I was familiar with short play festivals, and with women playwrights festivals, and with all-women companies, and with women doing devised work. But a festival centered around the Bechdel-Wallace test was a new one for me, but most welcome.
Briefly, the Bechdel-Wallace test for a play or movie is: 1) are there two named women characters who 2) have a conversation with each other 3) about a topic other than a man. It sounds like such a simple rubric. How many plays or movies can you name off the top of your head which meet those criteria? Go ahead. I’ll wait. It’s harder than you might imagine. When there are only six women out of the top twenty most-produced American playwrights, finding multiple shows which achieve all three test points is a challenge.
“Ben [Brownson, Artistic Director] wanted to offset the male-heavy show he’d planned, so the company came up with the idea for the Bechdel Fest,” explained Fest Coordinator and Broken Nose Theatre Development Director Jen Poulin. We chatted during a phone interview crammed into the final preparations for this year’s Bechdel Fest 5, which ran September 10-13. “We reach out to local and national playwrights we know and ask them if they have a short piece that meets the test. Sometimes they have something longer they can excerpt. Many of these pieces, though, are new.”
Broken Nose Theatre’s mission “is a Pay-What-You-Can company that develops and produces new work and seeks to cultivate empathy, spark conversation, and amplify underrepresented voices.” The Bechdel Fest is a natural extension of that mission. Many of the actors, directors, and playwrights echo Martin Hanna (actor/playwright) on why they want to be involved in the show: “I’m thrilled to be one of the collaborators because of the opportunity to hear and learn about new voices and perspectives. Bringing untold stories to life is an important contribution to the world, and I’m happy to be a part of that.”
And those stories are as varied as the people involved. One piece this year was about women in military service; another was about the impact Latinx women have on their own families. Playwright Nelson Rodriguez conveyed his emotional attachment to his work:
“Amplifying the voice of marginalized people is part of my personal mission as an artist. Bechdel Fest brings women’s stories to the forefront which too often are overlooked or demoted to secondary plot points. I jumped at the chance to write roles for Latinx women of different generations, beliefs, and goals as a way of honoring some of the influential women in my life.”
Each play is cast by the show’s director from the regular Broken Nose players and from the wider Chicago theatrical community. “Since each show is cast separately, we’re able to put the best people we can in those roles, to give justice to the characters the playwright wrote,” Poulin explained about the cast size and differentiation. “Some of the actors have worked other Bechdel Fests or the directors have worked with them at other places. Echaka Agba, one of the actors for At the Table — who we could not have done that show without — started with us in the last Bechdel Fest.”
It is no surprise that the Fest continues to grow and evolve, just as our culture does. Associate Artistic Director Elise Spoerlein attested as much:
“The fest at its core, I feel, has not necessarily changed, but the types of female-identifying stories have continued to push forward with the times and climate. We had our first piece that involved two trans actresses, and that was extremely exciting to watch happen. Our lineup has continued to grow and the talent pool never ceases to amaze me. We are very lucky and fortunate of the female-identifying artists (and male playwrights/directors) who have participated over the years.”
Not only that, but individual shows have continued to grow afterwards. “Thanks to my wonderful experience in Bechdel Fest 3, No More Maids was a finalist for the 2015 Actors Theater of Louisville Ten Minute Play contest and subsequently published by Smith & Kraus in their Best Ten-Minute Plays of 2016” reported playwright Anne Garcia-Romero.
But the very core of the festival is the Bechdel-Wallace test itself. It is what makes the most difference to personal growth, both to those who see the plays and to those involved in the productions. Actor-Director Clare Cooney explained:
“Bechdel fest just opens people’s eyes up to examine the work they are taking on more closely–does every scene have a man in it? When there are women together on stage, do they always seem to be talking about a man in their lives? Taking that a step further–Is the majority of the cast men? Is the majority of the creative team men? I’ve gotten better at asking myself those kinds of questions and making sure I’m doing work with a theater that is creating work responsibly.”