“What would happen if all women told the truth about their life? The world would split open.”

“That’s what happened that night,” Lorraine Serena said after seeing Women Beyond Borders for the first time. She was quoting a line from the world premiere play, inspired by the international art project of the same name, which Serena founded with a group of fellow women artists almost 30 years ago.

The seismic event, happening onstage at the Rubicon Theatre through June 2, gets its considerable power from the fiercely honest stories and works of art created by women from around the world and all walks of life. 

Each work of art started out as a small wooden box, measuring 3-1/2 in. by 2 in. by 2-1/2 in. — “about the size of a human heart.” In the hands of an artist, each box was transformed into a personal metaphor. The box became a vessel, a womb, a gift, a shrine, a boat . . . the imagery goes on and on. Some works spark a smile. Others hold a world of pain. They all resonate in some way because they represent truth for all to see. Many of the artists wrote stories, essays or poems to accompany their box. Together, the writings, boxes and the journey of the project itself became the inspiration for the stage play.

Brilliantly adapted by Claire Bowman, Karyl Lynn Burns, Beverly Ward

“Separation,” 1995, Darlene Nguyen-Ely, from Women Beyond Borders: The Art of Building Community.

and Lauren Patten, with additional stories by Stephanie Coltrin and Sandra Tsing Loh, Women Beyond Borders is wonderfully directed by Jenny Sullivan. It is performed in a similar style as The Vagina Monologues, with a rotating cast of women telling many women’s stories. On this particular night, Meredith Baxter, Zilah Mendoza, Joanne Nguyen, Jennifer Leigh Warren and Ulka Simone Mohanty did more than tell stories, they inhabited them. Over the course of about 85 minutes, the audience was transported to a forest in Upstate New York, a classroom in Rwanda, a boat fleeing Saigon — so many places and experiences that are deeply personal and yet universal. While the actors performed, images of many of the boxes were projected onto a big screen. (This is the beautiful work of set and projection designers Eunnym Cho and Yee Eun Nam.)

“The play is really about the journey to make change,” Karyl Lynn Burns explained. “The story is as much about what happens when a small group decides to do something. True change can happen. A small group of Women Beyond Borders turned into a global movement.” What propelled them to adapt the play now? “The moment arrived,” said Burns. It’s more timely than ever.

The Women Beyond Borders movement began in 1991, when Serena and her group of friends set out on a mission to “make art as if the world matters.” After much deliberation as to how to do that, they happened upon something that was right in front of them: a wooden box that Serena had found at a thrift shop in Carpinteria. The group decided that a small box would be the perfect “point of departure,” so they made replicas of the thrift-store find and sent it out to friends and curators around the world. 

“They were astonished at what came back to them,” said Burns. Word got out and soon more and more women wanted to take part. To date, more than 900 artists from more than 50 countries have created boxes. Women Beyond Borders has inspired workshops, panels and school curriculum. The boxes have been a part of dozens of exhibitions worldwide. In 1996, they traveled by train from Austria to St. Petersburg, where “women beyond borders” translates, to the glee of its creators, to “women out of control.” 

The next stop for the boxes is right here in Ventura, where many will be on exhibit at the Museum of Ventura County through June 30. There will be a community box-making event at the Museum on June 1. Women Beyond Borders will also host a Women’s Leadership Forum entitled “We Tell Our Stories: A Celebration of Women’s Voices and Visions” May 30-June 1 at the Marriott Beach Hotel. The goal of the event is to “effect positive change through creative expression and enterprise.”

Women Beyond Borders continues to grow, with the stage play becoming a part of an ongoing movement. “It belongs to all of us,” Serena said. “It’s a summons to all women to express themselves.”

Women Beyond Borders through June 2 at the Rubicon Theatre at 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura. For more information call 805-667-2900 or visit www.rubicontheatre.org. The accompanying exhibit will run through June 30 at the Museum of Ventura County, 100 E. Main St., Ventura. For more information, including associated events, call 805-653-0323 or visit venturamuseum.org. For more information on the Women Beyond Borders movement and events, visit www.womenbeyondborders.org.