Deborah Randall, founder of the Venus Theatre Play Shack in Laurel, Md. She keeps the outfit running on a tiny budget. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Theater critic

There’s no argument: Women are dramatically underrepresented on Washington’s stages. So sayeth the overwhelming majority of D.C. area troupes, which will coalesce en masse this fall as about 60 companies premiere works by female writers in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

But it’s not as though female-focused theaters haven’t been on the job all along. The artists most dedicated to women’s work toil on the margins, operating on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Groups such as Venus Theatre, the Riot Grrrls and Baltimore’s Strand Theater Company produce when they can, putting up shows for a couple thousand bucks.

Only Venus has its own stage, the storefront Play Shack in Laurel, Md., that Artistic Director Deborah Randall started renting nearly a decade ago.

For everyone else, finding a space to perform is the first hurdle. Even producing a full season is typically too much to take on.

“We just don’t have the money, the people, the resources,” says Lise Bruneau, director of the Riot Grrrls’s current “The Tempest.”

Isabelle Anderson plays Prospero in the Riot Grrrls’s “Tempest.” (Teresa Castracane)

Yet there appears to be a rising tide of female-focused groups in the realm of indie theater, even when they don’t identify primarily as “women’s” companies. “Verse and Violence” is how the emerging classical outfit Brave Spirits trumpets itself, and finding ways for women to play the male-dominated canon rates high in its mission. The Elizabethan “Arden of Faversham,” with its domestic murder plot, is scheduled for the Atlas Performing Arts Center in April, and next fall, Brave Spirits plans to stage a repertory of “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2” with nearly all the kings and princes and pub brawlers gender-reversed.

The spotty modern history of women’s companies in D.C. stretches at least to the 1972 founding of the Washington Area Feminist Theater. Director Leslie Jacobson joined in 1973; in 1977, it was renamed Pro Femina Theater, and by 1982 it became Horizons: Theater From a Woman’s Perspective.

Horizons won a 1988 Helen Hayes Award for outstanding musical (“A . . . My Name Is Alice”), and in 1997 one of its original biographical pieces featured a youngster named Kerry Washington coolly playing “Raisin in the Sun” dramatist Lorraine Hansberry.

“We had a 30-year run of pretty consistent producing from 1977 to 2007,” says Jacobson, a longtime member of the drama faculty at George Washington University. Although the troupe has been almost entirely dormant for years now, she says, “We have no debt. We still exist.”

One obstacle for Horizons was that the cultural need for a women’s theater gradually seemed less urgent than it was in the 1970s, when, Jacobson says, “it really felt like a holy mission.” “As we moved into 1990s,” she recalls, “I talked to people who said, ‘Now that we’re in the post-feminist age, what’s Horizons going to produce?’ ”

Horizons tapered its activity as the city’s theater scene intensified and Jacobson increasingly focused on university work. Venus Theatre picked up the mantle. “Horizons really inspired me,” Randall says.

Randall has rented the Play Shack on an unlikely Laurel side street since 2006 because D.C.’s rates are out of reach. Venus presents about four new plays on a microscopic annual budget of $30,000; recently, Randall virtually wept on Twitter when a $10,000 grant came her way.

Yet she gets nearly 200 scripts a year from around the world, and writers tell her that Venus — a funky storefront that is a mini-boutique out front with an ultra-cozy 25 to 30 seats in back — now stacks up as one of the longest continuously producing women’s theaters anywhere.

If that baseline poverty makes the operation a steady uphill grind, Randall contends that the low financial stakes allow writers to take big risks. “It’s so important to have permission to fail,” she says. Still, she’d like to stabilize the administrative footing and is working on “fortifying” her board.

Meantime, the past few years have seen a resurgence of female-focused theaters on D.C.’s indie scene. The pipeline typically starts at universities and in grad programs, with newly trained young artists testing themselves by producing shows in the Capital Fringe Festival.

That’s where Pinky Swear Productions formed in 2008. The troupe has had Fringe Festival hits with its frisky “XXX Cabaret” shows and has produced in a number of venues, even including an enclave of “tiny houses” just off North Capitol Street.

“Pretty much never the same place twice,” says Karen Lange, who created Pinky Swear with Allyson Harkey.

That’s more or less the story of Nü Sass Productions, too, which debuted with an all-female staging of Tom Stoppard's “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” during the 2009 Fringe Festival. Nü Sass has largely been a Fringe-only presence, but will break out modestly this spring with a staging of Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day” in the intimate gallery Caos on F Street, transitioning from “the indie Fringe bubble to the indie D.C. theater bubble,” says actor and co-founder Aubri O’Connor.

“We’re upping our game,” says Angela Pirko, a Nü Sass co-producer and “Bright Room” director.

One of the most respected outfits on this peripheral scene is the Riot Grrrls, the once-a-year (roughly) arm of the Taffety Punk Theatre Company that produces all-female Shakespeare. The Riot Grrrls started in 2008 when the Shakespeare Theatre Company announced its all-male “Romeo and Juliet,” although it wasn’t Taffety Punk actor-director Bruneau who concocted the response. It was Taffety Punk founding member Marcus Kyd.

The way Bruneau remembers it, Kyd said, “We will do an all-female ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the same time. And we will totally crush them.”

The problem, says Bruneau — like Kyd, an Equity performer who works regularly around town — is knowing that “there is no freaking way you will ever play Mercutio. We just never get the shot.” Women trained in everything from speaking verse to stage combat routinely bristle when their rare chances to exercise Shakespearean skills get roped off for men.

“We get few enough roles as it is,” Bruneau says. “Watching this handsome boy not be able to do all that just makes you want to rip your hair out.”

How small is the scale for these troupes? The expanding Pinky Swear, which, like Nü Sass, focuses on modern plays, puts on a show for about $10,000. “Would I love to grow by leaps and bounds and have someone drop $300,000 in my lap?” Lange asks. “Sure. But you grow as you can grow.”

“Even now, we’re not up to $10,000,” O’Connor says. “Space is a big thing. Affording the space has been very difficult.”

Baltimore’s Strand Theater lost its rented space on Charles Street last year, and recently produced a solo show in a church basement. The company, which was briefly run by writer-performer Rain Pryor (actor Richard Pryor’s daughter), is currently without an artistic director.

Jacobson takes a long view, suggesting that opportunities for women historically wax and wane. “Women don’t always realize how carefully we have to guard any strides we make,” she says.

That’s why Randall says of the upcoming festival, “Please don’t pretend we’re just inventing the female playwright,” and why Lange insists that “the presence of theaters dedicated to women’s roles and women’s voices is vital.”

Yet everyone seems excited about the fall festival, even if there are concerns that the spotlight will inevitably swing toward the biggest troupes.

“With 60 plays in the same period, it’s going to be awfully hard for audiences to spread themselves out and see a lot of them,” Lange says. “Some of us smaller theaters are trying to find ways to sell blocks of tickets together, so we have a better shot at getting a share of the audience.”

“The Tempest,” by William Shakespeare. Through Feb. 28 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St. SE. Tickets $15. Visit www.taffetypunk.com.

“A Bright Room Called Day,” by Tony Kushner. March 12-April 5 at Caos on F, 923 F St. NW. Tickets $20. Visit www.nusass.com.

“God Don’ Like Ugly,” by Doc Andersen-Bloomfield. March 19-April 12 at Venus Theatre, 21 C St., Laurel. Tickets $20. Visit www.venustheatre.org.

“Arden of Faversham,” by Anonymous. April 2-18 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Visit www.bravespiritstheatre.com.