The 4th annual Boston Women On Top Festival, a celebration of Boston's women writers and performers running through March 19, is already an unprecedented success. With an increase in scope, organization and particularly attendance over the 1999 Festival, the 2000 Festival features over 50 artists, five mainstage productions, two staged readings, panel discussions, master classes, and a benefit performance of Melinda Lopez's Media Noche/Midnight Sandwich, the winner of a Kennedy Center and Elliot Norton Award. What's more, you can smell the success by the audiences. "Attendance has been phenomenal. This is the first year that we sold out the first weekend of performances," said Joe Antoun, co-artistic director of the Festival.
A co-production of Centastage Performance Group (of which Antoun is artistic director) and the Underground Railway Theater, the Boston Women on Top Festival has been fertile ground for Centastage's development of new works for the company. "Two of the five mainstage plays in this year's Festival were actually staged readings at last year's," Antoun said. More than that, he said, the success of Lopez' play at last year's Festival proves the value of this kind of showcase.
This year's varied mainstage offerings range from Jacqui Parker's Get Rid of the Roaches, a slice of African-American musical culture set in a small Boston nightclub, to The Me in the Mirror, a stage biography of Jamaica Plain artist and disability rights activist Connie Panzarino, to Deborah Lubar's Eve's Vision, a portrayal of the Biblical Eve as an aging, no-nonsense woman coming to terms with her widening consciousness.
Other pieces in the festival are no less ambitious. Julie Rold's The Really Big Wedding Dress is a hilarious country music valentine that proves there is no problem on earth that the right dress can't solve, and A Night of Quickies, an evening of short plays directed by Greg Smucker, features new work from Lopez, M. Lynda Robinson and Lin Haire-Sargent.
For those interested in seeing works under development, the Festival offers a banquet of choices. Erika Batdorf's My Life Is A Mountainous Table: A Docudrama On Falling and Kathleen Rogers' The Arkansas Tornado are each being given staged readings this year, presumably just the first stop on the long road to fully realized productions. By singling out certain plays for staged readings, the hope is that certain works in this year's Festival, like last year's Media Noche/Midnight Sandwich (which premiered last year as God Smells Like A Roast Pig On A Summer's Day and will be performed as a benefit for the WOT Festival on March 15), will have an afterlife. A bonanza of Boston press coverage for God Smells... led to performances at the New York Theatre Workshop and then to 100 performances at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida.
"Midnight Sandwich was one of the best accidents that's ever happened to me," said Lopez, who wrote about her relationship to Cuban history, politics and bad '70s rock-and-roll after receiving direct encouragement on the piece from Antoun. "Last year's experience at the Festival gave me confidence and an opportunity that was valuable not just as an artistic resource, but for personal rewards as well," she said.
Acknowledging that personal rewards can also be derived from alternative kinds of work, panel discussions, master classes and forums have been added this year to address the various daunting aspects of creating and producing a one-person show, with solo performers Erika Batdorf, Cyndi Freeman and Debra Wise discussing "process" on February 29. "Marketing Your One Woman Show" is the logical follow-up, scheduled for March 18, and led by Underground Railway Theatre's Booking Director Tom Vance and Martha Richards, Executive Director of the Fund for Woman Artists.
With so much activity happening to a Festival so young, an Advisory Board has been created to help expand its reach into and beyond the Boston theater community. Nora Theatre Company's Mimi Huntington, playwright Michael Bettencourt, and director Carol Korty are some of the newly appointed members of that board. The ultimate goal, says Antoun, is to move the Festival away from being a jointly produced and funded Centastage/URT event into an event of regional and national importance that can stand on its own.
"The important part about the Festival is to participate," says Lopez, reflecting back on her good fortune with the event and her own blossoming career. "The work in the Festival is much more interesting than seeing a play that has been in the can for six months."