James O’Hagan Murphy and Kate Poling in 'Smoke,' by Kim Davies. Photo credit: Meghan Ralph, Soular Radiant Photography.
2015 TRUE WEST AWARDS: 30 DAYS, 30 BOUQUETS
Today’s recipient: And Toto Too Theatre Company founder Susan Lyles
Today’s presenter: DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore
According to a recent sampling, just 22 percent of all plays produced on American stages between 2011-14 were written by women. Even though women historically average about 57 percent of the theatregoing audience.
As the issue of gender disparity in American playwriting finally emerged as a major topic of national conversation in recent months, Denver’s only theatre company dedicated to exclusively presenting women’s voices was quietly celebrating its 10th anniversary.
And Toto Too Theatre Company came to life in 2005. Susan Lyles had given birth to her second son just five weeks before she went into rehearsals for her company's first production. As a longtime actor, costume designer and especially as both mother and role model to young boys, she said, enough was enough.
“It was just time to take the leap,” said Lyles, who had moved to Colorado from Kansas with her husband, Darren Smith, in 1998. “I felt it was important for me to continue to be creative around my children. And as a woman, I realized how underrepresented we were, and how little control we had over our art form.
“And also as a woman, I wanted to hear my own voice up there on the stage,” she added. And she wanted her boys to hear that voice as well.
It has not been an easy or obvious go for Lyles. In the first 10 years, her not-for-profit company has fully staged 12 plays by women playwrights (all but one world premieres). The most recent was Kim Davies’ Smoke, a positively Mamet-like exploration of sexual power between a man and woman who hook up at a kink party in New York City.
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And Toto Too is perhaps best known for its annual play crawl that takes place amid the funky Tennyson Street Art District in northwest Denver. Each summer, Lyles commissions 12 women to write two-minute plays all presented environmentally by some of the area’s top actors in galleries and shops stretching between 38th and 44th avenues. The Play Crawl, the company’s major annual fundraiser, has introduced more than 50 short new works since it began in 2011. And Toto Too also has launched a reading series that introduced seven new full-length works by women in 2015 alone.
Like most any other small theatre company in the metro area, finding a permanent home has proven to be an elusive goal. And Toto Too has had four homes, having most recently settled into the black box at the Vintage Theatre in Aurora.
The lack of a permanent home and the economics of producing live theatre have made it impossible and impractical for Lyles to plan full seasons like bigger companies. Instead she produces a fully staged show whenever she can afford to do it. It costs an average of about $7,000 to produce a new play, depending on varying factors including venue, whether a union (Equity) actor is involved, and the cost of building the set.
Artistic director Susan Lyles, right, had a cheap but reliable labor force at her disposal in 2013, meaning her two young sons, before this performance of the Dorothy Parker drama 'Pardon My Dust' at the former LIDA Project space. Photo by John Moore.
Another complication: "All of our funding comes from individual donors and ticket sales – not from grants,” she said. “So without people truly wanting to see plays by women, we would have folded a long time ago.”
Lyles’ goals heading into 2016 include finding a permanent home, developing local women playwrights, and encouraging the expansion of other underrepresented voices, including transgendered and Native American writers.
She is impressed that at about the same time she started And Toto Too, new DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Kent Thompson created the Women’s Voices Fund, which has raised more than $1 million to create opportunities for female playwrights and directors. Next month, the DCPA will stage world premieres by Tanya Saracho and Theresa Rebeck.
“I think it is great that they are actually putting their money where their mouth is,” Lyles said.
This all comes at a time when the drumbeat for gender parity has been rising from across the nation, both at industry conferences and on the internet. Lyles is encouraged, but skeptical. “I am hopeful that something comes of it,” she said. “But I seriously wonder how long the conversation is going to last because it is a subject that comes and goes.
"The fact of the matter is I shouldn’t have to form a company just to have women’s voices represented on the stage. It should just be a given.”
ABOUT THE TRUE WEST AWARDS
The True West Awards began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. This year, DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from around the state over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore's daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org
THE 2015 TRUE WEST AWARDS
Day 1: Rachel D. Graham
Day 2: BALLS! A Holiday Spectacular
Day 3: Creede Repertory Theatre's 50th anniversary season
Day 4: Laurence Curry
Day 5: Bernie Cardell
Day 6: Susan Lyles
Day 7: John Jurcheck
Day 8: Christopher L. Sheley
Day 9: DCPA Education's 'Shakespeare in the Parking Lot'
Day 10: Man and Monster: Todd Debreceni and TJ Hogle
Day 11: Shauna Johnson
Day 12: Geoffrey Kent and Benjamin Bonenfant
Day 13: Sesugh Solomon Tor-Agbidye
Day 14: Keith Ewer
Day 15: Allison Watrous
Day 16: Jonathan Farwell
Day 17: Bob, Wendy and Missy Moore
Day 18: Emma Messenger
Day 19: Shannon McKinney
Day 20: Mary Louise Lee and Yasmine Hunter
Day 21: Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin
Day 22: Scott Beyette
Day 23: Augustus Truhn
Day 24: Jimmy Bruenger
Day 25: The Masters of Props: Rob Costigan, Peki Pineda and Becky Toma
Day 26: Jalyn Courtenay Webb
Day 27: Andre Rodriguez
Day 28: Rebecca Remaly
Day 29: Mark Collins
Day 30: Phamaly Theatre Company's Cabaret
Bonus: Donald R. Seawell