Ten-minute play festivals, a collection of short plays often put on in a single evening, have been used for years as a both a showcase for new talent and a way for actors to get some stage time to help develop their craft.
This weekend, July 27-29, Janelle Renee Dunn is presenting the inaugural “Ain’t I a Woman” play festival.
In addition to offering an opportunity to up-and-comers, Dunn, who works by day as the education associate at Actors Theater of Louisville, hopes “Ain’t I a Woman” can help redress an imbalance in American theater — plays by women of color represent only a sliver of the plays produced in America.
It’s an apt title, taken from Frances Dana Barker Gage’s version of an extemporaneous speech by Sojourner Truth. The original speech was made in support of women’s equal rights but focused on the intersection of race and gender faced by black women.
Insider caught up with Dunn to talk about how the festival came about, starting with her time as a member of the currently inactive African-American-focused theater company Smoked Apple.
“We had ‘6’10,’ a short play fest for African-American playwrights, and I thought it would be really cool if we did an all-female version,” said Dunn.
That idea didn’t come to fruition at Smoked Apple, but she wasn’t ready to give up. To help get the festival get going, Dunn sought and received a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. As she prepared to seek submissions from playwrights, Dunn had a slight change of heart regarding the focus.
“After I started working at Actors, I did a presentation. It was basically about how majority white institutions can be allies for people of color,” she explained. “One of the people there, a queer black guy, asked how can people of color be allies for other people of color.”
She decided to open the festival up to all women of color.
“This is how people of color show up for each other and give space to each other. So I switched it,” said Dunn.
With her new vision in mind, she began seeking out submissions, using a mixture of social media and community contacts, both in Louisville and in the larger American theater community, to get the word out. At the same time, Dunn started reaching out to members of the community to direct the plays once they came in.
“I was, like, who are all of the black and brown women in the theater that I know. And I just asked them … although there is one male director,” she said.
After Dunn assembled her directors and the submission window for plays ended, she put them to work reading the plays. Part of the process of choosing plays was letting her directors weigh in on what they wanted to take on.
“They got every play that was submitted, but the names were blacked out,” she said. “They didn’t know who or where it came from, they just knew the play. I had them select their top three. From their top three, I made the final call.”
“Ain’t I a Woman” is dedicated to women of color, but it’s not limited to women of color from Louisville.
“Two in the festival are from Louisville, three are from Chicago, one from New York, and one from Virginia,” said Dunn.
Finding playwrights and directors isn’t even the half the work of producing a show like “Ain’t I a Woman.” For starters, actors need to be cast and production teams assembled. But for many Louisville artists, the two biggest hurdles for producing a show are finding a venue and rehearsal space.
With multiple plays, “Ain’t I a Woman” needed multiple rehearsal spaces for its large cast and crew.
“We have 18 actors, seven directors. It’s a lot of people,” Dunn said.
To find that space, she relied not on grant money but on the currency that fuels 90 percent of independent theater — social capital.
“I asked, who has connections? I reached out. Working at Actors, I was able to utilize rehearsal space, especially since we’re dark,” she said. “And then other people I knew that had spaces … spaces at Mellwood (Art Center), the library.”
After all that work, what exactly will audiences see this weekend? With purpose to redress a wrong that Dunn sees in society, what will be the content?
One work uses the literal facial covering of a traditional blank theater mask to explore the “identity switching” women of color have to do.
“‘What’s Behind the Mask’ by Gwendolyn Evans — it’s about how in these different situations, we have to put on a mask and we can’t reveal our true selves, or how we’re feeling. We just have to smile and take the burden of everything,” said Dunn.
Another play addresses the emotional fallout of an open adoption, while others tackle immigration and sexual assault. But not all the plays are issue-oriented or intense dramas.
“We have one play about a woman who gets trapped in her boyfriend’s grandma’s bathroom smoking weed,” said Dunn. “And one with the devil eating Oreos.”
She also pointed out that she seeks to redress something else she sees as an inequity in the theater world.
“The show is free, because I want everyone to have access.”
“Ain’t I a Woman” starts at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, July 27-28, and at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 28, at The Russell Theatre, 515 S. 18th St. Tickets are free and likely to sell out, so get yours in advance.