It’s no secret the gender disparities still exist, from boardrooms to Broadway stages. Sometimes theater folks try to nudge equality along, using something called the Bechdel Test. It’s named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, whose graphic memoir inspired the 2015 hit Broadway musical Fun Home.
The test first appeared in 1985, in one of Bechdel’s comics, Dykes to Watch Out For. Basically, it’s a way of assessing women’s representation in nonfiction works. A play passes the test if it has at least two women who talk to each other – about something other than a man.
There’s a Bechdel Test Fest happening next month in Tempe, which will bring together creatives, audiences, and community members who care about equity in theater for women, as well as equity for people of color and others who’ve been excluded or underrepresented through the years.
It’s being presented by The Bridge Initiative: Women in Theater, which was co-founded by Brenda Jean Foley and Tracy Liz Miller in Mesa in 2015. They'd moved to metro Phoenix from New York City several years prior, and both are well-versed in gender disparity across the country.
“Often females are wives, mothers, madonnas, or other tropes,” Foley says of typical roles for women. But the problem also extends beyond the stage. Women make up 60 percent of theater audiences, but far fewer than half the writers and directors are women, she says.
The Bechdel Test Fest will raise awareness of the problem, Foley says. But the event will also highlight solutions, through a lineup that includes play readings, film screenings, and discussions. Everything happens at Tempe Center for the Arts, located at 700 West Rio Salado Parkway.
It kicks off on Friday, April 26, with a free “Bechdel and Beyond” panel discussion, focused on why representation, diversity, and inclusion are essential for both stage and screen. Several panelists, along with moderator Chandra Crudup, will also address the questions people should be asking about equity in the arts.
Foley says she’s seen progress in recent years, in terms of more women making Arizona theater. And she praises both Stray Cat Theatre and Arizona Theatre Company for seasons that have included several shows with female playwrights or directors.
But not all the news is good, she says. Turns out, men still dominate leadership positions in Arizona theater companies. Hence, the Bechdel Test Fest, which seeks to model inclusion for young people. “If you see it, you can be it,” Foley quips.
Ticketed offerings begin after the Friday panel, with a short film called Café Abundance and a reading for The Tragic Ecstasy of Girlhood. Boston creative Kira Rockwell wrote the play, which won the festival’s national award this year.
More films and play readings follow on Saturday, April 27. That lineup includes four short films, two short plays, and Susan Handell’s An Ocean of Bees. Her full-length play imagines a post-apocalyptic future, with just four people left to represent all of humanity.
Sunday opens with an audition workshop, where casting directors and artistic directors will address best practices, and provide feedback for 12 people who’ve signed up to audition. A short film follows, as does the reading for a full-length Tira Palmquist play called The Way North.
For Foley, the common thread is storytelling. “Seeing other people’s stories builds empathy,” she says. That means stories told on stage need to include more diverse characters, including women and people of color.
If you attend the whole festival, you’ll see readings for three full-length plays, plus two short plays, by women playwrights. And you’ll see six short films that run from five to 25 minutes long, created in Australia, Canada, France, Iceland, and the U.S.
There’s an awards ceremony Sunday night, where awards will include audience picks for best play and film. Festival organizers received more than 100 submissions, so they had plenty of choices when putting the event together this year.
Despite ongoing disparities, Foley says she tries to give people the benefit of the doubt. “Most of the time, gender disparity isn’t willful and people aren’t trying to exclude others,” she says. “It’s just that people get so used to hearing one type of story, that they don’t always realize there are others’ whose stories aren’t being told.”
Foley hopes the festival will help change that.
“We have to keep equity in the forefront of our conversations.”
The Bechdel Test Fest. Friday, April 26, to Sunday, April 28, at Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 West Rio Salado Parkway. Full festival passes are $35. Visit bridgeinit.org.
Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version.