“Matt and Ben” and the Origins of BAE Theatre 

By Maureen Lee Lenker

Picture Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, circa 1997, fresh-faced and exuberant at their first Oscars, shocking the Hollywood establishment with their wunderkind success – now imagine them being portrayed by two women. This is the conceit of “Matt and Ben,” now being produced by fledgling theatre company BAE Theatre and headed to the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Emily Keaney and Isabella Petrini founded BAE Theatre in 2015 with an eye toward providing a space for cultivating and featuring new, diverse work and artists. BAE stands for “Before Anything Else,” as their company aims to remind artists and audiences alike that even in the darkest of times telling life-changing stories via theatre should come “Before Anything Else.”

While Keaney and Petrini are both women and come to their work with that eye, they say that they do not necessarily conceive of their company as exclusively female. As Petrini says, for them, “it’s more about how can we be different and how can we move people in a way that hasn’t been done before.” Still, Keaney notes this is likely to result in more of a focus on female artists because of the prevalent lack of female voices in the arts. “We want to work with new artists and cultivate artists who haven’t presented their work through theatre yet,” Keaney says. “And that perhaps would lend itself to working more with women, just because it’s more difficult for women to do certain things.”

They previously produced a staged reading of a new work entitled “Missed Connections,” but “Matt and Ben” marks their first fully-fledged production. Keaney and Petrini hope this will mark the start of a rich output for their company, so it is fitting that “Matt and Ben” marked the auspicious beginning of one of the most influential female writers working today, Mindy Kaling. Kaling co-wrote (and starred) in the play with roommate and friend Brenda Withers, and it brought her to the attention of Gregg Daniels, leading to her first writing job on The Office.

Kaling is a major inspiration for both Petrini and Keaney. Keaney cites Kaling’s use of satire and ability to deal with serious issues through humor as a primary influence on her work. She first discovered the play reading Kaling’s first book Is Everyone Hanging Out With Me?. Celia Mandela, who plays Ben Affleck in the production, also sings Kaling’s praises, noting how her experiences as a woman of color are reflected in Kaling’s own struggles and triumphs.

Petrini reflects Kaling’s can-do attitude in her approach to theatre and producing. “I’ve been raised in an environment where I’ve been told, ‘Oh, you can do anything, you can be anyone you want to be,” she says when asked about challenges she and Keaney have faced as female artistic directors. This echoes Kaling’s mantra (and book title) “Why Not Me?” and her assertion that her “parents raised [her] with the entitlement of a tall, white blond man.”

Still, while Keaney and Petrini did not go in with the intention of working exclusively with women, “Matt and Ben” presents a unique opportunity. Female producers, a director, and two stars is a rarity in itself, but the play, through its subversion of gender and race, provides a distinctive lens. Having two women (one a woman of color) play two white males who represent the upper echelons of Hollywood stardom results in a hysterical and contemporary commentary on white male privilege. Affleck and Damon have themselves come under fire for their inability to acknowledge their own privilege, and this play allows the cast to poke fun at that.

Mandela notes that this experience has allowed her to both recognize that privilege and perceive Damon and Affleck as more relatable figures. “For them to star in their own movie with Robin Williams and have this amazing budget,” she says, “I just think, damn, I am not a white man, this could not happen to me. There’s no way in hell that could have happened for anybody else except them.”

Both Mandela and Petrini, who portrays Damon in addition to her producing duties, note that they found more similarities with their characters than sources of frustration. Ultimately, Petrini notes, “We have the same desires; we have the same passions. We want to create art. We want to be good actors. We want to move people.” For her, the deeper reward came not from calling out their privilege, but recognizing their common ground.

From 1990s Massachusetts and Good Will Hunting to contemporary Los Angeles and BAE Theatre, at the end of the day, it is about telling provocative stories---male, female, or otherwise.