Instigation and Representation: The Bay Area Women’s Theatre Festival

The 2020 opening night reading of “Susan B.” by Daphne White at Peet’s Theater in Berkeley. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BAY AREA WOMEN’S THEATER FESTIVAL

The Bay Area Women’s Theatre Festival (BAWTF) returns in March after a two year hiatus due to the pandemic, featuring the Classical Women and Black, Indigenous, Women of Color (BIWOC+) Reading Series. Kathryn Seabron and Erin Merritt, two of the leads behind the event, gave an inside look into the founding of the BAWTF and its significance.

“If your feminism isn’t including women of color then you’re doing it wrong. If your feminism isn’t intersectional, you’re doing it wrong.”

Kathryn Seabron

The BAWTF mission of creating space for women+ who don’t fit into the archetypal gender and racial norms in theater was founded upon experiences like Merritt’s and Seabron’s. “There are a bunch of us who present as women, who look like women, but who don’t fit the gender stereotypes at all,” Merritt said, reflecting on her time on stage. “We shouldn’t be forced to play those roles.”

The creators and producers of the festival call themselves the Instigators. Although the term was first coined by Michaela Goldhaber, the lead Instigator and director, the name was enthusiastically adopted by the group for its provocative nature. “We need instigators. We need people to go in there and make other people really think about women+ in theater,” Kathryn Seabron, the BIWOC+ Reading series curator said. The BAWTF uses the term “women+” as a more inclusive alternative to the binary that “women” entails. “Women+ includes women, gender-nonconforming, non-binary and trans people,” festival producer Erin Merrit said.

The BAWTF will be opening its doors for a season of women+ centered readings and performances. For Seabron, the festival marks her reentry into the theater world after a long hiatus provoked by her adverse experiences as a woman of color. “When you think of classical theater, you don’t think of women of color,” Seabron said. The gender and racial imbalance created significant obstacles in her career as a theater director.

Seabron recalled how her being a “large Black woman” elicited negative perceptions from the people she worked with. “If you’re a woman of color who has any bass to her voice, who has any kind of confidence, then you’re automatically assumed aggressive,” she said. “You’re the enemy when you’re just simply doing your job.” 

It was experiences like this that propelled Seabron to create the BIWOC+ Series. Through the series, she wanted to ensure that all BIWOC+ women, irrespective of race, gender identity and body size would be given space to express themselves in the festival. 

“If your feminism isn’t including women of color then you’re doing it wrong. If your feminism isn’t intersectional, you’re doing it wrong,” Seabron said.

For Merritt, the director of one of the classical series plays, witnessing the devaluation of women in theater led her and fellow Instigators to create the festival. “People were not taking advantage of the fact that there are so many women who are interested in this work,” she said. 

Merritt, a trained actor and director, first observed inequitable conditions for women in theater while involved in Shakespearean productions early in her career. 

Roles for women were limited and largely overlooked by casting directors, according to Merritt. Merritt stressed the fact that women’s roles were filled on the basis of who got along best with the male leads, instead of who was best suited. “They’d be like ‘We still need Juliet. Well you know the guy who’s playing Romeo, he’s dating this woman, that might be a good choice’,” she said. Merritt continued, saying, “I was just really disgruntled with the system. The way that they chose us was so much of an afterthought.” 

As a smaller, 5’2” blonde woman, Merritt was mostly typecast as the ingenue, the stereotypical, innocent woman stock character. “Everybody wanted me to play the ingenues, I only got to read for those [roles] but that is not my personality type,” she said, expressing her frustration. Merritt  accepted the roles for some time, spurred by her love of theater, but said it wasn’t what her “soul wanted to play.”  

Merritt’s frustrations eventually led to the formation of the BAWTF Classical Women Series, a collection of readings showcasing centuries-old women writers overshadowed by Shakespeare and long overdue for discovery. The series forged a space for women of all kinds to participate in classical theater.

The collective aim of the Instigators, and in turn the BAWTF, is best encapsulated by Seabron’s “ultimate hope,” that “someone would see a reading and just know there are more voices in theater than just white men. There are so many other stories to tell besides the stories of white men. And we all know those stories because we’ve been hearing them since the beginning.”

Beginning in March, the BAWTF presents BIWOC+ Series every 1st and 3rd Monday

Classical Women Series every 2nd and 4th MondayFree ticket reservations and more information about BAWTF can be found at https://bayareawomenstheatrefestival.com/

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