Denver theater director Angela Astle is on a mission to ensure that the voices of women in the arts are heard. Three years ago, when she read the study on gender bias in theater by Princeton graduate Emily Sands, she realized there was a need for supporting women playwrights. In a recent interview with Abby Ellis-Angell, she talked about her development as a director and her creation of the Athena Project, a Denver organization promoting the talents of primarily local artists.
ATC: You earned a bachelor’s degree in business and theater at the University of Colorado at Denver. What made you decide on a career in directing?
AA: I had been given the job of managing “Extremities”, a play by William Mastrosimone, which inspired me because of its intensity. We took a lot of time talking with the actors about their emotions, and that opened my eyes to how sensitive actors are, and helped me determine my particular style of communication with them.
AEA: To what advantage was your business degree in building your career?
AA: After graduating from UCD, I held down several jobs, including being a Mary Kay franchisee, which taught me a lot more about people, relationships, and marketing, being comfortable with people, and not being afraid of their responses. I became a director; it was kind of a management position, in which I motivated a group of thirteen other women to grow in the company. Finally, this led to my forming Glass Slipper Solutions, a consulting and customer service cell phone company. All of these experiences helped to develop my skill sets.I think it’s important for most people in theater to have a well-rounded appreciation and skills in other disciplines.
AEA: You had an opportunity to work in the New York theater scene after that. How did it come about?
AA: An instructor of mine at UCD connected me with the New York International Fringe Festival, a huge festival in all kinds of theater taking place across several neighborhoods in downtown Manhattan over the course of three weeks during August. I got the job of venue manager, supervising all the theater companies that were performing in their space. They were each full-length productions, and had to be built with that time frame in mind. My job was to enforce that time frame. It really opened my eyes to New York theater, and was the best thing I could have done, simply because it called on my organizational and people management skills.
AEA: It seems that your work with the NYIFF was a kind of springboard to several other theatrical jobs. Right?
AA: Right. It led to my working an associate producer for the Flux Theatre Ensemble, an independent theater, where I had my first directing gig, and got favorably reviewed by the New York Times, and then on to the EstroGenius Festival, an annual celebration of emerging and seasoned professional female writers of short plays. From there, I went to the New Perspectives Theater, which presents the works of new playwrights, women and people of color. My last job in the New York theater scene was as an intern at the off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company, where I learned the art of fundraising and reading scripts for its literary department.
AEA: That seems like quite an apprenticeship. What do you think you came away from it with?
AA: I call New York my ‘grad school experience’. I realized that in New York, many people were dedicated to working with new plays. It would have taken me years to have broken into small traditional theater, much less into a Broadway show, as a director. The independent theater community, which produced a lot of avante-garde, or non-traditional theater, was a good thing for me.
AEA: When you returned to the theater community of Denver, did your perspective change?
AA: Working on a variety of festivals had been an intense experience in collaboration. When I got back here, I missed that kind of energy and buzz. There was only one female-focused theater group, and they produced only one show a year, which wasn’t always focused on new work. I saw this as the opportunity to investigate what Denver needed.
AEA: So how did you go about doing that?
AA: I was invited to an open house at a new venue in Denver, the Edge Theater, a month before its opening season. I told the artistic director, Rick Yaconis, that I believed there was an unfulfilled niche for new works here, and how I thought we could take care of it. He apparently liked my idea and trusted me enough to give me a chance to stage our Plays in Progress Series for one week the following summer. I reached out to every female artist I knew, mostly writers, and invited them to a meeting to talk about a women’s play festival. That meeting took place that next summer, but the Athena Project didn’t become a reality until that fall, when I met Connie Findley, my marketing director, who inspired me to pursue my goal.
AEA: Let’s talk about that.
AA: Theater just happens to be where we started because that’s my background, and what I know most about. It wasn’t as simple as it sounds. It was a matter of using my skill sets, looking around, researching, and thinking through, and talking with any people, women in particular, about the fate of being a female playwright in Colorado. My board of directors is comprised of like-minded women, each of whom has contributed her individual skills, energies, and ideas to the reality of why Denver needs a female playwrighting and arts festival. We started with the idea of a ten-year plan and seeing how far we could go with it.
AEA: So, how would you describe its progress?
AA: Our initial success was the presentation in the summer of 2012 of Plays in Progress, a series of works by local playwrights from which the play that was to be the world premiere for the first Athena Project Festival in 2013 was selected. Here we are, in 2015, and we’re experiencing great growth in the number of participating artists, as well as in audience attendance.
AEA: That’s excellent! Tell me something about the programs that make up the project.
AA: Well, to begin with, its centerpiece is the annual festival, which takes place each March. All the other programs point to it. It began as a showcase for the world premiere of the annual winner of the Plays in Progress Series, and four new plays in progress, and has evolved into a multi-faceted arena that includes an evening of dance, a festival of music, a showcase of local visual artists, and a fashion show featuring emerging as well as professional designers.
AEA: What are the other facets of the Athena Project that take place over the year?
AA: Briefly, it’s a variety of activities that include Fostering Female Leaders in the
Arts, a program designed to train directors, stage managers, and dramaturgs; the Girls Write program that gives sixth-through-ninth-grade girls an overview of the different components of theater and teaches them to write plays; Writing With Wine, the fundraising arm of the project, to which the public is invited to a participant’s home to learn about playwriting; Dine=Drink=Donate, an event geared toward building audiences, in partnership with a local bar or restaurant, to serve an ‘original’ Athena Project cocktail, and Mixology, an event where participants compete in the creation of tastiest and most “Athena”-themed drink to be featured at the Dine=Drink=Donate events of the year.
AEA: That’s quite a roster. Give me some details about the Foster Female Leaders in the Arts program. For instance, who can participate?
AA: The focus is on inviting college and university students to participate in a hands-on workshop that teaches the Athena Project model. We provide a dramaturg, a director, actors and tech people for each production, but it all has to be facilitated within 25 hours. We have limited the time because we’re not fully staging the four Plays in Progress. What we’re trying to say is, “Here’s how to direct a new work in a 25-hour model.” To participate, a playwright must present a work that not only fits within the 25-hour time frame allowed, but must also be near the end of its development process so that it can be considered a possible choice as a world premiere production at the festival the following year.
AEA: What about the Girls Write Program? How did it evolve?
AA: The idea was conceived when I was talking with Christine Winn, a second-grade teacher and initial founding member of the project began talking about the need for a writing component that would empower young students to make their voices heard. The general idea was to teach girls how to write plays. Through our connection with Girls Inc., and the Mayor’s office, the program has become a part of the curriculum of the Girls Athletic Leadership School, the first all-girls public school in Denver.
AEA: What’s your approach to networking?
AA: I try to stay abreast of what’s going on in the theatrical community because that’s what educates me and makes me a go-to person when things happen. There are several relationships that I cultivate, so that when I go to see a show, I’m usually cultivating actor-potential relationships as well as connection with people that I’ve been wanting to meet for future donation or collaborations.
AEA: How would you describe the status of the Athena Project?
AA: I think it’s fair to say that it’s a continuing work in progress. That’s what makes it exciting both for us and for anyone who joins us. Our organization consists of a working board and various levels of supporters. It takes people with the necessary skill sets, and time and money to continue to develop the festival in the way that I see how it could be ten years from now.
AEA: How would you describe yourself as the head of this many-faceted organization?
AA: I would say I’m passionate about my work, a little insane, and definitely a strategic thinker looking at the big picture. The Athena Project is a big picture idea with a strong mission statement: “To empower women and strengthen the Denver community through developing and showcasing women’s and girls’ artistic contributions, while inviting new audiences into the creative process.”
Abby Ellis-Angell is an arts and entertainment freelance feature writer living in Denver, CO, where she has contributed to the Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, and the Boulder Daily Camera, as well as to various national magazines and newspapers for many years.
Angela Astle is the Founder and Executive Producer of Athena Project, and is proud to be the creator of this festival and is continually excited by the synergy it creates. Angela made her New York directorial debut Spring 2008 with Retro Productions’ Mill Fire (nominated for five NYITA awards). One year later, she was the Director of Flux Theatre Ensemble’s critically acclaimed Pretty Theft, written by Adam Szymkowicz, which received a very favorable New York Times review. In New York, she directed numerous never-produced-before plays at Manhattan Theatre Source, The Workshop Theatre, Peter Jay Sharp Theatre/Playwrights Horizons, and Off Broadway at Theatre 80. She also has directed and produced three shows in three different festivals in New York in addition to working as a Venue Manager and Script Reader for the New York International Fringe Festival (2007 & 2008). Upon returning to Denver in Spring of 2010, Angela began talking to other female artists about creating a female focused arts festival and Athena was born. Angela’s Denver directing credits include A View From the Bridge (Edge Theatre), The Laramie Project (Evergreen Players), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Edge Theatre) for which she won an Edgy and Marlowe Best Director award. She has also directed The Familiars, a new holiday play commissioned by Ellen K. Graham for The Edge, and is currently working on American Girls by Hilary Bettis. In addition, she has produced 2 other festivals celebrating the work of local playwrights and numerous staged readings. She has enjoyed developing new plays for the past 8 years and continues to run a program of monthly workshops at The Edge Theatre which gets the work of local playwrights on its feet. She is the Literary Manager at Aurora Fox Theatre and a member of the Rocky Mountain PBS Women and Girls Lead Advisory Council. Angela is an alumni of University of Colorado at Denver with a degree in Business and Theatre and a proud member of the 2009 Lincoln Center Directors Lab.