City's festivals go hunting for variety

Just for Laughs' all-male headliners illustrate challenges programmers face in trying to book diverse acts

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Bill Maher

Bill Maher (June 10, 2013)

At this year's Just for Laughs Chicago comedy festival, not one of the main headliners, the people playing the Chicago Theatre and featured atop the website, is a woman.

Not Bob Newhart. Not Bill Maher. Not Russell Brand or Seth Meyers. Not even any of the four pals referred to in "David Cross and his Super Duper Pals."

Yet one of the first things Just for Laughs programming chief Robbie Praw does when you ask him about it is laugh. Why? "The conversation I had right before you was about how our Montreal festival this year is being branded by the local media as 'the year of the woman,'" says Praw.

The issue here, he says, isn't that women comics are insufficiently super or duper. It's that the ones bookers thought could sell the Chicago Theatre's 3,600 seats didn't have schedules that matched those of the festival, the fifth edition of which runs from Tuesday to June 16 around Chicago.

"If you don't think I want Lena Dunham in conversation with Tina Fey, of course I do," Praw says. But the "Girls" and "30 Rock" stars "weren't available," he says. "Maybe women are getting too big."

It's ironic, he says after his initial laugh, to have Just for Laughs asked about a lack of women in one city while in another its abundance of them is drawing notice.

From either direction, such questions underscore the attention that is paid to diversity in booking. The Cannes film festival has drawn fire in recent years for including zero, or almost zero, films directed by women in its main competition. The big Chicago music festivals, Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, may have almost comically homogenous crowds, but their bookings have been more diverse, with Pitchfork this summer showcasing arguably its deepest lineup of black performers yet.

A cultural conservative might call the attention to such matters "political correctness" or "tokenism." But Praw and programmers of other Chicago arts festivals — film, humanities, sketch comedy — say that a monocultural event is a boring event and one that does little to advance the art form or educate the public.

Even more basic than that, the act of holding a festival implies the presentation of a range of material.

"What is a festival?" asks Brian Posen, executive producer and founder of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, which put on 162 shows during the first two weeks of January this year. "You come and get to try as many different theater companies as possible, or different bands, or different greasy, fried foods. If you just have your Bud Lights and your pierogies, you want more."

Although it is changing rapidly, Posen says, sketch comedy by tradition is "a pretty white-bread art form." So rather than taking simply those performers his adjudicating committee ranks highest on the basis of application videos, he'll put his thumb on the scale here and there.

"I look at the big picture so that it is diverse and isn't just a white-boys festival," says Posen. "We had a group from Iowa in their 50s and 60s" that didn't have the very top scores "but their score was still high enough to not compromise the integrity of the festival. We wanted them in because no one else was like that."

Sketch groups that have participated in recent years include Siblings of Doctors, whose members are of Indian heritage, and GayCo, self-explanatory. Comedy, he says, is rooted in point of view, making it vital to incorporate many points of view.

"If we have all white boys, is the Hispanic community going to come out?" Posen asks. "It's not just that different audiences generate more income, but producers want to make sure we serve the art form."

The Chicago International Film Festival pays close attention to such issues, says Mimi Plauche, programming director. Within the annual festival, a Black Perspectives program has a 17-year history, she says. There's also Reel Women, and an LGBT program called OUTrageous.

"We're a competitive film festival, and the idea is to bring the best in international and independent cinema," Plauche says. "We also try to engage the different communities in Chicago."

Knowing that there is a mandate to be diverse, she says, forces programmers to be on their toes: "It keeps us more in tune with what's happening in different filmmaking communities."

And, again, it's not bad for business. A focus last year on films dealing with the Middle East resulted in near-capacity crowds for those movies, Plauche says.

Chicago Humanities Festival programmers are similarly attuned to issues of race, gender and ethnicity, says Matti Bunzl, artistic director of the big autumn ideas gathering (that puts on other shows year-round).

"We think about that question at every single meeting," says Bunzl, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who looks at such matters through the prism of his academic discipline.

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