Like the word “liberal,” the word “feminist” has been defined by certain groups practically as a profanity. But don’t tell Aina Holtz-Lagor that you know what she means when she describes Avalon Isle Women’s Theatre Group as a feminist organization.
“There are a lot of different kinds of feminism,” Holtz-Lagor says. “We subscribe to a definition of a feminist as being a person who believes in equal rights for men and women ... and that’s it. It’s just about creating a balance between what women get to do on stage versus what men get to do on stage.
“All we wanted to create is an opportunity for women—actresses and local playwrights—to do stories that concern women and their issues. And we think this city is ready for that.”
Ready or not, here they come. With the launch of their inaugural production, Desdemona, A Play About a Handkerchief, Avalon Isle—co-founded by Holtz-Lagor and Candace Christensen—hope to bring to Utah something it has never seen before. The two women met while working on a production for StageRight Theatre Company, and realized they shared many of the same frustrations with the roles that were available to them. “I felt like all the roles I was playing were very similar,” Christensen recalls. “It was either the ingenue or a funky, teeny-tiny character role. And I wanted to play ... something more challenging.”
In addition to planning full productions like Desdemona—in which both Christensen and Holtz-Lagor will star—and staged readings, Avalon Isle plans to host workshops for actors and aspiring playwrights to help put the spotlight on women’s stories. In Christensen’s mind, that makes Desdemona an ideal project on which to build Avalon Isle’s reputation. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel, Desdemona tells the story of Shakespeare’s Othello as a laundry-room comedy, re-imagining the role of the Moor of Venice’s doomed wife. “The wonderful thing,” says Christensen, “is that [Vogel] takes a classic text and turns it around to show the woman’s point of view; it seeks to strike a balance in how we perceive these characters. So this play represents what we’re trying to do in theater and in this community.”
Plus, notes Holtz-Lagor, there appears to be something strangely fascinating in turning supporting characters—Ã¡ la Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead—into stars of their own stories. “Like Joey from Friends,” she says with a laugh. “What is that?”
While Avalon Isle attempts to establish an identity with Desdemona, Holtz-Lagor and Christensen have already found plenty of support for their endeavor. The problem of production space—always at a premium for a new theater group—was solved when Derek Dyer and the Utah Arts Alliance offered upstairs studio space for Desdemona. They hope to partner with New Visions Gallery on a project for Stop the Violence Week next spring, and view the new Women’s Art Center not just as a prospective partner, but as a sign that there’s something in the air encouraging optimism.
But there are still plenty of challenges—artistic and financial—faced by a new theater group. Christensen believes that passion has to carry it, at least initially. “Even if we don’t ever become as big as Pioneer Theatre Company, we get to do plays we love,” she says.
Adds Holtz-Lagor, “It almost feels—not in a political sense—like a mission ... We might not get rich, but there is something valuable.”
Their hope is that people take the chance to discover that value, not assuming Avalon Isle’s goal is “man-bashing” or slamming the LDS church. “I have this picture in my mind—maybe it’s a little corny—of a lighthouse,” says Holtz-Lagor. “Whoever finds themselves attracted to what we’re doing should come to us. I’m sure there will be people who feel like they can’t identify with it, but we’re hoping that ... we’ll show what feminism can be in a positive sense.”
That’s “feminism” as an eight-letter word, not a four-letter word.
DESDEMONA, A PLAY ABOUT A HANDKERCHIEF Avalon Isle Women’s Theatre Group 2191 S. 300 West Through Nov. 14 Phone 971-7866 for performance dates and times