Despite its appearance, comedy is often a high-pressure endeavor. Actors compete with each other for roles, stage time, and writing jobs, and many hopefuls are left on the sidelines.
The producers and founders of Boston’s Women in Comedy Festival, whose sixth installment runs Thursday through Sunday, strive to change that. Not only do Michelle Barbera, Maria Ciampa, and Elyse Schuerman crave the networking and togetherness that the comedy business doesn’t always provide, they savor the opportunity to assemble women in a positive, creative atmosphere. The three met after crossing paths as performers and teachers.
“We’d go to [comedy] shows all the time,” says Ciampa about the festival’s inception. “Michelle said, ‘It would be great to go to a show and see all the strong women we see in Boston and other places.’ Literally, it was that.”
The WICF was born in 2009 with a handful of shows at ImprovBoston. This year’s festival has more than 200 performers at 33 shows and seven venues in Cambridge and Boston, including the Wilbur Theatre and Laugh Boston. Events include performances from headliners Maria Bamford and Amy Sedaris; workshops on topics ranging from storytelling to booking gigs; and a panel discussion with HBO comedy producer Stephanie Lang.
“What I wanted, and what I craved, was just more camaraderie, more collaboration,” Ciampa says. “I was seeking out more like-minded people.”
The producers emphasize that the festival’s inclusion of men, both as performers and organizers, is significant. “I think it’s really important to engage everyone,” Barbera says. “Having men who are open and friends with women can only help spread the word about what an amazing festival it is. We want to support men who support women.”
The festival starts Thursday with Bamford performing at the Wilbur. Other headliner events include Sedaris at the Wilbur on Friday, and a live recording of the “Dork Forest” podcast with Jackie Kashian. Sunday’s schedule includes two Mother’s Day-themed stand-up and improv shows with various performers. (A full schedule is available at www.womenincomedyfestival
Throughout are stand-up and improv showcases that represent the festival’s wide-ranging scope. Audiences can see musical improv; a family-friendly improv show; a storytelling stand-up showcase; and stand-up sets from comedians such as Judy Gold and Wendy Liebman, as well as scores of lesser-known names getting some visibility.
Liebman, a Long Island native who spent six years in the Boston comedy scene in the late 1980s and early ’90s (and started performing stand-up after taking a class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education), will make her second WICF appearance at Saturday’s “Stand-up Showcase” at Laugh Boston.
Liebman says the festival’s positive atmosphere is what made her accept the producers’ second invitation.
“I just found the entire experience exhilarating, fortifying, and fun,” Liebman says over the phone from Los Angeles. “I felt there were women taking each other seriously and helping each other — feminist, in a sense, because women helping each other is feminist. I feel like the women in stand-up comedy help each other.”
Rachel Rosenthal, whose rap comedy group North Coast will be providing a hip-hop improv workshop and performing at ImprovBoston, agreed that the festival’s focus on women — and inclusion of men — levels the playing field for audience and performer.
“Even though you think it’d be the opposite,” says Rosenthal, “having a largely female festival actually removes the idea of gender from the audience’s perspective.’’
Ciampa, who moved to Los Angeles a year and a half ago, says that the number of comedic opportunities for women, from writing and acting jobs to being included more on stage, has grown.
To partly explain that change, Schuerman points to the importance of writers and stars like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, women who have served as highly visible writers, actors, and producers. Poehler cofounded the Upright Citizens’ Brigade, an improv and sketch comedy theater whose alumni appear regularly in sitcoms, films, and Hollywood writers’ rooms.
Schuerman says that she thinks the WICF is contributing to that progression.
“What we’re doing with the festival, people have been doing for a long while now, and it’s really building up,” she says. “[Women] are creating much more of a network. Back when it was Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, people really refer to them as pioneers. Now you can come into it, and you can have peers and support.”
The recognition aspect of the festival extends to its newest addition, the Women in Comedy Award for Excellence, whose first recipient will be Sedaris, a writer, actor, and comedian. Ciampa says that in future years, they hope to add an award for innovation, as well as more festival events through additional corporate sponsorship.