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Group Efforts: this one's for the ladies

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"Hey lady!" reads the flyer. "Does a showcase celebrating and encouraging the artistic, organizational, and political work and talents of women sound good to you?" It sounded pretty good to Marf Wright last fall, after she got back from Olympia, Washington.

She'd spent six days in August with some 2,000 other women at Ladyfest, a nonprofit, multidisciplinary arts festival. Olympia, population 37,000, the state capital and home to the alternative Evergreen State College, was a natural for Ladyfest. Progressive and tolerant, the town's made an international name for itself as the spiritual home of DIY culture and the riot grrl movement of the early 90s.

Organized along consensus principles by more than 50 women over seven months (including high-profile Olympians like Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein and Kill Rock Stars publicist Maggie Vail), the event was packed with independent music, film, visual and performing arts, spoken-word performance, dance parties, fashion shows, and panel discussions and workshops on everything from labor organizing to nontraditional parenting to how to use a PA system.

"It was just amazing," says Wright, a grant maker for a small local foundation. "I went halfway across the country and, getting there, I really felt a part of something."

"It changed my life," says Ava Johnson, a photographer and performer who also made the trip from Chicago. "The workshops and meeting people--it was like, yeah, the bands are cool, but there's work to be done too!"

Ladyfest, however, was a one-shot deal. "They were very clear about that," says Wright. "Like, 'We're not doing this again. Go home and do it yourself.'"

So when Wright returned to Chicago she posted messages to the Women in the Director's Chair list-serv and the Ladyfest Web site, poking around to see if anyone in Chicago was interested in attempting to organize a similar event. She also made up those flyers and started passing them around wherever she went. She met Columbia College student Lauren Cumbia at a Bratmobile show at the Fireside Bowl, and the Chicago edition of Ladyfest started gathering steam.

Eleven people showed up for the first brainstorming session, last November at a north-side coffee shop. Since then they've launched a Web site, www.ladyfestmidwest.org, and started a list-serv, to which over 90 women have subscribed. Women in the Director's Chair has signed on as the festival's fiscal sponsor, which allows the festival to use WIDC's bulk-mailing permit and administrative space, and the Ladyfest letterhead lists an advisory board of nine, including WIDC executive director Rebecca Gee and Old Town School of Folk Music concert director Colleen Miller. Approximately 30 women--"active organizers, who are really doing things"--have signed on to lead committees on outreach, fund-raising, publicity, and a host of other subcategories. Cumbia, Johnson, Wright, Kristen Cox, Tammy Cresswell, Blithe Riley, and several others who have become a loosely defined "core committee" have been planning and strategizing, meeting almost weekly and E-mailing each other "20 times a day."

Ladyfest Midwest Chicago (there's a separate Ladyfest Midwest coming up in April in Bloomington, Indiana) is slated to take place August 16-19 at the Congress Theater and at smaller venues in and around Wicker Park, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square. The organizers want to keep it geographically contained along the artery of Milwaukee Avenue to make it easier to walk, bike, or take the bus or el between events. "We don't want to go too far in the city," says Cox, "because then we're not conjuring up this small-town, community kind of event, which is what we really want to do."

Though some programming is already confirmed--mostly out-of-town acts like grrl "supergroup" Le Tigre, Detroit's DJ Minx and DJ Jenuine, and acoustic duo Canadian twins Tegan and Sara--the festival is still very much in the planning stages. There's no shortage of ideas, though. In addition to a multimedia performance installation at the Spare Room and an open-mike program sponsored by the Guild Complex, there are plans for film and video screenings, juried art exhibits, mobile mammograms, self-defense classes, and workshops on auto mechanics, amp repair, pirate radio, women's health, reproductive rights, and the death penalty; Milwaukee's Guerilla Cheerleaders say they're coming down, and someone's talking to the Park District about mounting a water ballet performance in a public pool.

"It's much more challenging to do this in a big city than in a small, woman-oriented town," says Cox. "It's challenging, but it's really awesome and inspiring."

"In some ways," says Cumbia, "I think Ladyfest is functioning right now. We've already built a community....Now we just want to make it bigger."

Ladyfest Midwest Chicago is currently accepting submissions from "artists who shoot to kill," and to meet its budget of $60,000 the group has lined up fund-raising events all over town this spring. On Friday, March 16, the Puta-Pons, Forcefield UK, the Tuffetts, and the Hamicks play a benefit concert at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, at 9 PM; tickets are $7. (See Spot Check in Section Three for more info.)

On March 23 LMC is cosponsoring a dance party with DJs AMPM and MaryJane following the 9 PM screening of Grrlyshow, a documentary about girl zine makers, and two other films at the Women in the Director's Chair International Film and Video Festival. It's at 941 W. Lawrence; tickets to the screening and party are $8. On April 25 LMC will host a roller-skating party and screening of the movie Xanadu at Rainbo roller rink, 4836 N. Clark. A second benefit at the Empty Bottle is scheduled for May 3, with the Dishes, the Selby Tigers, and Competitorr, and other events are in the works. Call 773-489-6534 or see www.ladyfestmidwest.org for more information.

--Martha Bayne

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Dostatni.

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