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TBA Online: News & Features: Top News

Eschewing the Binary, TBA Shifts to Gender-Inclusive Performance Awards

Wednesday, March 7, 2018   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Lauren Spencer

In the summer of 2017, MTV made headlines when President Chris McCarthy announced that they would be shifting to “gender-neutral” awards at the MTV Movie and TV awards. The new approach came in the wake of actor Asia Kate Dillon, who identifies as non-binary, penning a letter to the Television Academy expressing the dilemma of not knowing which actor category to submit to given that neither represented how they identified. Dillon subsequently challenged the notion that the acting awards should be gendered in any way.

While the majority of awards in film, television, and theatre are not genderedciting only the profession being awardedacting awards remain divided into female and male.  As Dillon points out, these labels are not necessarily representative of how all performers identify.

Jessika D. Williams, left, played a non-binary Rosalind in Cal Shakes' As You Like It last summer. Photo by Kevin Berne.

 This issue is pressing as more non-binary, genderqueer, and non-conforming artists are being recognized for their work in theatre. Examples from this past season include, California Shakespeare Theatre’s 2017 production of As You Like It, which posited a Rosalind (played by genderqueer actor Jessika D. Williams) whose journey through the play also became an exploration of her gender identity, and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s casting of gender-fluid actor, Kierran Beccia, as Ophelia in their production of Hamlet.

Theatre Bay Area Interim Managing Director Dale Albright explains, “In past awards seasons in order for a producer to enter a performer on the ballot, they were forced to choose male or female. To think that there is a strong possibility that this may have been happening in a vacuum, with no discussion with the performer as to which category to include them in, or dare I say "label" them [with], and no discussion with us as program administrators up to this point around why there were only two choices I think speaks to the strong binary bias...and privilege many of us have in this realm.”

Last year, TBA began to explore what it might mean to adopt gender-inclusive categories for performers. To ensure a thoughtful and thorough process, TBA staff first presented the idea to their advisory boards, the Theatre Services Committee and the Individual Services Committee, for vetting.  We aim for these committees to be made up of as many diverse voices as possible,” Albright says.  The committees represented a diversity of gender, ethnicity, geography, experience level, and budget size. TBA also conducted what Albright terms “listening tours” and solicited feedback from members.

Another concern was whether removing gender from the award categories would negatively impact the number of female-identified recipients given that more roles are played by male-identified performers. In order to address this possibility, TBA performed an audit of the results from the past three years of the awards program and the half of this year, removing gender as an identifying factor for the finalists and recipients.

Finalists for the Principal Actor awards at the 2016 TBA Awards celebration. Photo courtesy Jim Norenna. 


What we found was that if we assumed two recipients for each performance award and doubling the number of finalists, the results were, on the whole, statistically similar to the traditional binary results that had been gone with,” Albright explains.

Although there were instances where the two award recipients in a single category shared the same gender identity, the number of recipients across the categories of principal and featured performer in plays and musicals were, according to Albright, “fairly consistently distributed” between the male and female designated recipients.

For example in 2016-17, of the total number of roles, 54 percent were designated as male and 46 percent female (as reported by producers). Surprisingly, had the current gender-inclusive system been in play that year, the finalists selected by the adjudicators would not have favored male-identified performers. In fact, only 45 percent of finalists would have been male and 55 percent female. The recipients would have been 50/50 across all performance awards. Additionally, TBA looked for potential gender bias in scoring by analyzing both the median and mean scores of the adjudicators. Here as well, women received slightly higher scores for both.

The findings encouraged TBA to eschew the binary gender male/female designation for the performance categories and to green light the transition to the gender-inclusive terms “Principal Role” and “Featured Role.” At this past year’s awards ceremony, TBA announced that the upcoming awards cycle and ceremony would reflect these changes. 

 As the first theatre awards program to implement this change, Theatre Bay Area will most likely be looked to as a pioneer in the arena, especially as many of its sister organizations are considering a similar shift in their approach to acting awards. What’s more, Albright impresses that the awards are only an initial step. Inclusivity will be a central focus of TBA’s 2018 Annual Conference, providing members of the field with opportunities to share best practices and discuss current issues. Beyond the conference, TBA is pursuing funding to support initiatives, such as community-wide town halls and smaller learning cohorts, that will seek to advance equity, diversity and inclusion in the field. 

Albright stresses the importance of collaboration with the theater community around these efforts and TBA’s openness to receiving community feedback.We are absolutely open to people contacting us via phone, email, the 'contact us' option on the TBA website, [coming] to their corresponding advisory committee, or make an appointment to talk to someone here at the office in person." Albright also encourages members to consider becoming adjudicators and taking an active role in the award process.

“This is an attempt to widen the tent and to be more inclusive, which I think is ultimately in service of the community,” Albright asserts. “There will undoubtedly be growing pains as we make this change, but I also think it is of service to community to lead with a bold choice in an attempt to do something better.”

Information about joining a TBA advisory committee can be found here:

 Want to become an adjudicator?  More information can be found at:

 Lauren Spencer is an actor, activist, and teaching artist based in San Francisco.


Willem Long says...
Posted Wednesday, March 21, 2018
WOW TBA! Leading inclusiveness in Theatre.