This weekend, the nation's first collegiate all-women musical and sketch comedy troupe, Bloomers, is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Founded at the University of Pennsylvania by Joan Harrison, Bloomers has grown from a small group of women performing sketches in their dorms to a group of 65 members who stage elaborate shows every semester.
Bloomers is bigger and more visible on campus than ever, but chairwoman Lauren Sorantino, a senior in communication and English, is worried about the future.
On Tuesday night, Sorantino watched as Bloomers — which takes its name from Amelia Jenks Bloomer, who popularized long, loose trousers worn gathered at the ankle — rehearsed for their Fall Show, which has a sold-out run through Saturday. It is partially inspired by ABC's The Bachelor, and features a set with a working fountain as well as a "hot tub" decorated with blue and white plastic balls. Alumnae from all over the country, including Harrison, are flying in to commemorate the occasion. (The group's most famous alumna is Vanessa Bayer, Saturday Night Live's longest-serving female cast member.)
"It's a good time to reflect on the existence of this group and what our history means," Sorantino said.
Harrison formed Bloomers in 1981 in response to Mask and Wig, Penn's all-male musical comedy group. Mask and Wig has existed since 1889 and owns a clubhouse in Center City.
In recent years, all-male groups have come under fire for their exclusivity and have begun to change their ways. In January, Harvard University's famed musical comedy troupe, Hasty Pudding Theatricals, announced that it would cast women for the first time since the group started staging performances in 1844. There has been talk about what would happen should Mask and Wig choose to accept women.
Sorantino said that while the relationship between the two groups has never been better — Mask and Wig purchased 50 tickets to the Fall Show — there is a difference in resources the groups have access to. Mask and Wig is not subjected to time limits during Penn's Freshman Performing Arts Night, known as a major recruitment site, according to the university's Performing Arts Council constitution. The troupe also performs in London regularly, free of charge to members.
"As a member of Bloomers, I worry that they could poach talent, because they do have more money and power," Sorantino said. "But as a feminist, of course, I'd like to see them offer the resources they have to women as well. It feels like a lot of these things, like the resources Mask and Wig has, are so entrenched. I also worry about how women would feel in that group if they were to open it — so much of their comedy depends on dressing up in women's clothing. At the same time, we don't want to tarnish that supportive relationship we have with them."
But the nature of a space full of smart, funny women makes it something hard to give up.
Jasmine Landry joined Bloomers in 2003, when Bayer was directing. She described her experience as one that shaped how she approached her career after she graduated in 2006.
"In hindsight, it was really powerful to see all of the leadership roles in this group filled by women," Landry said. "All the decisions are being made by women. You just assume you belong in the conversation. You think, 'Of course my opinion matters.' When I went into an office environment, I intuitively rejected the patriarchal norms I saw in workplaces, because I believed that I should be part of the conversation, too."
Bloomers recently revised its constitution to be open to "anyone who does not identify as a cisgender man," and Sorantino said she believes something has to give.
"It's so complicated when one group was formed in reaction to the other group," she said. "There's so much baggage, and it's created a crazy dynamic."
But for now, Bloomers members are just focused on putting on the best Fall Show they possibly can.
Landry, who served as music director for two years, has been able to watch some of the shows since her graduation, and said she always feels proud when she sees how much work Bloomers puts into making each production bigger and better.
"It's so fun to see things evolve and grow year to year," Landry said. "You can really see little stylistic differences year to year that reflect the personalities of whoever's in the group at a given time. I love seeing that the group is still so vibrant, and they all still adore each other, because those are things I remember of my experience."