This was the time of year when Susan Shay was going to relax a bit.
The Bay Area Women’s Theatre Festival (BAWTF), the ambitious project which was ready to amplify theatre written, created, produced and directed by women and non-binary artists, would have been in full swing. More than 3,000 playbills were set to be delivered, stages would have been booked and filled, and so many critical voices from both well-established and up and coming artists were ready to transform the Bay Area’s theatre scene in entirely new ways.
But like so many other projects slated for the spring of 2020, those best laid plans went awry. And those playbills still sit in Shay’s garage.
Shay is the festival’s managing director and producer, a tireless artist and professional actor who, along with her team, have been working non-stop since the summer of 2018, prepping for their big moment.
Naturally, seeing the festival go the way of every other theatre production that had a March landing date put Shay into a sense of mourning, a state of mind which she can honestly say she has yet to fully recover from.
“I felt it took me longer than a lot of our members of the team (to continue),” said Shay.
Despite the sense of gloom that comes with losing out on such a massive project in the middle of March, something started to happen shortly after the inevitable cancellation, which caught Shay and the members of her team by surprise.
Facebook likes for the festival began to grow, and their other social media started to gain traction. Instead of posting information about where the next show will take place, information was being shared about how to get grants, where to stream content and how to file for unemployment.
“It made me see how much of a community we built without even getting together in person for a week,” said Shay.
The festival was inspired by the North Carolina Women’s Theatre Festival, which was founded in 2016 and housed in the cities that make up the Research Triangle – Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Michaela Goldhaber, who is listed as BAWTF’s “Lead Instigator” and Classical Reading Series co-lead, had her play read at the North Carolina festival, and returned to the Bay Area looking to put together a team of women theatre artists to duplicate her experience. What initially was a commitment from Shay to help with some website URL’s turned into serious involvement with many aspects of the festival – fundraising, fiscal sponsorship and most importantly, advocacy.
“What I am doing right now is political action, because we are advocating for marginalized artists and bringing attention to the inequity in our field,” said Shay. “We are campaigning for women and non-binary artists, which is why for me it became more than just throwing up a website. I really invested in this process, making sure this happened.”
It was March 2 when the first reading took place at Peet’s Theatre in Berkeley. A week later, serious discussions were being held about postponing the festival, or canceling it altogether. In order to try and save all that the organizers had built, hand sanitizer stations were placed in all the theatre lobbies, no one shook hands, but what couldn’t be denied was a heaviness in the air.
It was a conversation every theatre in the country was having – can we go on? Can we get in another performance? For Shay, the festival was one gigantic aspect of her life. Other concerns included her day job, which meant trying to move an entire business online. She and her husband were also preparing to join the ranks of parents who now have multiple young children going to school through distance learning.
Another concern had to do with the artists themselves. Before anything was decided in terms of cancellations, would an artist be expected to work in the middle of a global pandemic? Ultimately, the decision to suspend the festival took place just after the final in-person event on March 9 at Aurora Theatre.
The decision to suspend was a tough one, but in other ways, easy.
“We didn’t just factor in the audience’s health, but also the artist’s health,” said Shay. “You don’t want to put any performers in harm’s way, which is something that happens so frequently because we are so wanting to work and be a part of art. This is our passion and sometimes, that is pressure.
“It’s a heavy, grey cloud in our industry, and it was important to release artists from that obligation. We’re not going to make you do these programs while standing in harm’s way. And very quickly nobody was doing anything.”
More than a month after theatres throughout the country shut down, artists everywhere are now creating new media online through platforms such as YouTube, Facebook Live, Twitch and Instagram TV. Comedy clubs have now turned into sold-out Zoom rooms, with folks such as festival participant Marga Gomez hosting comedy brunches on Sundays, tapping into her vast network of comedy friends to deliver laughs and camaraderie.
While gathering in a theatre is on the shelf for the foreseeable future, BAWTF found a way to give its artists lots of amplification. The weekend of April 18 saw one of the festival’s most ambitious projects, “Amplify,” take place online. What was supposed to be 24 hours of programming at Brava Theater Center using every ounce of space in the building was moved to the internet. Artists shared their words, videos and podcasts that are still available for consumption. More content is being planned through May. And most importantly, any content that is used by BAWTF ensures that the content creators are compensated.
Shay credits her incredible counterparts for reshaping their lens.
“My team was raring to go very quickly, asking how we can still do something, stay connected and support one another. We were asking artists, ‘Do you have anything online so we can support your work and pay for your work? Are there sites where we can make donations?'”
Like anyone else, Shay has good and bad days through this ordeal. She speaks of the sadness of seeing a friend who has passed from Covid-19, thinks about her parents staying safe and desperately wants her three children to have real play dates that don’t involve a tablet or computer.
Through it all, theatre continues to be her great healer, and artists never fail to bring her inspiration.
“There have been days I couldn’t think about theatre because I was thinking about a friend who was sick, and other days where I’ve gone to the theatre when I was sad,” said Shay. “When I felt alone and needed something, craved something, I’ve gone to the theatre. In these times, I have to find that sense of solace, that sense of escape. How can I make that happen?
“The thing that keeps me going is remembering we are trying to promote advocacy for and amplify non-binary artists and the voices of women of color, voices that do not get the same opportunities as others.”
Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of BAWTF is the single sentence that sits right on the homepage of their website. It’s a sentiment that gives everyone some inspiration in these strange times:
“See you at the theater – after Covid-19.”
When that happens, Shay can certainly relax and watch a play while holding a playbill that wasn’t from her garage.
WHAT TO KNOW
To learn more about the Bay Area Women’s Theatre Festival, ways you can support, stream and view content, or make a donation to the festival or an individual artist, please visit the official website.