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No more Outstanding Actor: How the Barrymore Awards just became gender inclusive | Perspective

The change to embrace inclusivity is at once simple and radical.

Michael Doherty and Bi Jean Ngo present the award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical at the 2017 Barrymores.
Michael Doherty and Bi Jean Ngo present the award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical at the 2017 Barrymores.Read moreWide Eyed Studios

The Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre this week announced a change to embrace inclusivity that is at once simple and radical.

Beginning this fall, the Barrymore Awards will no longer award Outstanding Actor and Actress Awards. Instead, our long-standing tradition of gender binary awards will become an Outstanding Performer award, welcoming performers of all gender identities into a single category.

As executive director of Theatre Philadelphia, the region's nonprofit that celebrates and promotes theatrical work,  I've had to do my own soul-searching to recognize that a category specific to women was once a safeguard in the interest of gender parity, but is now exclusionary and harmful to those individuals who are trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming.

>> READ MORE: Barrymore Awards are going gender-neutral

In the process to make this change, our staff and members of our Barrymore Oversight Committee heard from nearly 50 artists — from all genders, many races, and across age and experience — who could be or have been impacted by our gendered performance awards structure, both favorably and not. In addition to these conversations locally, I've engaged colleagues across North America in discussion about our awards programs.

Theatre Philadelphia now recognizes a change like this one is more than just about nomenclature, and is certainly more than a question about language or even about a shiny statue handed to a select few.

It's about who we lift up and who we leave out in the process. We recognize that in our theater community, and in our country, gender inclusivity is just one of the larger systemic issues we have in terms of representation and recognition. Addressing biases for race, physical ability, age, religion, or economic status are all necessary and worthy, and will continue to be a place for our focus through research, advocacy, and leadership as we move on this one concrete and immediate step for gender inclusivity.

>> READ MORE: Barrymore Award big winners for 2017: 'Lizzie' and 'Rain'

As such, our performance category change comes alongside other work of our staff, board of directors, and diversity and inclusion committee to lead both in practice and in thought — through anti-oppression and anti-bias training to self-assess our person and institutional practices; a concerted effort to diversify our Barrymore voters, ensuring that those viewing and judging the work on stage come from a variety of backgrounds reflective of our city's population and of those artists telling the stories; the creation of new programs including Philly Theatre Week that break down barriers for participation and promotion, to publicly elevate those with a history of marginalization and lack of resources.

>> READ MORE: After an 'OscarsSoWhite' kind of Barrymores, Philly theater questions the best way to be inclusive

Our counterparts in Chicago, the Bay Area, and Toronto have likewise announced changes to their performance awards, and we continue the conversation to see how we as awards programs, marketing, and leadership organizations can model change for the artists and communities we serve. If we can expand the pool of who gets recognized publicly, we can broaden the conversation about what stories get told. And from there, which audience members see themselves on stage and find empowerment in their lives. If theater is here to lead and inspire change, this is just the start.

Leigh Goldenberg is the executive director of Theatre Philadelphia.