Allison Brzezinski, founder of Nasty Women Unite Fest, explains how community art creates worldwide change
Tonight in New York City, a four-day arts festival will begin. It will celebrate “nasty women” — the insult Donald Trump tossed at Hillary Clinton, since reclaimed as an honorable feminist identifier. The festival will celebrate their creations, their comedy, and their perseverance in the political reality we all inhabit. It is called Nasty Women Unite Fest, and its second annual run will soon commence thanks to the work of founder and president Allison Brzezinski, and the programming staff supporting her mission.
Held at two different Manhattan locations from June 5th through June 8th — Theaterlab Theater and Stonestreet Studios — each themed night of NWUF brings together four advocacy organizations, 15 panelists, and more than 60 artists to explore topics of identity (BELONGING), love and loss (ATTACHMENT), career and power (STRIVE), and health, mind, and body (BEING). Guests and panelists include Amber Tamblyn, Meredith Talusan (executive editor of them.), Michelle Hope (sexologist and speaker), Ziwe Fumudoh (comedian and TV writer), and more. See the full 2018 lineup here, and go here to buy tickets for the remaining nights (proceeds support the ACLU!).
The brainchild of Brzezinski, NWUF was founded last year when the performance artist, photographer, and choreographer was inspired to channel her anger around Trump’s election into something meaningful, productive, and intersectional. The event was organized and hosted for the first time only weeks after it was imagined. The 2017 Women’s March — and critiques of the protest — pushed Brzezinski to mobilize different communities by bringing a diverse board and programming staff together. Returning for the second year in a row, NWUF will continue to provide platforms that amplify underrepresented voices.
I hopped on the phone with Brzezinski to discuss the origins of Nasty Women Unite Fest, the importance of collaboration, and the power of art as activism.
HelloGiggles (HG): When did you realize you needed to create this festival?
Allison Brzezinski (AB): I was really inspired by the first Women’s March. And of course, when things first turned in November 2016, wow, that was a heartbreaking moment for me. And I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what to do yet. And I saw that the Women’s March was happening, and I was very excited about that.
I was watching all of those components come together…and then I saw some critique of it in terms of the fact that there wasn’t a lot of inclusivity of various communities. So that was a moment when I started thinking, “Okay, I feel like there’s something I should do, something I can do to bring different communities together. Because that’s important and that is the way for us to mobilize and create effective and supportive change.
HG: How long did it take for Nasty Women Unite Fest to go from an idea to a real, organized event with a staff, etc.?
AB: Oh, it had a very quick turnaround. The idea, again, came from that point in time in January 2017. I contacted my very good friend and artistic partner who is the VP of Nasty Women Unite Fest, Kate Moran. We put together a board of interested and passionate producers, and we had it up on its feet last year in about six weeks.
It was a feat, but we couldn’t have done it without the support of each other. Venues were overwhelmingly supportive as well. And the communities were so supportive. It was very exciting for us to have so many interested artists who wanted to have their stories told in this way. It was inspiring for us as well as it was for other people.
HG: I know this is only the second annual fest, but considering you’ve been able to do this twice in a row now, are you imagining what this fest can become in the future?
AB: Last year, when we put it together in about six weeks — we like to look at that as our pilot. We felt like it was very successful, but there were definitely ways that we could evolve. So this year, we really focused on two components. We focused on accessibility. When selecting venues, we wanted to make sure they were accessible: close to trains, close to major parts of central Manhattan, so it was easy for someone coming from Queens or Brooklyn or other boroughs, even from Jersey City, to attend.
We also have affordable ticket prices because, while we understand that everyone wants to be there and wants to participate and wants to donate for the ACLU, we also understand that [attendees] may be donating elsewhere, or they may donating to the ACLU at another point in time, and we never would want to deter them from attending. So we are going to have lower ticket prices this year, as well as venues that are accessible to all bodies in terms of having ramps and/or elevators. We want to make sure everyone is able to attend if they’d like to be there.
Hopefully on a larger scale in the future, we could have it be more educational and have the Nasty Women Unite Fest not only be a platform for performance, but for conversation and resources. And at each of our events this year, we are going to have activists offer resources to our audiences and artists alike, which we are very excited about.
HG: What was your favorite moment from last year’s fest, and what are you most looking forward to this year?
AB: My favorite moment from last year was actually at the panel at Joe’s Public Theater. We had such an engaging panel where we talked about how can we start to redefine feminism, because when a lot of people think about that term and that movement, there’s a lot of history there and not all communities feel included in that history.
And what I’m looking forward to this year? All of it, which sounds like a cop-out to the question (laughs), but I’m excited about all of it. This year is gonna be so different. I’m excited to be using two venues, Stonestreet Studios and Theaterlab, both in central Manhattan. The support that they’ve offered us has been incredible and we are so grateful to them. I am excited about the producers that we have on board who are working so hard. I’m excited about the relationships we are fostering just based on the conversations that we’re having. And I’m excited in particular about the activists and advocates that we’re going to have.
HG: You work with an incredible programming team for Nasty Women Unite Fest. What do you find most rewarding about collaborating in this female-dominated creative space?
AB: I love working with nasty women. In general, I gravitate towards that sense of energy. I’ve always really loved working with women, and trans, femme, and non-binary individuals. There’s just a sense of camaraderie, a sense of everyone working together.
If I take a look at my producing staff, there are all these different, nasty women who have to come together out of their own passion. They’ve committed their time to create something alongside me that we all strongly believe in. And it’s inspiring to be in a room with so many people who not only believe in similar things, but are willing to give their heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears to make those things become a reality — and who also have new and exciting ideas. I believe that producing and creating opportunities should not be an insulary experience. I definitely could not do this without their support and without all of their energy and time.
HG: In your experience, why is art and entertainment such a vital form of activism?
AB: I have always believed that art is an agent for social change. And it seems like a lot of the world agrees with me at this point in time. My work has always been about trying to mobilize people, trying to create awareness about gender roles in particular, trying to create a crack in the infrastructure of female stereotypes — things along those lines.
I think art can be that tool because it’s not passive, or it shouldn’t be passive, in my opinion. It should start conversations, and it can start conversation in a safer space where they can question what they’re seeing, they can challenge it, they can talk about it with their friends. So I believe that art can be a conversation starter, and conversation is the first step in activism. It doesn’t involve any type of violence in any way, so that’s another reason I’m a proponent of art as activism.
I really think that art and creating platforms like Nasty Women Unite Fest is what’s going to create change. There are marches and there are people writing to members of Congress and writing to senators, and those are wonderful actions that people can take — but this is another way for people who might not be comfortable doing that, or for people who mobilize by being really engaged in that conversation to be the impetus for change.
HG: How can our readers start organizing these kinds of community art and social justice events in their own lives?
AB: First step: Find your people, find your support system. Don’t try to do this on your own. It is possible, but it’s definitely not as much fun, and I don’t think it will be as effective. So start by finding someone who feels passionately about the activism that you feel passionately about.
Have a clear and articulate vision of what you’re looking for. Once people know that you know who you are and what you’re looking for, then they’re able to help you and offer assistance and support.
And don’t take it too seriously. This can be someone’s life’s work, but have fun with it. The more fun that leaders and producers can have with what they’re doing, that energy and enthusiasm and passion becomes palpable for the artists and community. Art brings community together, so I encourage as many people as possible to work together and create as many opportunities for voices to be heard. That’s how we can create more community.
We can’t fight this fight or win this fight all on our own. So it’s important for all of us to come together and start talking, and then action can come from that.