A women's world at The Furniture Factory

By Donald V. Calamia

What two pioneering women birthed in Ann Arbor over a four-day period in August 2004 has since moved east, changed leadership, added other art forms to the mix and expanded to three weekends. But the original purpose of "Pandora's Box Fest" - now "BoxFest Detroit" - has never changed. "It's a way to showcase female directors," explained the festival's current artistic director, Shannon Ferrante.

While affirmative action has helped move women into top leadership positions throughout corporate America, theater is still predominately a man's industry - particularly in the fields of directing and playwriting. But that's been changing locally - thanks, in part, to "BoxFest." "We've seen so much good come out of the festival," Ferrante said.

And she should know. After a few years of directing short plays at "BoxFest," Ferrante was given the opportunity to stage the world premiere of "Dr. Seward's Dracula" at Planet Ant. This year, her production of "Red Light Winter" was the talk of the town. But she's not the only success story.

"Frannie Shepherd-Bates started as a director with us, and now she's directing at Planet Ant next year. And Lauren Bickers took her show, 'Timeless: The Danceical,' to the Skybox in Chicago."

"BoxFest" even helped producer/director Alison Christy get into grad school at the University of Houston. "I applied, and the only work they wanted to talk about was 'BoxFest.' I've acted, I've directed, I've done dramaturgy work - and this was the thing they honed in on. I thought that was quite interesting," she remarked.

That's what Ferrante loves about "BoxFest." "We have this range of directors, and we're watching these women grow year after year."

The festival, too, has grown - from an initial six directors to 16. And this summer, the expanded three-weekend schedule features a diverse repertoire that includes 16 short plays, improv, an art exhibit, live musical performances and a cocktail hour. The variety, executive director Kelly Rossi says, is to help attract people who might not otherwise come to the theater to see a play. "Nine hours of just theater would drive people nuts," she laughed.

The move last year to The Furniture Factory on the fringe of Detroit's Cultural Center is a major reason why "BoxFest" has been able to expand, organizers said. "It's so spacious," Molly McMahon, the art liaison explained. "It really lends itself to what we need."

That's especially true of the lobby and upstairs area that will serve as the art gallery. "The art community mirrors (the theater community) in a lot of ways. You have the 'big dogs,' but then you have the people who are really hungry to get in a show. So it's really nice to offer (women artists) an opportunity to be a part of this great festival and get some exposure," McMahon said.

Plus, their inclusion helps expand on what organizers believe is one of "BoxFest's" greatest assets. "It's becoming a network of women who get together and talk," said Ferrante.

But that's not all. "This is one of the strongest networks I've ever worked with," said producer and second-year participant Lyndsay Michalik. "People are so supportive of each other."

But that type of support can only go so far. What's traditionally missing, Ferrante and Rossi explained, is attendance by the area's artistic directors - the decision makers who could one day employ these women directors. Weekend passes were sent last year to area artistic directors, but few attended. "That's something we'd like to see more of. I understand about being busy, but I'd like to see the artistic directors get out in the community a bit more. This isn't something that someone threw together; they'd be seeing finished products from the directors," Ferrante said.

The result, then, could lead to a directing assignment at one of the established professional theaters. But Ferrante is a realist; she understands that theater executives are hesitant to assign a major show to an inexperienced director - male or female. So she'd like artistic directors to consider "BoxFest" directors for their staged readings, late night shows and other projects that their more experienced directors may not have the time (or interest) to do. Sure, that's like begging for scraps, Ferrante agreed. "But it's just so hard to get an opportunity to direct."

One theater that attended last year, Who Wants Cake? Theatre, is this summer's host theater. Another contacted "BoxFest" with an unusual request. "They said, 'We know this girl, and we'd like to see her (direct) something," Rossi recalled. "So the groundwork has been laid."

McMahon, a four-time "BoxFest" participant, agrees. "The broader and more accessible we are, the more credibility we get. People are taking us much more seriously now."

So too are the directors, actors and technicians, all of whom are donating their time and talent to "BoxFest." "At some point, maybe, we will be able to give them a roll of quarters or something," Rossi chuckled when the festival organizers were asked to talk about the future of "BoxFest." "If you give an actor $50, they can live on it for a year!"

But in the meantime, "BoxFest Detroit '09" is getting ready for its Aug. 6 preview and fundraiser ($20) that begins at 7 p.m. with a cocktail social hour, followed by a sampling of shows and a panel discussion on women in theater. The festival then runs Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 22. Tickets are $10 per day, or $30 for a festival pass.

Organizers predict attendees will certainly have a good time - especially when the admission price works out to about $1 per play. "If they're expecting anything, that's not what they're going to get. Love it or hate it, shut up! You just saw a show for a dollar," Rossi laughed.

REVIEW:

'BoxFest Detroit '09'

At The Furniture Factory, 4126 Third St, Detroit. Friday-Saturday Aug. 7 - 22. $10. 734-552-7535. http://www.boxfestdetroit.com

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