Seriously, WTF: Bay Area Women’s Theatre Festival Brings the Struggle for Gender Parity Centerstage
Monday, March 2, 2020
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
by Nicole Gluckstern
In 2018, after bringing her then work-in-progress, The Lady Scribblers, to the Women’s Theatre Festival (aka WTF) in North Carolina for a staged reading, local playwright Michaela Goldhaber had one big question—why wasn’t there a similar festival operating in the Bay Area? A member of the Yeah, I Said Feminist! Facebook group (formed in 2012 by Bay Area luminary, Fontana Butterfield), Goldhaber posed her question to a group of individuals she knew would be interested in making such a festival a reality. That summer, interested parties began meeting regularly to discuss how to make it happen—and the project that would become known as the Bay Area Women’s Theatre Festival (aka baWTF) was born.
The festival officially opened on March 2, with a reading of local playwright Daphne White’s suffrage story Susan B. and a launch party, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. An ambitious collection of readings, panels, and full productions spanning three months, the festival isn’t so much a contained entity as a gloriously chaotic endeavor involving over 40 host venues across the Bay Area, and a vast array of performers, technicians, playwrights, and producers.
Michaela Goldhaber. Photo by Daphne White.
To be considered part of the festival, companies had to agree to either produce a work written by a woman or non-binary playwright during the designated time period (Mar 1-May 31) or host a panel or reading of the same, with gender parity (minimum 50 percent woman-trans-non-binary) in the casting and creative team. Not only is the breadth of the festival far-reaching, but the festival organizers have taken pains to ensure that their language regarding gender is as inclusive as possible. Expanding the definition of “woman” to “woman+” (anyone who identifies as a woman at least part of the time) and including non-binary and trans persons in their selection criteria, the baTWF is highlighting a plurality of underrepresented voices in their programming. A guiding principle of the project is the idea of making space for creatives who frequently find themselves shut out of season planning, or scrambling for work due to a lack of suitable roles for their demographic, an issue that has plagued the theatre industry for years.
Through projects such as Valerie Weak’s Counting Actors program and “Not Even” reports, organizations such as the Kilroys and the Lilly Awards aggressively promoting woman+ plays and playwrights, and “The Count,” spearheaded by the Lilly’s and Dramatists Guild’s reporting on the breakdown of industry jobs by race and gender, the struggle to reach equality onstage and off has long been a topical one. And, as noted by Weak in her “Still Not Even,” report, aggregating statistics from 2015 through December 2018, overall jobs for women in Bay Area theatre—including the higher-paid positions of playwrights, directors, and union actors—remained much lower than the hoped for 50-50 split. An especially telling statistic shows that plays with female-majority casts are more likely to be cast with non-union actors, and that shows produced at the highest budgetary tier are more likely to have male-majority union casting. As Weaks notes, small percentages of gain appear across the report, but considering she’s been collecting her data for nine years, that slim margin doesn’t seem especially progressive, making a project like the baWTF even more essential.
Kathryn Seabron is curating a reading series focused on WOC. Photo courtesy Ms. Seabron.
While there have been other festivals in the Bay Area with a similar focus, such as the DIVAfest which ran at EXIT Theatre from 2002 to 2017 (and still lives on in individual projects such as the monthly DIVA or Die Burlesque cabaret), the baWTF is unique in its scale. With its co-production model, it has the opportunity to make an impression on both a core festival audience, who may discover new venues and companies while attending their performances, and for the season supporters of those same venues to become familiar with the push for parity that has manifested itself across the field. It’s a low-impact, high-engagement way to reach a broader community quickly, similar to Bay Area Theatre Week (now in its second year).
Thanks to the robust number of producers and collaborators, the next three months promise to be quite an exciting adventure in parity-centered theatre. Goldhaber curated a Classical Reading Series, which begins March 16 at the Mission Cultural Center, with Querida Sor Juana/Dear Sor Juana: The Letters of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. A second reading series devoted to women of color—curated by Kathryn Seabron—opens March 9 at Aurora Theatre Company, with La Paloma, by Alejandra Maria Rivas. Anticipated one-offs abound, such as a one-night-only performance of Natural Shocks by (and starring!) Lauren Gunderson, at Marin Theatre Company, and a new Mugwumpin’ occurrence at Minnesota Street Project. Companies bringing full productions to the fest include Cutting Ball Theater, the Marsh, Magic Theatre, and Cinnabar Theater. Shorts, readings, and panels dot the calendar like constellations. And Goldhaber’s Lady Scribblers will enjoy its world premiere at last as a co-production between Those Women Productions and Custom Made Theatre Company.
Mary Guzman. is producing AMPLIFY! Photo by Ana Grillo.
At the heart of the festival calendar is an ambitious 24-hour marathon of theatre called AMPLIFY! Featuring over 60 performances in five rooms—all under the Brava Theater’s roof—AMPLIFY! will combine the excitement of an entire festival with the giddiness of a sleepover, presenting comedians, performance artists, Sunday morning children’s programming, snacks, and quiet areas into the all-night, theatrical extravaganza, April 18-19. Brava’s long commitment to presenting multi-disciplinary works by women and minority voices makes it the perfect hub for this ambitious experiment.
As the festival is scheduled to run through the end of May, festival organizers are still looking for acts to feature, and interested parties are encouraged to reach out to festival producer Susan Shay at bayareaWTF@gmail.com. But with the many performances already scheduled, what seems certain is that at least one of Goldhaber’s original goals is to be realized.
“One of my great dreams for the festival,” she emphasizes, “is that it will make it impossible, at least in the Bay Area, for any artistic director to say ‘there just aren’t any good plays by women.’”
baWTF runs through May 31. https://bayareawomenstheatrefestival.com/
Nicole Gluckstern is an arts journalist and theatre-maker in San Francisco. You can read her most current work in KQED Arts, or stalk her on twitter at @enkohl