Get To Know: Bechdel Theatre
Bechdel Theatre, co-run by Beth Watson and Pippa Sa, exists to help feminist theatre goers figure out what they might want to see, and to chivvy the industry into creating a broader range of meaty parts for women and non-binary people. They take their inspiration from Alison Bechdel, the American cartoonist best known for her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, whose method for evaluating the portrayal of women in fiction (do two or more named female characters have a conversation about anything other than a man?) has become ubiquitous in the film industry.
Beth and Pippa work tirelessly to engage theatre-makers and audiences alike to think about the roles of women and non-binary people in theatre through a campaign that awards Bechdel Theatre stickers to test-passing productions, as well as facilitating post-show talks and a Bechdel Theatre podcast. We caught up with Beth to talk about the many facets of their work, and why the Bechdel test remains a supremely useful tool.
Why did you set up Bechdel Theatre?
We exist to highlight gender and representation on stage (with a focus on positive examples) and amplify under-represented voices. I had seen how feminists in the world of film were using the Bechdel Test as a way to positively highlight representation on screen and wanted to do something similar for theatre. For example, in the film world, Bechdel Test Fest who started out doing small screenings of Bechdel Test-passing films are now invited by major cinemas to celebrate big female-led releases, while the Swedish A-Rating and British F-Rating are also effective in improving representation by highlighting films which pass the test, or have female writers and directors.
I wanted to marry my feminist values with my professional training and passion as a theatre-maker and fan to help audiences find theatre that would show women doing something other than furthering a male protagonist's story. It's also a way to help theatres and producers think about how they're doing in terms of gender and representation in a way that gives them an opportunity to advertise where they might be making a step in the right direction.
How do you view the current state of the theatre industry with respect to representation?
Things seem to be improving since 2015 when I set up Bechdel Theatre, but I have to say the pace is glacial. Especially when it comes to representations of women as anything other than straight, cis, white, middle-class, non-disabled, thin, and under 30.
There are still many gatekeepers who pay lip service to ‘diversity’ but reject the use of quotas in their programming. There are still queer seasons that feature mostly cis men, and seasons of women’s work where everyone’s white and privately educated. Having said that, I’m increasingly surrounded by people who are committed to real representation, not box-ticking diversity. There are some wonderful, talented artists in theatre and the wider performing arts whose work is intersectional, and there is a growing community of dedicated and genuine activists supporting each other and raising up each other’s voices, many of whom are going from strength-to-strength in their careers. I hope they will one day replace the gatekeepers (and then burn down the gates).
Why is the Bechdel Test a useful tool?
I think the Bechdel test's biggest asset is its simplicity: it's a conversation opener that gets audiences thinking about the complex issues of representation, but doesn't require a degree in gender-studies or film studies to be understood. We want everyone to feel like they can see a show and get stuck into chatting about it afterwards, to celebrate or critique the representations they've just seen without holding back. The Bechdel test helps get the ball rolling on that. It opens up MORE questions, like:
Are there two women? (YES! Who are they?)
Do they talk to each other? (YES! For how long? What about? What's their relationship to each other?)
About something other than a man? (What do they talk about? Their jobs? The future? Politics? Death? Food? OH but maybe they do talk about a man! Why? Who is he? What does he mean to the women? Are they the main characters or is he?)
... and before you know it, a passionate discussion is taking place about theatre and life, without anyone hesitating to share their response or opinion.
What are the limitations of the Bechdel Test and how can we work with / around them?
The test is all about how you use it. It has ‘limitations’ because it was not ever meant to be prescriptive, or even taken that seriously - it began life as a joke in a comic strip where the punchline is that, despite the bar set by the test being so low, if you use the test to limit what you see you won't see much at all.
We try to stay true to the Bechdel test's origins by using it in a similar way to how the character in the comic uses it - to help us choose what to see. In that comic strip, the first woman says: "I only go to a movie if it satisfies 3 basic requirements...", and the second woman responds: "Pretty strict, but a good idea". A Bechdel test pass does not to say "this show will be a great feminist example to us all", but just "if you want women to not be completely non-existent on screen (or stage) - try this!", which is an easy way to pique the interest of a viewer.
So flexibility is key?
The "Pretty strict, but a good idea" response is important - we’re not that strict about sticking rigidly to the test, and certainly not saying ALL ART EVER should pass the test, or that women on stage should exist in a vacuum where they never ever mention a man. That would be ridiculous and not representative of human reality! We find the test is flexible enough to be used however you like to help get the conversation going.
We never use the word "fail" when it comes to the test because we’re never gonna use Bechdel Theatre to shame an individual show that doesn't pass. There are some really amazing feminist shows about relationships between men and women, shows by men that challenge masculinity, and there are many under-represented genders, such as trans men and non-binary people, that don't identify with the test. In cases such as these, where the show doesn't pass the test but does address or improve representation, the conversation can go: "Are there two women on stage?" "No, BUT the men on stage are trans and this is great to see because..." or "No, BUT that woman's conversations with men is challenging patriarchy because...". These representations are really important, and this is why we don't limit our coverage on our podcast or post-shows to productions that strictly pass the test, or solely focus on women.
We take a lot of inspiration from Alison Bechdel - in her work you can see all kinds of voices, bodies and relationships represented, especially in Dykes to Watch Out For. There's always an element of truth to the stories she draws, even the fictional characters feel realistic and fully formed. And they don't ALWAYS pass the Bechdel test. There are male characters who are also multi-faceted, complex and fascinating. Imagine that!
What are your goals for the company moving forward?
After running for a couple of years as an ad-hoc campaign that started as a twitter page, we’re in the process of becoming official as a company so we can dedicate more of our time and energy to our work supporting the industry to improve in every way, and will hopefully be able to apply for funding outside of the short-term solutions of being supported by individual donors via Patreon and crowd-funding.
On a practical level, we’d like to make our work more accessible to everyone across the country in a few different ways, eg: We have a podcast but it hasn’t been transcribed or interpreted yet so can’t be accessed by D/deaf theatre-goers. We have yet to do a post-show outside of London. We often have to charge more than we’d like for our shows or workshops to cover the basic costs of running them.
I love the Bechdel Theatre post-show pop-up conversations - in particular, I found the ones post Skin A Cat at The Bunker and Collective Rage at Southwark Playhouse so useful in ordering my thoughts. What have you learned personally through facilitating them?
I’ve learned that every show, venue and audience is unique, and no conversation is ever remotely similar - I’ve facilitated almost 20 of them now since 2015 and every time it’s impossible to predict who will show up and where the conversation will lead. Sometimes it’s very focused on the show, but sometimes it’s more about issues surrounding the show, sometimes it’s more about the personal impact of the character’s emotional journey on the audience, and sometimes it’s about politics and current affairs.
For some audiences they come out buzzing and with so much to say that we barely need to say anything, or might only need to mediate to stop participants all talking at once (which happened with the very emotive Skin A Cat when we saw it at The Bunker - everyone was so ready to share their feelings about that play!), but after other shows the audience might be in a more contemplative mood and need a bit of coaxing, so we will open up some specific questions or even throw in some of our own personal ideas and feelings to encourage people to share. You have to be open, flexible and go with the flow but keep on the ball enough that everyone feels that they’re in safe hands.
You also run Bechdel Testing Life, a method for creating new work. Can you tell us about the concept and how it works?
We ask people to record themselves in conversation (passing the Bechdel test in real life!) and then give the recordings to playwrights asking them to write a short play inspired by something they hear. We staged a production around this concept at The Bunker last summer (after scratching the idea with support from Theatre Deli earlier in the year). It featured four 15 minute shorts, which were all by different writers with their own recognisable styles, but felt distinctly connected to each other. The idea was to create a fun and impactful night of polished and high-quality work where the audience could get a glimpse into several different worlds and see a wide range of different characters represented on stage, and know that everything had some basis in reality. Some of the people I know who recorded themselves and then came to watch the plays recognised something of their voice or story and were blown away by the uncanny familiarity of watching something partly inspired by them.
Finally, what have you got coming up next?
We’re going to Edinburgh for the whole of August to Bechdel test theatre at The Fringe!
This means we’re bringing our famous stickers that sit alongside star-ratings on posters to highlight shows that pass the Bechdel test.
Before then, we’re holding a one-off drag night on July 4th at Styx bar, with some of our favourite Kings, Queens and Cabaret pals performing to raise money to support our work. It’s gonna be a gender-inclusive King-centric night, with a massive queer pre-Pride party vibe. We’re looking forward to welcoming lots of people who may not have ever seen a Drag King before, as well as plenty of die-hard drag devotees.
If people want to book to come to the drag night, or support us through our crowdfunder or patreon, all the info is on our website.