Alison Bechdel’s iconic eponymous Bechdel Test isn’t the same exam it was when the award-winning graphic writer (Fun Home, Dykes to Watch Out For) created it back in ye olden 1985. A quick refresher if you’ve been under a rock since then or are still entrenched in the patriarchy: In order to pass the Bechdel Test, stories—be they on stage, page, or screen—have to include at least two female characters. And those two women have to talk at least once about something other than men. Extra credit: The women have names.
When the test started exploding over pop culture in 1985, mainstream entertainment overwhelmingly flunked. Today, we’re doing better: If 1985 was a straight F, we’re now at a solid D-. (You can Google those receipts yourself. As a femme of some 58 years, I have grown weary of explaining it.)
Chicago’s Broken Nose Theatre has been an outlier, since 2013 scoring season after season of straight As on the Bechdels, even as everything from Broadway (Harper Lee told To Kill a Mockingbird from Scout’s POV, not her father’s, but Aaron Sorkin’s 2018 stage version ignored that) to books (hello, Jonathan Franzen) kept failing.
This year’s Bechdel Fest 8: Realign sallies forth this month, pandemic be damned, with a virtual lineup of eight new 10- to 15-minute plays dealing with the theme of realignment. They’ll stream free every Friday from January 29 through March 26, on the theater’s YouTube channel. (Currently, the plan is for each new play to replace the previous week’s offering.)
But the test itself has evolved since Bechdel Fest debuted in the heart of the Obama administration, says director JD Caudill, who marks their fourth Fest this year. Bechdel 8, they point out, includes pieces centered on transwomen, nonbinary, and queer characters. Caudill is directing Lane Anthony Flores‘s going green (March 12), a futuristic tale of dysmorphic beauty standards and body modification so extreme nobody’s even tried it yet IRL. The synopsis sounds akin to Black Mirror meets Nip/Tuck meets Desperate Landscapes.
“I think decentering men is at the core of what the Bechdel Test is about,” Caudill says. “For the Fest, we’ve been and we are expanding ‘women’ to include anyone who doesn’t identify as a cis man. From an institutional standpoint at Broken Nose, it has always been about expanding the canon of American theater. We have plenty of Glass Menageries and Hairsprays. Broken Nose is about creating empathy for communities that haven’t been amplified by that canon. And that’s not just ‘women’ as they were defined years ago, it’s nonbinary and queer and trans people.”
Iris Sowlat is in her rookie year with Bechdel Fest. While she’s primarily known as a director, she penned The Ladies Next Door (February 26) during the pandemic after her two directing gigs (Romeo and Juliet for Accidental Shakespeare and The Black Knight for Lifeboat Productions) were indefinitely postponed due to COVID. “To me, the definition of a woman is basically everybody who doesn’t experience male privilege,” Sowlat says. “The original test was all about saying ‘let’s not make men the default,’ and that hasn’t changed.”
Sowlat’s 15-minute playlet toggles between the 1970s to the present as a young queer woman navigates a breakup in the very same apartment where her lesbian aunt once had her own heart broken.
Sowlat wrote The Ladies Next Door over the summer, but the idea for the piece came over a year ago, when she found herself openly sobbing in the middle of the Art Institute’s Andy Warhol exhibit. Heartache (Sowlat demurs from specifics) propelled her to the member lounge, where she started a Google doc on her phone. She reopened it post-lockdown, eventually coming up with a four-character drama that explores both family and romantic relationships.
“I wanted to write a kind of queer romantic comedy—I don’t think we see a lot of those,” Sowlat says. “I also loved the idea of working history into it, and the concept of these intergenerational relationships.”
Asha McAllister is also writing for her inaugural Bechdel Fest. Her work, How Strong is Your Tree Pose? (February 12), takes place at a virtual yoga class, where the teacher and student attempt to navigate the definitions of trans and nonbinary, and the assumptions that can follow both words. McAllister is not new to writing. At six, she was reviewing both the books she read and the movies that she watched with her family. (Billy Jack got high marks.)
McAllister’s theater training also started early: Her mother directed student plays at North Chicago and Proviso East high schools, so McAllister and her siblings were often pressed into duty. They made costumes, folded programs, stuffed envelopes, and sometimes took to the stage itself.
“I played Travis in A Raisin in the Sun at North Chicago High School when I was in sixth grade because they couldn’t get enough boys to audition. It was always like, ‘Mom needs help with this, so let’s go,'” McAllister recalls. “When I was a senior, we did Crowns and Fences, and I got to play Rose in Fences.”
“But being on stage was never my main thing,” she continues. “I wanted to write. The summer before my freshman year, our [Girl Scout] troop leader took us to this health and wellness expo, and one of the events was this group called Reality Theater run by Omni Youth Services. They did an original play and I was like—hey? What? I can write a play? That’s a thing people do? I asked them to let me join without acting, but they said no, I had to do everything. So I did.”
After that, she and her mother began scouting for plays by Black authors and featuring Black characters that they could bring to the schools. “We’d really hunt,” McAllister says. “We’d write our own things, do monologue nights we called ‘Different Perspectives.’ I mean, I just love stories. That’s how we communicate. That’s how we connect. Telling stories.”
The stories of Bechdel 8 face challenges like no other.
“As a director, it’s my job to make the room an energized, positive place,” says Caudill. “That’s a whole lot harder to do on Zoom. You can’t rely on your body language. You’re basically seeing people from the waist up. And everybody is under incredible stress. We’ve all been depressed. We’ve all been miserable. It’s all difficult.
“But I’m excited to do this play because it shows trans and nonbinary people being messy. I think there’s a tendency to show us as perfect people or as the villains. No room in the middle, no room to be messy like everybody else.” v