Harley Young chats with organisers, Jessica Toomey and Hazel O’Keefe, about the importance of the festival and what to expect from this year’s lineup
Jessica Toomey (Director of the Frog and Bucket Comedy Club & FAB Management) and Hazel O’Keefe (Founder of Laughing Cows) have been working hard to pull together this year’s lineup, featuring 72 comedians across a wide range of comedic styles.
Since the festival’s inception in 2012, it has celebrated and championed all things funny and female across a variety of platforms. The festival runs throughout the beginning of October and plays an important role in recognising the diverse talent from women and female-identifying comedians across the country.
There’s no excuse not to have a woman on your bill because there’s enough women on the circuit in 2023.
The festival has grown over the past couple of years. What's it looking like now?
Jessica Toomey: I think this is the biggest one yet. It’s the 10th annual festival. There's 72 comedians performing over 10 days across different venues. I’ve just come back from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and I know we’ve got some of the absolute best shows that are around joining us. We had quite a few shows sell out straight away actually.
Where can festival attendees watch the gigs?
JT: We’ve planned them all so they’re within five minutes walking distance of each other. This year’s shows are at the Frog and Bucket, Gullivers, Fierce Bar Vaults, Creatures Comedy Club and Cain & Grain.
What was it that made you think there needed to be a dedicated women’s comedy festival?
Hazel O’Keefe: In 1998 I created Laughing Cows Comedy in London. It was a once-a-month gig with an all-female lineup which, back in ‘98, was a miracle. That stuff just didn’t happen. You didn’t even have one woman on the bill, never mind a full lineup.
That then expanded, I brought it to Manchester, and that’s how me and Jess met in 2003. We ended up holding it everywhere; Birmingham, Leicester, even Berlin - it was all over the place. It was great because we had around 10 shows but it got to the point where we realised, even though it was expanding really quickly, there were still only four or five slots per city per month, which wasn’t really making a difference. Whereas, if we created a festival, a lot of things would organically come from that.
JT: I mean, the state of the industry was a lot worse 10 years ago. People ask ‘Is there still a requirement for the Women in Comedy Festival?’ and I’d say even more so than ever before. The Fringe Festival is so inaccessible. It’s so unaffordable. I know some acts spend up to £12,000 just to perform there. The fringe festival also runs for a whole month. Most women have parental duties or caring duties, or society doesn’t let them feel like they can indulge in and dedicate a whole month to bettering their career - especially if they’re just starting out and their gigs aren’t necessarily paying all the bills. So yes, there has to be an alternative that supports and allows women to put these hour-long shows out.
It’s also great for women to know that their audiences are there to watch them. I think audiences have caught up quicker than promoters and programmers, they’ve got over the whole ‘women aren’t funny’ thing and sadly promoters are still catching up.
It’s not a fully female audience at the festival either. I’d say the audience is 40% men.
How do you pick the acts that perform at the Women in Comedy Festival?
JT: It’s an open application, anyone can apply. Unfortunately, we can’t have everyone but we try to be fair - for example, if someone performed the previous year we’ll let the next person have a go. We also have to make sure there’s a variety of comedy forms, a bit of sketch, stand up, improv and so on, as well as ensuring there’s full representation.
As well as having some really high profile acts with large followings, we keep a close eye on who’s hot on the circuit and which new performers are the ones to watch.
Who are some of your highlights for this year’s bill?
JT: Lindsey Santoro, I’ve had a thing for her for a couple of years - she won the biggest prize at the Fringe Festival this year.
There’s one woman who surprised us, she’s called Soph Galustian. She’s not really on the circuit but she has such a huge social media following, her slot sold out in an hour so we added extra dates and they kept instantly selling out. I’m excited to see her.
As for more established acts, there’s Nina Gilligan. She recently won best comic at both the Yorkshire Comedy Awards and Northwest Comedy Awards. In the Chortle Awards, which is the biggest awards for our industry, she won best club comic there as well.
HO’K: Then there’s local acts like Hayley Ellis. She’s in Liverpool a lot now but I always feel like Hayley’s a Mancunian.
JT: Speaking of Liverpool, Lori Smith is doing a show. She’s married to Paul Smith from the very famous Hot Water Comedy Club.
Also, if you see Jenny Hart you’ll fall in love with her. She’s a trans woman, her performance is musical and it’s just glorious.
Historically, there seems to be a lot more men involved in comedy than women. Is that still the case or is that divide disappearing?
JT: Percentage-wise, there’s a lot more women on the circuit. The issue is so many promoters will still only put one woman on the bill and act like they don’t know enough women to book. This is another reason our festival is important. If you don’t know enough women to add to your lineup, come to the festival because there are loads of female comics. There’s no excuse not to have a woman on your bill because there are enough women on the circuit in 2023.
There’s still a bit of stigma. You’ll very rarely see a woman close a gig, they tend to be cushioned in the middle. It’s also quite isolating for women on the circuit as they’re often not sharing their green room with another woman. Men in comedy get a lot of support from one another as they’re often gigging together a lot of the time, whereas women in comedy aren’t meeting other women and creating allies.
How have you tried to make the Women in Comedy Festival as accessible as possible?
JT: There’s shows from £3, most shows are around £5. There’s a lot of ‘pay as you feel’ shows for those on benefits or facing financial difficulties.
HO’K: We’ve picked physically accessible venues as well, where possible.
JT: Nina Gilligan’s show is £8 at the Frog. You can’t see anything at the Frog for under £15 nowadays. Most of the shows at the Fringe Festival this year were over £12 so I just love how accessible we’ve made this.
What advice would you give to someone attending their first comedy festival?
JT: Make a day of it. Get the brochure out, the acts are so varied. The whole thing has been nicely planned to give people enough time to get between venues and get settled in their seats with a drink. Treat it as a really fun pub crawl.
As for those performing, don’t be nervous. The audiences are the best you’ll ever play to. Just enjoy it.
Will there be tickets available on the door?
JT: Yeah, there’s usually a couple of tickets on the door. We’ve got a few sold-out shows but you can always check on the website on the day. Just rock up, if it’s sold out there’ll be another fantastic act on just around the corner.
The Full List Of Performers at Women in Comedy Festival 2023
Femmes & Thems
Flat & The Curves
3 Wise Women - Sunny K, Kathryn and Bella
Imogen Trusselle & Rosa Richards
Jane Postlethwaite, Mary Cross, Lizzie Norm
Zoe Brownstone & Maddie Holbrook-walk
Tegan Marlow, Justina Seselskaite
Sunny VK, Katheryn LeRoux, Bella Bascom
Ali Panting, Helen Brooks, Kim Smith
Katie Gill-Williams, Caryl Burke, Mel Owen
Rotarian Larsen & Gesche Picolin
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