A Conversation With LAWTF’S Adilah Barnes
By Darlene Donloe
With only days before the start of the 24th annual Los Angeles Women’s Theater Festival (LAWTF), Adilah Barnes, the co-founder of the event, was too busy to know just how busy she was.
She was dancing as fast as I could in an effort to make sure the festival, with the theme, Taking Flight!, took off without a hitch when it kicked off four days of festivities starting Thur., March 23, with a Champagne Gala & Awards Ceremony at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Hollywood. The solo performances all took place Fri.-Sun., Mar 24-26, at Electric Lodge in Venice.
An award-winning actress with a career that spans more than 40 years, Barnes, who turned 67 on March 25 and is best known for her role as Anne Marie on the sitcom Roseanne, co-founded the festival in 1993 with fellow actor Miriam Reed. Since then the Oroville, CA native has watched the festival grow and gain momentum every year, making it the longest-running annual solo festival for women in Los Angeles.
I recently caught up with Barnes (AB) to talk about the festival.
DD: The theme for LAWTF this year is Taking Flight! Why did you pick that as the theme?
AB: Every year we have an overall theme and a sub theme that fits whoever is performing on that bill. I think all these women, in their own way, are soaring and rising above and going to the next place in their lives. It's empowering.
DD: What did you have planned for audiences this year?
AB: I wanted them to have a fresh lineup. Only three out of the 19 performers returned. This year we had a lot of new talent. Usually we have more than three returning. This year was about new faces and new voices. You gotta keep it fresh. It’s good for growth.
DD: The theme of the opening night program was STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF. Talk about that theme.
AB: Every year on a Thursday night we have a champagne gala and awards ceremony. We honor women who have done extraordinary things in theater. We’ve all had to stand on some shoulders. This year we honored six women. We honored Barbara Morrison (Eternity Award), Estelle Campbell (Rainbow Award), Leslie K. Johnson (Rainbow Award), Megan Cavallari (Integrity Award), Paulina Sahagun (Maverick Award) and Doris Roberts posthumously (Infinity Award).
DD: There are lots of women doing wonderful things in theater. How do you go about deciding whom to honor?
AB: Every year we open it up to nominations. People nominate women they think are deserving. They say why a particular person should be considered. At the end, I make the call.
DD: Do you always honor five or six women?
AB: It depends how many nominations we get. This year we selected six out of 25 nominations.
DD: Who are the people who do the nominating?
AB: Anybody can nominate someone – the public, the board of directors, a publicist, anybody. We send out information, including a newsletter, letting people know they can nominate someone.
DD: What is the criteria for deciding what talent is showcased each year?
AB: We have a screening panel. The submission should be received between April 1 and August 1. A group comes together. We meet at my home and go through all of the tapes. We look at all of the submissions and then give each one a rating from 0-5. It goes through several rounds like that until we settle on who should perform.
DD: The Champagne Gala and Awards Ceremony on March 23, honored exceptional women who have made laudable contributions in theatre. What makes them exceptional and what is a laudable contribution?
AB: What makes them exceptional is that they are doing something extra ordinary, above and beyond the mediocre. Doris (Roberts) lived to be 90. She had a career and she did it all with grace. You look at what each of these women have done and you realize they’ve done something extraordinary.
DD: What is the state of women's theater in Los Angeles?
AB: I think it's a very exciting time. Solo work has become a huge genre in theater. It’s not only huge here, but across the world, especially in LA and New York. We’re the oldest solo festival in LA. It’s booming because of the solo work being done by women who are telling their personal stories.
DD: Why is there a need to designate something as women’s theater? Why isn’t it just theater?
AB: I think it’s important because it tells us who is performing. In our case we’ve had men who have performed. One year we had A One Night Stand that featured all men. We need the designation because the playing field is not equal yet. It gives us our own place where we can do our own work. We’ve got a place that’s ours.
DD: Where would you like to see women’s theater go?
AB: I’d like to see it going in the direction it’s going. I’d like to see more women producers in theater. I’d like to see more writers, producers and actors. If we have that, the more empowered we become.
Adilah Barnes opening night
DD: Has LAWTF progressed the way you expected? If yes, in what way?
AB: It has actually gone beyond the initial vision. We far exceeded what we envisioned. We’ve now had over 500 artists that we have produced. We have served 3,000 youth in LAUSD through our education program. We work with low income artists and at risk youth. That wasn’t the vision in the beginning.
DD: What was the vision in the beginning?
AB: In 1993 we were a group of women coming together to produce our own work. Now we have an educational arm. We’ve actualized that. Now we have an Empowerment Day in August where solo artists, male and female, can come together and listen to panels and participate in workshops.
DD: What constitutes women’s theater?
AB: I think it’s when something is founded, performed and run predominantly by women. It’s when those in positions of power tend to be women.
DD: Has the mission of LAWTF changed over the years to keep up with the times?
AB: It has grown. In the beginning we didn’t have awards. That's something new. We have branched out with our education arm. We have LA Women’s Radio – that’s new. There are a number of things that have evolved.
DD: Have you accomplished what you set out to accomplish when you co-founded LAWTF?
AB: I’d like to see us have a bigger budget so we are able to hire someone as executive producer and I can focus on the board of directors. We need more money to hire a paid staff. It’s really needed. We need our own space that we can rent. It would be nice to have some classes.
DD: What is your annual budget?
AB: It’s very small. I don’t want to go into it. The budget in terms of dollars and cents is small, however the in-kind value is more than that. We are 24 years old and we are a volunteer organization. I don’t get a salary.
DD: Do you have any upcoming events other than the theater festival?
AB: Yes, we do. We have a number of free events coming up, including the Empowerment Day in August. Everyone can go to our website for information (lawtf.org).
DD: What's the future of the organization? Where would you like to see it in 10, 15 or 20 years?
AB: By that time someone else would be at the helm. It would be time to groom new leadership, partnering more, growing the board of directors, expanding education and expanding our outreach arm.
DD: Next year is your 25th anniversary. Are you already planning a bigger and better festival?
AB: We are really just trying to make it through the 24th. We certainly hope next year will be big for us, though.
For information: (818) 760-0408 or lawtf.org.