Talk about an embarrassment of riches.
That’s the phrase that has started to swirl around frontal lobes when thinking of the Aurora Cultural Arts District these days and it’s an appropriate description for the docket of this year’s Athena Project Arts Festival.
“Each year we strive to raise the bar on all aspects,” Angela Astle, founder and executive director of the Athena Project, said in a statement.
And with over 250 female artists slated to perform and have work displayed in dozens of venues across five metro area arts districts, the bar for the third-annual festival definitively has found a new altitude. The festival will run from March 20 through April 5.
Formerly just a theater event, the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design-sponsored festival, which focuses on women’s empowerment through the arts, has exponentially grown in its short existence. Last year alone, the festival was able to double its gallery space, reach an audience of over 1,000 people and operate on a budget of over $20,000 — much of which went toward paying the artists.
New this year, the festival will boast a stand-alone concert featuring all female artists at the Cervantes’ Other Side in Denver on March 29.
Though Astle said she wishes she could pay each artist more, she believes the festival’s expansion will attract more money.
“We’re very proud of paying our artists, though obviously we wish we could pay everybody lots more, but we have to start somewhere,” she said. “We’re hoping with expansion in our third year that we’re attracting more donors and corporate sponsors and later, grantors start to come into play.”
Playing a hand in that expansion this year, the Athena Project team has placed some star power atop their playbill.
Katherine Grassle, most well-known as the bonneted matriarch Caroline Ingalls on NBC’s “Little House on the Prairie,” is starring in the world premiere of “Harm’s Way,” a theater production by local playwright Marilyn Harris Kriegel that focuses on the paranoia and fear in a post-9/11 world.
Last year’s “Plays in Progress” winner, “Harm’s Way” was chosen by audience members and Athena Project board members to be produced as a fully fledged production in 2015. Each year, the festival hosts several works by local female playwrights as part of its “Plays in Progress” series with a winner selected at the end of the festival to be produced as a main stage production the following year. Directed by Penny Walrath Cole, “Harm’s Way” is slated to debut at the Aurora Fox Arts Center’s studio theater on March 20.
This year, Denver playwright Catherine Wiley, an English professor at the University of Colorado of Denver, is one of the four “Plays in Progress” hopefuls aiming to have her work, “Sheltered” be fully produced in 2016.
A Greek chorus-inspired work that focuses on the lives of several homeless women in Denver, Wiley began research for “Sheltered” three years ago when she first volunteered at Capitol Hill United Ministries, a homeless women’s shelter in central Denver.
“(After volunteering) I thought that this is really an important subject and I’d love to write a play about it,” Wiley said. “I worked with the women and the people who work with them, and really got a sense of why people, especially women, end up homeless. The fact they’ve survived and they keep going every day is amazing.”
Wiley was able to put on a small production of “Sheltered” last fall with the help of a $1,000 grant from The Puffin Foundation. And even if her work isn’t selected as the “Plays in Progress” winner this year, she said she’s confident she’ll fully produce the play sometime within the next year — ideally using homeless women as the actresses.
In the meantime, Wiley trumpeted the work of the Athena Project and touted the platform the festival provides marginalized demographics, including both women and the homeless population.
“They feel invisible on the street and I think that one of the things that theater does is that it forces people to look at and see people who they may not see otherwise,” Wiley said. “That was one of my main goals of the play.”
Only 17 percent of all plays — both on and off-Broadway — are written by women, according to a report from the New York State Council on the Arts.
Chanel Karimkhani, a Boulder-based actress slated to appear in both “Sheltered” as well as a second “Plays in Progress” production entitled “We’ll Never Get to Moscow” by Rebecca Gorman O’Neil, said the unique malleability of the production process has been beneficial for the producers, playwrights, directors and actresses.
“You get such a buzz from being involved in the process,” she said. “It’s amazing to see the playwright work with you and see things change based on how actors read a certain part. Usually you audition, you’re cast and you don’t change anything at all, but this process I think offers some more creativity to everyone.”
The Athena Project Arts Festival runs March 20 – April 5.
An opening night reception will be held from 6 – 8 p.m. on March 20 at the ACAD Gallery, 1400 Dallas St. in Aurora. For a full listing of festival events, visit athenaprojectfestival.org/festival or call 303-219-0882.