late-night "DivaFest Cabaret," in a backroom at Original
Joe's, brings together the songwriting team of lyricist-drag performer
Sean Owens and composer Don Seaver with a rotating ensemble of proficient
(Beth Wilmurt, Janet Roitz and Denmo Ibrahim, for example) and, shall we
say, apprentice cabaret singers. With Seaver at the piano and Owens as
a gently catty emcee -- in a succession of period-defining blond wigs and
glam outfits -- the singers perform 10 comic songs (one for each decade
from 1906 to this '06) on moments in local diva history. The Patty Hearst
(Wilmurt) and Angela Davis (Ibrahim) "Liberation" duet is outstanding.
- Two of the new plays are less-than-finished efforts. Ripe Theatre co-founder
Sarah McKereghan's "Guns and Ammunition" (at Exit Stage Left)
is an often sharply funny and acutely observed hospital waiting-room comedy
about how family members push each other's buttons: right-wing, gun-toting
grandma versus liberal daughter-in-law, meek daughter and granddaughter.
A bit flatly staged by Laura Ellen Smith, it's funny but predictable. The
same is true of Karen Ripley and Annie Larson's "Waiting for FEMA"
(at Original Joe's), a bitingly sardonic but underdeveloped "Godot"-comedy
routine for two older women stranded on a rooftop in flooded New Orleans
(with a cameo by Augello as a Mardi Gras-bedecked crawfish goddess).
- "Beauty and the Breast," though, is already a polished gem.
Commissioned and produced by the Exit (like "FEMA" and "Guns"),
it combines the talents of Wetzel and her Lunatique Fantastique found-object
puppeteers with those of director Jayne Wenger and dramaturg Christine
Young, who helped develop the piece. Whimsically inventive, delightfully
playful and deeply affecting, it's a 45-minute reverie on breast cancer
to remarkably thoughtful and emotional effect.
- It's a typical piece of Wetzel's puppetry magic -- performed by a cast
of expressive brassieres and gardening equipment (a watering can and two
trowels as a doctor) on two tables and one woman's naked back -- but this
time with the puppeteers movingly unmasked. Gloves, straw hats, flowerpots
and rose petals combine in an eloquently nuanced, concentrated look at
the mortal and emotional aspects of the disease.
- Already extended beyond the festival (through June 3), "Breast"
is a tribute to its underlying concept. Anything that produces work of
this quality is worth the effort.