On Tuesday, August 25th at 6pm I stepped into the already packed lobby of the Julia Miles theatre. We’d all gathered for 50/50 in 2020: Parity for Women Theatre Artists, a panel and working group event sponsored by the League of Professional Theatre Women, New Perspectives Theatre Company and Women’s Project. Moderator, Melody Brooks (artistic director, New Perspectives) explained that the panel would share their insight into the ongoing struggle for women to have their voices heard in theatre. And for the first time in this ongoing conversation solutions were to be discussed, not only on the panel, but in working groups we’d break off into later.
Solutions! I hadn’t even heard that word used yet regarding this issue. It kinda made me a bit giddy inside to be honest. Being a writer and not really a reporter, in this piece I’d like to focus on creating a working guide to some of the solutions discussed that night for those that couldn’t make it as what’s most exciting about this insight is how we can use it on our own as working theatre artists as well as a collective.
“We can’t stand on the shoulders of giants unless we know who they are.”
That’s from Susan Jonas (author), who kicked off the panel. Susan wrote, with Susan Bennett, in 2002 the Report on the Status of Women in Theatre, based on a three year national study. It found, like the most recent studies, that women artists were under represented in theatre. (a copy of the report can be obtained by sending an email request to firstname.lastname@example.org) It’s clear it hasn’t gotten better and only worse, which is what rekindled this all recently. And it’s been going on for a long time. As Susan read the list of women playwrights in history - Elizabeth Inchbald, Cicely Hamilton, Eva Le Gallienne, Margaret Webster, Hallie Flanagan - I realized I didn’t know who they are. Any of them. And I’m a theatre geek!
Elizabeth Van Dyke (Producing Artistic Director of Going to the River at EST) started reciting the women she had supported in her festival (which this year includes Melody Cooper, Naveen Bahar Choudhury, N.N Ewing, as well as Kara Lee Corthron, Kia Corthron, Lynn Nottage and Desi Moreno-Penson) I’m embarrassed to say I knew about four. That was a wakeup call for me. And this brings up a sobering thought which underscored the urgency of this issue – the names of those gathered in this room and those of the future generation of women theatre artists could be lost to the issue of parity we’ve all gathered here to face if we don’t act now. So what do we do? These issues not only face us, but anyone writing, directing, producing, designing something new or pushing the envelope in theatre today. But what can these unheard voices actually do?
“There is No Scarcity of Extraordinary Work by Women to Choose From.”
Julie Crosby (Artistic Director, Women’s Project) is a producer who knows, as we do, that there are incredible women theatre artists working in the theatre today. From Lucy Thurber’s Killers and Other Family at Rattlestick to Bekah Brunstetter’s Oohrah! at the Atlantic, both opening this month, not to mention Women Project’s and New Perspectives upcoming seasons (as well as the great women playwrights we’ve all met through various workshops) this is clear. So, how do we continue becoming more visible, seen on a consistent basis and continue to encourage further diversity? She reminded us first and foremost that “getting a job in this business” requires connections. She stressed that we must spend time networking - from the League of Professional Theatre Women to Facebook to the bar at Angus. She also reminded us that we must SEE the work of those theatres, programs, producers that we want to work with. This really meant a lot to me because it’s through seeing certain productions that I know where my work belongs. It’s totally true. And if we are really upset about gender and racial inequality in the theatre then “put your money where your mouth is”. Go to see these shows and support them. But the point Julie made that most folks came out quoting was about getting a mentor. Julie shared how she’s been “fortunate and had amazing mentors – mainly men – who have provided a backlog of support and guidance whenever I have asked for it. My career would not be where it is today without my mentors.” She urged us to “build a cabinet of people” who are not afraid of sharing their connections with you. “And if you are established in your career, then begin to mentor someone. Be generous. George Bush would never believe this, but your power will not diminish when you give good information to those who are asking to hear it.” But let’s say you’re already following through on these great suggestions – what do you do as these connections gain momentum?
“Attention to the Work”
Elizabeth Van Dyke shared with us a great example right there – Going to the River, a festival that has promoted women playwrights of color through readings and workshops at Ensemble Studio Theatre over the years and is kicking off again this Sept. 9th, is now going to PRODUCE the work. They’ll have to start with short plays in order for this to be do-able but this is a huge leap and it was wonderful to hear Elizabeth Van Dyke, whose speech was one of the most impassioned of the night, share her insight of how she came to the conclusion that “attention to the work” must be paid in production. Because as wonderful as the festival has been, she continues to see the writers championed there under represented by production. She recognized they were helping writers build a body of work but they were treading water. These plays have to be done to gain recognition. Wow – if every theatrical organization that only uses its development funds to do readings and workshops realized this, American theatre would be changed overnight. Not only will I be paying more attention to the list of writers Elizabeth’s festival is championing, but now I can SEE their work, which is so important. Okay but what if you’re moving towards this step but not quite there yet as a theatre artist to produce? You’ve got that play and you’re ready to go. What can you do most immediately and more affordably?
Check back tomorrow for the second part of Crystal's article.
Crystal Skillman is a playwright, published in Plays & Playwrights 2008, and contributer to nytheatre.com. Her upcoming projects include Hack, a play in the Vampire Cowboy’s Saloon Series kicking off on Sept. 12th and That’s Andy, a musical about a boy who wants to play Annie, receiving a developmental reading at the York Theatre Oct. 6th at 3 PM.