Songs for the Struggling Artist

Breaking down how the -ism in sexism gets so -ismy
October 2, 2011, 4:14 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, theatre | Tags: , , ,

I have a friend who has (or had, I wrote this over a year ago, just getting around to typing and posting it now, her views may have changed) an extreme discomfort with race-based theatres. She doesn’t think people of color should “segregate themselves” – that we’ll just continue to have segregation that way. She feels like she knows what prejudice is because of being (or self-identifying as) fat. She hates the idea of an all fat theatre company. I think she knows what prejudice is because she’s a woman and I think if she equated female-ness with race she might understand it more.
The system is stacked a lot more highly against her as a woman than as a fat person. For example, if she were a fat MAN, the doors would swing open – there’s abundant work for fat men in theatre. There are roles ready made for them. There’s even a stock comedy type. I just heard about a man who gained weight to be funnier and get more jobs.
Nope – sorry – it’s gender that makes the equation here.

Institutionalized bias is unconscious and deeply entrenched. In the case of the gender imbalance in theatre, it begins early, in school, elementary, middle or high. If you’re putting on shows in schools, there are inevitably more parts for boys than girls (despite the fact that the ratio is usually directly reversed in terms of the make up of the class.) This means that the four boys in the class will likely get some juicy roles to play and if they continue on into the college, they will be entering that experience with a lot of juicy opportunities behind them, making them even more cast-able in this New World where they will once again get more experience in performance than their female counterparts.

Let’s say a girl in this kindergarten class has exactly the same amount of talent and motivation as the boys. By college, she will have played maybe 50% of the challenging roles her male friend will have. The gender ratio of most plays usually fairly closely mirrors the standard Shakespeare play model of four women to eight or nine men. There are twice as many roles for men as women and finding capable men to play them is twice as hard, as anyone who has ever attempted to cast anything will tell you. When my company put ads in Backstage for actors, the stack we’d get for men tended to be about eight inches high and the stack for women would be over two feet. The system is quite literally stacked against you if you’re a woman. There are fewer roles for you and more competition.
Aside from the simple numbers, there’s also the way things work. When people say this business is all about who you know, they are not joking. Let’s go back in time to our elementary school where our little aspiring actor boy – let’s call him Fred – has begun. Fred’s gotten great roles throughout school and goes to a great college based on the stellar recommendations given to him by his drama teacher. In college, he gets into all the shows and the aspiring directors in his program think he’s the bees’ knees. This is not to say that getting these extra opportunities to perform is necessarily making Fred a better actor than Sally. (I’m calling our girl Sally.) It’s possible that this extra experience does nothing for his craft, it may not even be of extra benefit that his work is being seen by more people more often but what it is definitely doing, is boosting his sense of his own cast-ability. It’s a boon for his confidence and confidence is a key ingredient in simply surviving the moody theatre business.

This extra shot of confidence builds on itself as Fred works with all his peers in school. When they all graduate, those directors can’t wait to work with him again and as they ascend the ranks of success, they’ll be taking Fred with them. Now, very likely, the directors that are ascending the ranks are going to be men. While the numbers may be equal in Fred’s college, the unconscious promotion of the male directors will be giving them a leg up and up and up, until many of the women in Fred’s class are left behind. (Now if Fred were a man of color, it’s possible that he could have this same great groundwork too, depending on his teachers and his institution. Maybe he gets to play all the great roles. Nine times out of ten, though, his teachers are likely casting him on the sidelines and waiting to cast him in their production of Fences at some point that will never happen.)
Sidebar demonstration of how this sort of unconscious promotion works: My MFA program in directing brought in one director a year. The two directors previous to me were women and the one in the class after me was a man. Our male advisor did his job with all of us but with his male student, he invited him to shows, to his house for Thanksgiving and when it came time to dole out opportunities and jobs, the male student was the one who got them. Was this student the better director of all of us? I think even he would say “no” but the power gets handed down from like to like. This happens with directors, with designers, with producers and with writers.
Something similar seems to happen with artistic directors. When I started my company, most of my peers were women, with a few men sprinkled in here and there. Ten years later, the companies run by men are doing great (reviews in major papers, wide subscriber bases, heavy hitting donors, salaries and publicity.) Most of the companies run by women are either struggling to survive or have given up altogether. Maybe all those male artistic directors were simply better at running a company? Maybe – but I doubt it. I think there’s likely something else at play.
Opportunities pass from like to like. It’s logical. No one is meaning to stack the system against women or people of color. It just happens, like this, by well-meaning people who just want to work with the people that are like them, that they like and are comfortable with. This is why we sometimes need alternate structures like race-specific theatres or women’s theatres, for that matter. We need somewhere to go when no one’s giving us that leg up.
How does this relate to my friend’s concerns about segregation in theatre? Well, I think of my experience at Wellesley College. I did not go to Wellesley and when I was in college, I would have sooner gone to the moon than a single sex institution – but while I was on tour with Shenandoah Shakespeare (four women, 9 men) we performed there and I met the women in theatre of Wellesley. I met the woman who played Hamlet. I met the woman who’d played Macbeth. The woman who’d played Iago had a lot of interesting things to say. They taught me how to bind with muslin strips and gave me one to take with me. More than anything, though, they made me wonder what I would have been like if I’d trained with all that opportunity. I didn’t have a single chance to perform Shakespeare as a student and if I had, I’d likely have been playing a lady in waiting. The Wellesley women played the richest roles in the canon, had a great time doing it and were supremely confident. The case for single sex education or art was made for me there and I translate that very easily to race.

The fact that, in theatres with significant budgets, only 16 % of plays are directed by women and 17% are written by women, simply means that the people able to give others a leg up are not the people likely to make space for women. (The percentages of women’s participation go up as the budgets go down. With budgets under $500,000, women account for a whopping 30% – 40% )
I don’t know the statistics for people of color but I expect they are equally as grim. So I’m all for people finding ways to make a deeply flawed system work for them. It would be nice to have a truly integrated system, yes, sure, absolutely – but institutionalized (and mostly unconscious) racism and sexism are probably going to take a very long time to fix. Meanwhile, if we CARE what women or people of color have to say in a theatrical context, we have to find ways to see them and they have to find ways to make them.


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