Laughing in the Face of Inequality: An Interview With Beth Eisenberg
Beth Eisenberg is one of the organizers of Philadelphia’s Bechdel Test Fest, a comedy festival highlighting our city’s funniest women, trans, and non-binary comedians and performers. Founded in 2016 to help foster a more inclusive comedy community in the face of gender inequality on Philly stages, the annual festival has continued to expand with each iteration—in duration, in number of performers, in stage sizes—and this year is no exception. Spread out over three nights at three different venues, the 2018 festival offers audiences around the city a series of diverse showcases, highlighting a wide range of comedic forms including stand-up, sketch, improv, clowning, and much more. Each evening also ends with a free open stage event for open-mic standup, performance pieces, and improv jams. FringeArts will be hosting the festival’s second night, March 3.
The festival’s continual growth speaks to the ever-present need for greater inclusivity in comedy, and it’s heartening that, as our cultural conversations around gender discrimination continue to develop with more verve than has been seen in many years, so too do platforms that are actively working to upend this universal inequity. It’s vital work that, as Eisenberg is quick to acknowledge, has been happening in our city long before the festival’s genesis, but it seems now more than ever comedy fans are eager for more diverse offerings. Thankfully, Bechdel Test Fest is here to provide.
FringeArts: How did the Festival come about?
Beth Eisenberg: Almost three years ago there was an uproar about diversity on some stages. Few women being cast. Few women being asked to create or direct. Most spots in comedy locally and nationally were pulling from the all men’s clubs. Initially, there was a post in the all female identifying Facebook group, Improvaries, sharing the feeling of exclusion and isolation around a recent audition that cast primarily men. Though this issue wasn’t a unique occurrence, it was from that moment that an energy was generated around making a space for female identifying performers in the city.
Everyone rallied. Everyone shared frustration. And lots of individuals shared about how other cities have successful females festivals. So it was the right time and interest from the group was there. That group is comprised of comics from all spaces and theaters, backgrounds, experience, ages, etc.
Since the start of the festival, in Philadelphia, the tide has risen. A comedy theater founded by a woman was started, a diversity program was created at another comedy theater, a female won Phillies Funniest for the first time ever. But please recognize we were not first nor will we be last. We are standing on the shoulders of hundreds before us. Bobbi Block and the Comedy Sportz Show was founded by mostly women. There was a women’s comedy festival back in the 90s in the city that was successful. Kelly Jennings, Karen Getz, Amie Roe, Jen Childs, and so many more were crushing it long before we came on the scene. There seems to be a moment of increased energy in the last few years, but we don’t take any credit for that. The road was created by women and allies from years back. We wouldn’t be here without their ground breaking work.
Bechdel Test Fest is so honored to be a part of this era. The increased diversity and awareness around diversity in the comedy in the city, it’s great.
FringeArts: What were some of the things about last year’s Festival that made you think “can’t wait to do it again?”
Beth Eisenberg: We shifted last year to a Marathon style festival. This was wonderful in some ways as it opened folks to new work and performers they wouldn’t have seen. It did have its limitations around community which is why we were excited for this year. Instead of everyone in an isolated space, for one long day and night, we are splitting up the show. A different venue every night for 3 nights.
Last year we saw a few folks really push into new spaces and forms and overlap audiences. The festival created fans of new genres. Kristen Schier lit up the room with a solo piece that allowed an audience of stand up fans to experience the magic of clown work. Katherine Perry adapted her one woman show, Sex Talk, to perform song and sketch to an audience of improv fans who were floored as to the levels you can push music and satire. Alyssa Al-Dookhi performed stand up and showcased how comedy can shift perspective about race and gender while being hilarious.
FringeArts: What are you looking forward to about 2018’s Festival?
Beth Eisenberg: We are partnering with FringeArts, Philly Improv Theater and Bourbon & Branch to bring community together in new ways. We have opted for a free, open stage/mic/jam at the end of each festival night to allow more people, female identifying and allies and supporters to come enjoy and perform and connect with each other. We are paying every performer. We are donating profits back to our artists and a portion to a local non profit.
We are excited for the theater people, the music nerds, the dancers, the comics, the singers, the clowns, the actors and all the goofs to come together, meet each other, collaborate and celebrate comedy.
FringeArts: How does the diversity of comedic styles help set this Festival apart—and what goes into programming a particular evening?
Beth Eisenberg: The format is stand up, improv, sketch, musical comedy, solo character bits, clown, and anything else funny.
The festival is set apart in this city due to the variety of styles, genres and performers, paying the performers, and showcasing independent, non affiliated acts. Programming will come down to submissions and making each night the best.
Our goal? Be funny. Sustain the energy. Open strong. Close stronger. Make people laugh so hard that their faces are a bit sore the next day. We are excited to meet everyone, make space for new acts and performers, introduce ourselves to one another and let y’all know, we got your back.
Bechdel Test Fest
March 3 (Night Two)
140 N. Columbus Boulevard
$25 Full Evening Pass
$10 tickets to each performance at 7pm, 8:30pm, and 10pm
Free RSVP to Open Mic at 11pm
Interview by Josh McIlvain, November 2017.
Intro by Hugh Wilikofsky.
Banner photo: Alyssa Al-Dookhi, pictured.