How WVF Champions Theater Women in Denver and Beyond

It's all about attitude, "Hattitude" and making women a central artistic priority.

The development team at the annual "Women with Hattitude" fundraiser. (Photo: Denver Center for the Performing Arts.)

Is it possible to create a significant line of funding at a major theater organization specifically for women to work on shows? The Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) says yes. They created the Women’s Voices Fund (WVF) in 2005; the endowment is now worth more than $1 million. And it has supported, thus far, 33 playwrights, 29 directors and 19 commissioned plays.

When DCPA’s now-former producing artistic director, Kent Thompson, first arrived in 2005, he realized that the company had not been producing new work by women at the same rate as new work by men. Rather than chalk up such a disparity to “a pipeline issue,” however, Thompson and his team resolved to intentionally program and budget for women’s voices every season. Because of this commitment, DCPA began to work with women in the field before they became notable for their achievements, from playwright Lauren Gunderson (currently the most produced playwright in America) to director Wendy C. Goldberg (artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center).

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Director Jody McAuliffe, a professor of theater practice at Duke University, is another such artist; she directed a reading of Neal Bell’s Shadow of Himself at DCTC’s New Play Summit in 2007, later developing and directing other Bell plays, from Sleeping Dogs at the Mark Taper Forum to Somewhere in the Pacific and Now You See Me at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, NC. I recently asked McAulifee about her involvement with the WVF. In an email, she called it an “excellent credit for my professional work.” Most participants generally have to agree.

One of WVF’s strengths is that DCPA assigned people to work on it rather than letting the idea languish for want of someone(s) to do the work. Megan Fevurly, development manager for annual giving, for example, oversees the WVF’s fundraising and coordinates donor events. Douglas Langworthy, director of new play development, works with the rest of the artistic team to identify new plays, new playwrights and new directors specifically for the WVF. Supported work comes directly from DCPA’s New Play Summit, from Colorado playwrights, and from other new work festivals across the country. “Having this money is a real incentive for us to select female playwrights and directors,” Langworthy told me. “It’s a real priority to have this representation.”

The approach to fundraising for WVF is the same as for the project overall: rather than brushing initiatives off with “If we can afford it,” the attitude is that support for the program is simply a critical priority. There are, for example, multiple fundraising appeals each year and a real focus on how to grow the endowment. “Women with Hattitude”, the WVF’s annual luncheon fundraiser, is considered one of the top-rated philanthropic events in Denver, attracting all the local A-listers. For a gift of just $5,000 over five years, donors are inducted as “lifetime members” to the fund, enjoying perks such as special events with WVF recipients. “I’ve seen the excitement,” Fevurly says. “Donors go crazy to meet the playwrights, directors, designers, and see who their money is actually funding. They get connected to why they give and they come back to give again.”

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When DCPA took a stance on increasing women’s work, it necessarily influenced hiring within the organization. “Our commitment to women has trickled down and up,” Fevurly acknowledged. And it’s true, for women have taken many leadership positions during the past 12 years, including President and CEO Janice Sinden and Chief Development Officer Deanna Haas. Going forward, Fevurly said that the company “wants to increase the number of female stage managers and designers, too” — often by using WVF money.

Integrating women — their voices, themselves — into theatrical seasons is possible. It’s possible instead of “special” or “festival” programming; it’s possible without a “second stage” series. It’s possible with a commitment to scheduling, funding and developing the artistic relationships necessary to bring forward those voices, those artists. DCPA acts as a leader in answering the tough questions for today’s theater. It does it by actually leading, rather than by hand-wringing.