AURORA | Forget ancestry websites and crowded family reunions. This year’s Athena Festival will give Malarie Stafford-Mustacchio the chance to connect with family roots on her own creative terms.
The Aurora-based arts fest offered an unlikely platform to Stafford-Mustacchio, an 11-year-old Aurora girl and Centennial Christian Academy student. During the two-week event based at several venues in the Aurora Cultural Arts District, she’ll debut her first original play on a professional stage for a paying audience. That play will be all about the most bizarre, quirky and charming habits of her grandmother.
“She always wants us to write our wills,” said Stafford-Mustacchio, whose grandmother just happens to be former Aurora state Rep. Debbie Stafford. Stafford-Mustacchio’s grandmother also stays out late at night, swings on porch swings with abandon and seeks out the best sales. “She does a lot of stuff. I wanted to write a play about that.”
Her chance came through the Girls Write, an after-school program that’s partnering with this year’s Athena Festival. Stafford-Mustacchio will be one of the youngest of hundreds of artists involved in this year’s event, a two-week combination of theater, visual art, fashion, music and dance scheduled for several venues on East Colfax Avenue starting this weekend.
“It’s been very fun. It’s a very good experience,” said Stafford-Mustacchio, who’s also set to act in another new play that will debut during the festival. “I want to see (my play) in action and see it performed.”
Giving Stafford-Mustacchio that opportunity gets to the heart of what the Athena Festival is all about. Now in its second year, the event is devoted to featuring the work of female playwrights, painters, musicians, dancers, designers and other artists. During its brief history, the festival has already given a forum to local playwrights, fashion designers, folk singers and choreographers.
Founder and Athena Festival Executive Producer Angela Astle says it’s just the beginning of what she sees as a promising and vital local tradition. This year’s event will benefit from a larger budget of more than $20,000 (the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design is a 2014 festival sponsor), as well as more artists and more art forms.
“Our five-year vision is to have each arts discipline as strongly represented as we represent theater. I feel like our theater program is the anchor,” said Astle, who also works as the literary director at the Aurora Fox arts center. “I’m proud of our growth just in the past year. The level of overall quality I’d say has gone up.”
The creative range has gone up, too. This year’s festival running March 14-30 at the Aurora Fox, the Kim Robards Dance Studio and the ACAD gallery at 1400 Dallas St. in the Aurora Cultural Arts District will feature 35 performances and work by more than 200 artists. That includes a performance art fashion show curated by local designer Caroline Smith, musical performances by local folk artist Angie Stevens and R&B artist SuCh and dance performances from the Kim Robards Dance Company, one of the newest arrivals in Aurora’s creative district.
In addition, the festival will feature the premiere of “Government Issued Long Johns,” a new show by local playwright Erin Wagoner.
The artistic range is what Astle had in mind since launching the festival as a platform for new theater three years ago. Astle always saw the event as a forum where female artists of all specialties could debut new work and have it judged on merit as opposed to connections to industry bigwigs in New York or Los Angeles. The Athena Fest is a venue where female playwrights, dancers, painters and designers don’t have to worry about having big-city references on their resumes.
That mission has brought its own blowback.
“For the most part, the response has been very positive. (But) I feel like we’re always walking that line of being judged of being sexist … and we’re not that at all,” Astle said, pointing to a marked lack of opportunities for female artists of all stripes. “It’s not effective to stand on a soap box and just say, ‘This is wrong.’ Let’s do something about it. Let’s shine the light on some really talented artists who happen to be female.”
The Girls Write component of this year’s festival is a perfect example of that philosophy, Astle adds. The “Girls Write Plays in Progress” workshop event will premiere six short plays by young female writers in the 6th to 9th grade, including Stafford-Mustacchio. According to her mother, Becky Mustacchio, the festival will offer her 11-year-old daughter a whole different kind of reach and freedom.
“She learned a lot from it. We know what it sounds like on paper, but to see it in action will be totally different,” said Beck Mustacchio, who shows up in the play as a major character. “Let’s hope they play my character right.”
The Athena Festival will run from March 14 to 30 at multiple venues in the Aurora Cultural Arts District on East Colfax Avenue. Highlights include the world premiere of “Government Issued Long Johns” by Erin Wagoner kicking off at 8 p.m. March 14 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 E. Colfax Ave.; the “Plays in Progress” series including new work by students in the Girls Write program running March 20 – 30 at the Aurora Fox; art gallery exhibitions featuring works by female visual artists at the ACAD Studio, 1400 Dallas St. and the Kim Robards Dance Studio, 9990 E. Colfax Ave.; and the Utopia/Dystopia Fashion Show at 8 p.m. March 26 at the Aurora Fox studio theater. Information and additional events: athenaprojectfestival.org.