Burlington theater created by women, for women

From Burlington Free Press

By Brent Hallenbeck

The founders of Girls Nite Out Productions acknowledge they can make the theater company’s board of directors a little uncomfortable with their argumentative ways. Jennifer Warwick said she and co-founder Janet Stambolian sometimes get mad at each other and yell and scream and then have a good laugh about it.

“It’s a very honest relationship,” Stambolian said. “I’m not saying we yell all the time.”

“Well, we do bicker,” Warwick said.

They might bicker about how much they bicker, but the two women say they also mesh through their work in the three-year-old Burlington company. Girls Nite Out opens its latest production, the Nora and Delia Ephron play “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” tonight in the Main Street Landing Black Box Theatre.

Stambolian, 64, of Burlington, has experience in business and marketing. Warwick, 45, of Shelburne, is a numbers person and also the company’s artistic director and producer who recommends many of the plays Girls Nite Out stages.

“We bring, both of us, a lifelong love of the theater,” Stambolian said. “We do have complementary skills.”

Warwick and Stambolian spoke during a recent interview that began in the rehearsal room at a Burlington office building before migrating into a hallway, and then — after the hallway’s automatic lights went out at 7 p.m. — briefly into a tiny bathroom before settling in an adjacent kitchenette. That sort of practical spontaneity, the two women said, typifies their theater company.

They created Girls Nite Out in 2010, as the name suggests, to increase opportunities for women on the Burlington theater scene (they note that since then Cristina Alicea became artistic director for Vermont Stage and has been hiring more local actresses). “Our search always is to find plays that have great roles for women,” Stambolian said.

The double meaning of Girls Nite Out is that, aside from providing more roles for females, it also provides entertainment for women who enjoy the theater. Warwick said the audience attending the company’s productions — “Steel Magnolias” in 2010, “The Hallelujah Girls” in 2011 and the female version of “The Odd Couple” last fall — is made up of about 70 percent women.

Stambolian and Warwick have been active for years in the Vermont community-theater scene. “We had always talked about, ‘When are we going to do something on stage?’” Warwick said. The lack of roles for women over 35, however, made that difficult. So the two took the phrase “If you want something done right, do it yourself” to heart and created Girls Nite Out.

At a rehearsal on a Monday night in late January, director Kathryn Blume led the five actresses in “Love, Loss and What I Wore” through a variety of scenes. The performers, who range in age from their 20s to their 70s, sat behind music stands and either read from the script or spoke off-book in a style similar to how the production was staged in its initial run in 2009 in New York City.

The script has its serious moments but regularly makes jokes about issues ranging from liposuction to menstruation, bad bras to even worse prom dates. A character portrayed by Ruth Wallman told of her unsavory experiences with a fraternity boy, while Natalie Miller’s character noted that any woman under the age of 40 who says she has never dressed as Madonna is either lying or Amish.

Sebastian Ryder is one of the actresses in “Love, Loss and What I Wore.” She has performed in Vermont, New York and California in theater, television and independent film and is familiar with the shortage of roles for women.

“That’s a problem going back 500 years,” said Ryder, 52, of Burlington, adding that a typical Shakespeare play would be written for 20 men and four women. “Really I’m just glad that there’s anything.”

Ryder doesn’t worry that the focus of Girls Nite Out will scare off potential male theater-goers. Theater in general might scare off some men, she said, but many men “at least want to appear sensitive.”

“It’s skewed toward women,” Ryder said of “Love, Loss and What I Wore.” “But there’s stuff for men to laugh at.”

The play’s run will include a related exhibit of gowns by famous designers such as Halston and Pucci. They’ll be watched over, Warwick said, by a group of “good-looking men in pink bow ties” who will describe the garments to onlookers.

“You can pay money to go see a show,” Stambolian said, “and you can pay money to go and have an experience.”

Their formula seems to be working. Warwick said anyone they’ve asked to take part in Girls Nite Out, whether male or female, has said yes.

“I think we’ve created something that people want to be a part of,” Stambolian said.

“They want to ride our train,” Warwick added, “which is very cool.”