It feels wholly uninspired to ask the founder of the Women in Comedy Festival how it feels to plan such an event in the age of #TimesUp and #MeToo. The Boston-based festivities took place for the ninth time this past weekend, featuring podcast recordings, workshops, and an impressive slate of headlining performers. And yet, festival head Michelle Barbera was more than happy to talk about how the event doesn’t only lift up women, but creates a supportive and educational space for them to thrive- over the weekend and beyond.
“It’s such a strange time where all these things that have been invisible to certain sets of people are becoming visible,” Barbera shared on the first full day of the festival. “And I think it’s sort of almost like a wakeup call where there was this lip service paid to diversity for a long time, but it wasn’t really in people’s brains about what it really meant.”
The festival pays more than lip service to the diversity of the comedy performer in a number of different ways. Festival offerings explore not just standup, but also improv and sketch comedy, musical comedy, and film and voiceover- for performers of all genders, and boasting a 31% acceptance rate for performers of color.
That last statistic is one that, while high, matters a great deal to Barbera. Among the new offerings for this year’s festival was a series of three “38.7% Showcase” shows, coordinated by Boston comic Bethany van Delft and highlighting the festival’s African American, Asian American, Hispanic, and Native talent. “Bethany van Delft put together the 38.7% shows, that we’re doing three of. 38.7% of the population identifies as a person of color, is nonwhite. And it’s actually higher than that, but the census is underreporting that. So why would there be an all white show, or ten all white shows?”
And as for gender, Barbera marvels now at some of the conversations that governed their founding nearly a decade ago. “Back in 2009, we wanted to explain in our mission statement that we don’t exclude people who aren’t women. And I remember we had a big discussion: do we say we also accept men, or do we say we accept people of all genders? That was a discussion back then; that wouldn’t even be a discussion now!” Indeed, the festival featured several male comedians, as well as a number of nonbinary performers – some of whom took opportunities in their sets to educate audiences about the nuance of their identities. But at every turn, Barbera and her staff took great pains to ensure that the environment was one of support, encouragement, and practical advice that elevates comedy careers year-round. Last week, Emma Willmann named Barbera as a highly supportive and influential force in her career; she was pleased to hear it and confirmed this ethos is a stated goal for her and her staff. “We just want to support people. I think everyone should be treated the same. Everybody should be treated like a VIP, just because they’re humans!” she said when I mentioned Emma’s kind words.
Other comics associated with the festival echoed that feeling of support and camaraderie. Pamela Ross, who edits WICF’s online publishing vertical and produces a weekly show that supported the festival, noted “it’s a kind of coed – men and non-binary folk are welcome to participate in the festival – fraternity that’s introduced me to people I never would’ve met otherwise, gifted me new friends and people to crash with in different cities.” New York’s Katie Haller, who performed for the third time at WICF as her rap alter ego T-Spoon warmly credits the festival with helping her cultivate this character: “if it wasn’t for this festival coming around each year, I wouldn’t be motivated to write new raps; I might have given up on T-Spoon altogether.”
Among Haller’s duties for the festival this year was hosting a Young Comedians Showcase, featuring one of the festival’s youngest performers, fifteen year old Maeve Press. Press, too, understands the importance of being in community with talented and supportive comedians to develop her craft, telling me after the showcase, “it’s nice to be surrounded by so many creative people who are also trying to do the same thing you are, pushing you forward.” She made her debut at last year’s festival – yes, at fourteen years of age – and can already see how she’s grown since. “When I came last year, I had just started kinda doing comedy really seriously, and when I came here I was a lot more memorized and stiff. Coming back again, it’s nice to see I can look at the audience and they’re not going to judge me. It’s nice.”
It’s that confidence and direction that Barbera hopes both festival participants and attendees can gain from partaking in the weekend’s events. “I think standup comedy, and showbiz in general, is such an enigma for people. How do you break into that? It seems almost impossible, even though you see people doing standup, you don’t think that people really make a living doing it. And we’re trying to demystify that- if you do the work, it’s just like anything else.” Seeing others succeed at it on festival stages, and by taking workshops that illuminate a clear path forward, are both key to creating an environment where more women can create thriving careers in all forms of comedy:
If they know what they need to do, and they know what their goals are – and I don’t mean goals like fame, I mean goals like “I’m gonna keep working on a five minute set,” or “I wanna get up to a twenty minute set,” or these very concrete goals, I think that keeps them motivated […] Here are all the different paths: voiceover, writing, performing- these are all slightly different paths that you can [follow to] make a living in comedy. You don’t necessarily have to be a standup comedian who’s touring all over the country. You can be a writer in a writers room, but the standup background is really helpful, and so is the improv and sketch background.
Even though we talked at the beginning of the festival, Barbera was clear-eyed about what goals she hoped the weekend would achieve. There are specific goals in mind, namely growing the festival’s two short film competitions (this year supported by HBO’s Director of Comedy Programming and director Paul Feig) into a larger festival of its own. But there are larger, more altruistic and legacy-building ideas in her mind.
“We have executive-level industry form almost every major network here, sofor people to really learn from them and also to be scouted by them. [We want to] continue to grow and continue to be a destination for industry. Because if you go, given that we have like 20-30% of the talent being represented is women, why would you go to a regular comedy festival when you can go to hear and see a lot more women, a lot more diversity? It’d make your scouting easier.” Sporting such alums as Willmann, and Jenny Zigrino, it stands to reason that more “next big things” come out of these extraordinarily entertaining weekends in April. And with a tenth anniversary officially on the horizon, this is going to be a festival to watch- next year, and for many more years to come.