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TBA Online: News & Features: Top News

Celebrating A More Inclusive Community at the TBA Awards

Tuesday, September 18, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Lauren Spencer

Erin Merritt wants you to understand that the Theatre Bay Area awards are first and foremost about community. Now in her second year of helming the show, the long-time producer and director enthusiastically explains, “My whole job is to make everyone feel like they are a big family and they are all welcome.”

Expanding our ideas about who we welcome to the proverbial theatre table and interrogating how we do so is Merritt’s main goal for this year’s ceremony, which centers a gender-inclusive theme. “Every time we do a show, we have two jobs. Try to represent the world as it is and to reveal possible futures. Who can we be?” says Merritt. In this regard, Merritt asserts that the TBA awards should be no different from any other production.


Erin Merritt. Photo by Lisa Keating.

Merritt, who founded the all-female Shakespeare troupe Woman’s Will, has ample experience in working towards gender parity on and off stage, but as Theatre Bay Area becomes one of the first theatre awards programs to eliminate gender distinction in the performer category, Merritt emphasizes a need  to move beyond the male/female binary.

“If it were really just about gender parity, I could have the theme be ‘50/50 by 2020’...make sure people know there are are plenty of women they should be hiring and they should be programming their season with opportunities [for women]...But that’s not the whole story. In fact it’s only half of the story. Intersex, trans, non-binary people should have space on that stage too.”

“I’m approaching it by talking to people all along the gender spectrum to ascertain what we need to create responsible representation on stage,” she says. “I’m trying to write, with their input, a story of the evening that addresses both [gender parity and gender inclusivity]... and tries to show that they are actually the same fight even though they might not look like the same fight. We are all defining ourselves in different ways. And what we are fighting for is the right to define ourselves.”

One particular effort that Merritt has been focused on is selecting the right emcees for the evening. For her, it is vital to pick a pair of hosts who are both “beloved members of our community,” such as last year’s emcees Tristan Cunningham and Jeff Raz, and who will represent a range of positionality and perspective with regard to gender. “I’d like for them to be able to create a dialogue,” Merritt says but hastily adds that the evening’s festivities will not be didactic in nature.

“It’s a party, a feelgood event,” she says. It is also, for Merritt, very much a piece of theatre, one that has a distinct plotline primarily crafted through the thoughtful curation of live performances. These performances will not only showcase a number of the awards’ finalists but also offer an opportunity to celebrate the past season. “You get to relive your favorite moments from a show,” she says, “It’s like a little date book of all the shows you’ve seen this year.”

Merritt hopes to integrate a mix of both musical and straight theatre selections throughout the ceremony. While last year’s performances explored the myriad facets of that celebration’s “home” theme,  Merritt has kept an eye this year for performances that will support a rich engagement with gender identity and expression.

“I know how [the evening] is going to end and I’m working backwards to seeing how we are gonna get there. But creation is a collaborative thing. When I listen to the musical numbers of the finalists, I’ll go ‘Oh, that’s so interesting and that tells the story better than I ever could have imagined. I’ll be collaborating with the finalists even if they don’t know it,” she jokes.

Additionally, Merritt will continue to use the awards as a platform for highlighting up-and-coming artists, many of whom she will cast as presenters or awards angels who hand recipients their awards. “It introduces them to the community so that when they walk into an audition the director thinks, ‘I’ve seen you before.’ It’s also great for other young artists to see their peers up on that stage. Everybody belongs. We’re all worthy in that room. On that day you are presumed as wildly talented as everyone else. On that day we support each other.”

A pivotal part of that support is presence and Merritt offers a heartfelt wish to have as many members of the theater community present at the TBA awards as possible. “Whether or not you’re a finalist, this is an opportunity to network, to schmooze, to enjoy being together in the same room,” she says, “When members of the community are missing, it’s like trying to have Thanksgiving but one of your family members is off somewhere. It’s just not the same.”

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