Welcome to the TACTICS (Theatre Artists’ Collected Thoughts Insights Challenges & Strategies for gender parity advocacy) interview series curated by Amy Clare Tasker. A recap of the 23 interviews is below; the entire series is published on the Works by Women San Francisco website.
Women are underrepresented on and off stage. The problem is clear. The causes are thorny, complex, and controversial; the solutions equally so. Many women and men have worked toward change for decades, and more are now asking, “What can we do?” The TACTICS interview series investigates what our community is already doing, what we’ve tried, and what we can do next to advocate for equal and better representation of women in theatre.
When Marisela Treviño Orta invited me to co-moderate a Howlround Twitter discussion on gender parity advocacy best practices, I immediately agreed, and then realized I had to find out what theaters, artists, and advocates were doing about gender parity. I’ve always been a feminist, ever since I learned that there was a word for working toward full equality for women and men. But what did I really know about the work that has been happening in the theater community for years – decades – centuries to bring women onto the mainstage? It’s an intense realization: I know some people who have been working on this issue since before I was born. How do they keep at it? What have they tried? How have things changed? What can I learn from them? How can I help? I decided to ask around.
From the end of April to the end of May 2013, the TACTICS series exploded into an avalanche of interviews with some truly inspiring artists and advocates working toward change for women in theatre. On May 2, Marisela and I guest-moderated Howlround’s weekly Twitter conversation, on the topic of gender parity tactics and concrete actions for forward movement [transcript and summary]. On May 25, YEAH I Said Feminist: A Theater Salon hosted a symposium discussion at DIVAfest with a dual focus: Artists as Advocates; Advocates as Artists. The TACTICS series snowballed throughout that super-charged month, amassing 23 interviews over 36 days.
I am so grateful for the generosity of Rebecca Ennals, Christina Augello, Roberta D’Alois, Valerie Weak, Martha Richards, Emily Davis, Laura Shamas, Emily Kaczmarek, Lily Tung Crystal, Rebecca Novick, Torange Yeghiazarian, Monica Byrne, Jill Eikmann, Erin Merritt, Lauren Bloom, Jennie Webb, Wendy C. Goldberg, Gwen Kingston, Julie Felise Dubiner, Ariel Estrada, May Pamana, Chloe Bronzan, and Arlene Goldbard for their time and thought in responding to the interview questions – and for their tireless efforts on behalf of women in theater.
Highlights from the series:
ACT: How did you come to be an advocate for gender parity in theater?
Erin Merritt: In high school, when asked what role I wanted to read for in Threepenny Opera, I said Macheath, because that’s the best role in the show. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a man—I wanted to be whomever was in the center of the most exciting action; I wanted to be the fastest racer, the most outrageous guitarist, the most dangerous criminal, the wittiest member of the band, the person to watch and the center of the action. As I got older, I kept looking for ways to stretch myself beyond what was being offered… as recently as 1998, the kinds of gutsy roles I wanted were still incredibly rare, so I had to find those roles in some creative way.
Lauren Bloom: I became an advocate for gender parity, and specifically for union women actors, after moving back to the Bay Area and being told too many times by producers that I was very talented, but they needed their union contracts for the male roles (the implication being they couldn’t find non-union men who could do the jobs well.) As I spoke with other union women, I found they had all had similar experiences.
Julie Felise Dubiner: The box-checking “Let’s do it in March” [International Women’s Month] mentality made me bonkers at other theaters I worked at, but here at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the leadership is heartfelt and completely committed to diversity and inclusion, I find myself looking outward at my colleagues around the nation, wondering if we can do it at a big old Shakespeare theater, how dare you say it’s a problem for you?
May Pamana: I became an advocate for gender parity because when I first started out, it was other women directors and dramaturgs who made sure that my work got the support it needed to get produced. I don’t know where I’d be today without the strength of other women theater artists and women advocacy groups.
ACT: What are the most urgent or significant challenges women theater artists face right now?
Emily Davis: The narrowness of what it means to be a woman on stage is of prime importance. The average production seems to feature one woman (who must be young, thin, conventionally attractive and white) and three men. Having only one model for femaleness onstage is hugely problematic. Often, a woman onstage can’t be a complicated human being, she has to play WOMAN. She has to play doting (or nagging) wife, mother (doting or nagging,) whore or the little girl. And a handful of other one-noted character types.
Torange Yeghiazarian: Theater reflects society’s misogynistic attitudes where women have to be super heroes and men simply have to show up.
Martha Richards: Almost every time I write a grant proposal these days, I feel like I am doing battle with an insidious value system that will only fund artists if we can show that our art is related to some other cause that is perceived as more valuable…The dismissive attitudes about the arts are a double whammy for women and people of color. If people don’t take the arts seriously, then they don’t think that being an artist is a “real” job, and why should anyone care about gender or racial parity in a field where no one really “works.” I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has told me that the arts are “a labor of love.”
Chloe Bronzan: Equal pay for equal work! Female artists should not have to work under different circumstances from their male counterparts. We all have similar career aspirations as artists, train at the same schools and pay the same Equity initiation fees and dues. Therefore, the gap between the number of AEA women who are making a living/obtaining health insurance as actors vs men who are seems quite unreasonable.
Rebecca Novick: There is a kind of double-whammy of age discrimination that hits women particularly hard. We’ve heard a great deal about how reluctant mid-size and larger theaters are to hire people in their 20′s and even 30′s into leadership positions, but then as you get older you start to experience the field’s infatuation with the young and hip and the differing responses people have to a 50-year old man and a 50-year old woman. It’s only exaggerating a bit to say that lots of women my age in the theater worry that we might skip straight from being an emerging artist to being a little old lady.
ACT: What tactics have you used (or seen used) to advocate for gender parity in theater? What tactics have been most effective or least effective?
Lily Tung Crystal: I like to bring people together because I believe that strong, more socially aware work happens through community… Part of my job is knowing the women artists in town—both Asian-Americans and others—and supporting and recommending them to casting directors and directors so that they know that there are strong, talented performers here who are ready and willing to work. Some people may find this self-defeating since it could result in me losing a role to another woman, but I have to trust that when one of us is lifted, it increases opportunities for all of us.
Rebecca Ennals: When you’re an actor, you’re an organization of one. But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan strategically. Instead of saying, “Why won’t those people hire more women?,” you can seize the power and say, “I won’t work anywhere that doesn’t commit to gender parity.” Yeah, I get it, you’re shooting yourself in the foot, actors need to work. But seriously, how much do you believe in this? Do you believe in it enough to take that stand? Because that’s the only thing that’s going to make a difference.
Chloe Bronzan: It’s been important for us to include male actors, playwrights and collaborators in our projects. We’re not trying to create an all-female paradigm for our company, but simply a gender-balanced one. In general, the more men we can get onboard with the gender parity movement, the more quickly we will see change. In my opinion, eliminating the “us” vs “them” sentiment can be nothing but helpful.
Monica Bryne: Setting aside a week, a season, a reading series, or anything that specifically “celebrates women’s work” is not helpful in the long run. It reinforces the notion that women are a separate subspecies of human, not just normal humans. Because when the week’s over, everyone feels like they’ve done their part, and revert to the status quo.
Ariel Estrada: One tactic I have not seen, and think would be highly effective, would be doing something similar to what Signature Theater in NYC did for David Henry Hwang, and taking one major woman playwright and concentrating an entire season on her earlier, or little produced works.
Jennie Webb: My line is “energy conservation and sustainability” – conserving our own energy so we can sustain what we’re doing. So many projects, ideas, and organizations start up in a flame of extreme, fabulous energy and then crash and burn, or eventually fizzle out. I don’t want that to happen here.
Wendy C. Goldberg: There needs to be a focus right now on potential leaders who are women who can help change the system — they need to get into some of these leadership positions so they can help shape programming, that tactic would help a great deal.
ACT: How do you measure the effectiveness of your advocacy actions?
Erin Merritt: Audience members told us our work changed their view of the world and their place in it: one woman told us she finally understood the inner workings of sexual harassment when she saw a tiny woman play Angelo in Measure for Measure; a male stage combat choreographer changed the way he thought about how and why men and women approach violence, which in turn changed his approach to choreography; women in the prisons where we performed told us they were moved to see how strong we were together and that we didn’t need men; our male actors playing women suddenly noticed that women’s roles were smaller and much less active than the ones written for them… each of these epiphanies meant someone was viewing the world onstage and off as inequitable now but changeable.
Julie Felise Dubiner: I was a history major in college, and I remember studying revolutions and realizing that all successful revolutions (defined as toppling the government and establishing a new one – not a right or wrong judgment there), all required three people – the person on the inside, the outsider, and the person with friends in both camps. I’ve often said, and truly believe, that the regional theaters must die so they can rise again. After being an outsider for the first half of my career, I now find myself an insider. Sadly, that is the person most often guillotined once the revolution takes place. I fervently hope that will not be the measure of my success.
Arlene Goldbard: I wouldn’t get too carried away with measurement. Cultural change aggregates over time. It’s often hard to see when the tipping-point is near. Rather than focus overmuch on measurable results, I would counsel involvement in a form of advocacy that feels satisfying and uses your gifts. Then you don’t get too discouraged if the short-term indicators aren’t spectacular, and you feed your spirit for the long haul… There is no single best action. There is no hierarchy of actions. There is just sustained living into change, and every one of us is capable of that.
ACT: What is one action someone could take today that would make a difference?
Ariel Estrada: Create at least one staff position in a company whose role is to keep an eye on diversity issues – a diversity officer if you will – and encourage/remind companies to advocate for gender and race.
Valerie Weak: Educate yourself on female playwrights. I’ve made a personal commitment that whenever I’m asked to do two audition pieces, I’ll have at least one written by a female playwright. Keep the women visible.
Erin Merritt: Specifically reach out to artists who are parents to ask them how to make your rehearsal process more possible for them. It’s often much easier than you think, and it helps women both stay in the field and keep their skills sharp. Any changes you make will also help working fathers.
Emily Kaczmarek: Buy a ticket to a play by a woman, and bring a man with you. We all need to start experiencing art by women as normative, and as not exclusively geared toward women. The position of writer is an intensely powerful one in many ways, and exposing men and boys (early and often) to women inhabiting that position is a major step toward change.
For the full TACTICS interview series, please visit the Works By Women SF website.