*If you ever need to hear an inspiring story of courage and strength coming from real life experiences, listen to a woman talking about an episode in her life.
Women have a way of telling a story. As the vessel through which all human life springs, women have shouldered the burdens of many and have no problem letting you know it.
And 14 such women will share tales through performance art beginning March 24 under the theme, “Telling Our Truths,” produced by the female-led Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival.
The L.A. Women’s Theatre Festival, the oldest festival in Los Angeles for solo women performers, has been celebrating what it means to be a woman for 23 years. Co-founded (quite by accident!) by two actresses of different cultures — Adilah Barnes and Miriam Reed — both solo performers met by chance upon realizing they both had been performing one-person shows about historic female figures.
Barnes had been performing as “Sojourner Truth” and Reed as “Susan B. Anthony.” It was while they were attending a California Arts Council Touring Roster Conference in Pasadena, California, that they demonstrated their creative savvy by pulling together and gathering other women with similar backgrounds.
Reed moved away from Los Angeles and left the festival’s Board of Directors in 1995. She does, however, continue with the Festival as a donor; has even come back to perform on occasion, and celebrated with the company for their 20th Anniversary.
“The first thing that comes to mind that I know now and didn’t know then is how to really become a businesswoman in a way I had not been before,” Barnes says about the knowledge she has gained since LAWTF began. “And even though my one-woman show began in 1990, it was still different because now we’re talking about me being a producer and being a vehicle to promote other women artists.”
“Now, 23 years later, we have produced 500 women from around the globe.” Barnes, who presides over the nonprofit company adds how proud she is that the LAWTF is a place where the voices of women can be heard.
“The truth is, really, in the early days we were trying to make it to the next year (laughs),” states Barnes, who will be 66-years-old this month, as she recalls when it was that she realized her company was becoming a force.
“By the 5th year, probably before that, we thought, ‘you know what, this is becoming an annual event and whatever it takes we’re going to make this thing work.’ And by then we had began to get government grants.”
The company receives grants from the L. A. City Cultural Affairs Dept., and the L. A. County Arts Commission. And sponsors included Bank of America in the early days, and Union Bank – who was their first sponsor in 1998 and remains with them to this day.
“Once the funding became solvent and we saw that we were able to demonstrate and be rewarded for the work we were doing in the community artistically, by then I think we knew we had begun and we just couldn’t stop,” says Barnes.
The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival has had a variety of celebrity hosts since the beginning (even Angela Bassett at the first Festival!) And it is a testament to how many artists in all facets of the entertainment industry actually started out on the theatre stage.
One such person is Eloise Laws.
Well respected for her vocal prowess, but perhaps even more-so as a member of the legendary family of jazz musicians that include Hubert Laws, Ronnie Laws and Debra Laws, Eloise is also an established Broadway actress. She will be a guest performer at the “Champagne Gala” on the opening night of the Festival this year, and is also the recipient of the Festival’s ‘Eternity Award’.
Speaking on her feelings about being chosen to receive the award Laws states, “Well first, I had to take a deep breath. When I read what the ‘Eternity Award’ was all about I thought, ‘Oh my god. I DO, do this. And I’ve always done this.”
Few people realize that theatre is really a first love for Eloise Laws; who says that when she first moved to New York, it was for that reason and not unlike other thespians, she found herself auditioning for everything all over town.
“I went to New York to pursue a theatrical career. And got caught up in trying to make some money and make a living. I auditioned for Playboy Club – [and] won the audition.”
Laws had also auditioned for the Broadway musical, “Hair.” But turned it down.
“I took the Playboy gig because it was paying more money…I said, ‘I’m going where the money is,’” she says with a laugh.
It took her 30 years to get back to the theatre.
“I started doing ‘Candide’ (Leonard Bernstein) and I did ‘South Pacific’ (Rogers & Hammerstein) at the Denver Theatre Company,” where she was creatively cast in the role of ‘Bloody Mary.’
A role reprised on film in 1958 by actress Juanita Hall.
Recalling her gratitude for Donovan Marley, who cast her in the role, Eloise admits, “I’ll never forget him. God bless him! He said, ‘We don’t have to have an Asian woman. And we can also pad her clothes and make her look heavy.’”
According to Laws, it was this role that started the ball rolling in her theatre career again. “When the music business took a dive I said, ‘well, let me go back to what I really love, the theatre.’”
In coming back to her feelings on getting the LAWTF Eternity Award Laws adds, “In theatre just your work is an award in itself. But to be recognized by your peers, I just find that to be the ultimate, and I get choked up. So thank you so much,” she says.
When talking about her famous siblings, Laws says, “They are more talented in the music, record industry than I am. This (theatre) was my first love, and the other came about just being in the right place at the right time,” she says about her work in the music industry.”
“And they know this too. When they come to see me perform in the theatre they’re like, ‘OMG. We just didn’t know! You not only sing, but you can do this too!’” describes Eloise, who admits her siblings “don’t even have a clue” when it comes to acting.
Check out the latest promo for “Telling Our Truths!”
The opening night Gala will also acknowledge the exceptional work of five other women:
Integrity Award: Sandra Evers-Manly –
Maverick Award: Marja-
Rainbow Award: Ana Maria Alvarez –Award-
Rainbow Award: Dr. Chantal Rodriguez -Award-
Infinity Award: Elizabeth Pena (Actor)
LAWTF begins its annual 4-day Festival with an opening night “Champagne Gala,” with performances by Eloise Laws and Ashley Gayle (“Study on a Butterfly”), Thursday, March 24 and more performances each night thereafter through Easter Sunday, March 27.
The event takes place at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Avenue, Venice, California 90291
To order tickets for the entire festival or individual performances click here.
Visit LAWTF for more information.