Songs for the Struggling Artist

What happened when I wrote it down.
September 26, 2012, 8:38 pm
Filed under: art, feminism, theatre | Tags: , , ,

Thursday at around 6pm EST, I posted this. My blog normally generates about 25 views per month so I wasn’t expecting much of response, just a few friends with some thoughts, you know. By 11am the next morning, there were hundreds of views.  By 12:05, I had a voicemail from the subject of my coda with a request to call him and a brief apology. He didn’t say so but it sounded to me like he might have seen the blog. By 12:58, I had a voicemail from a guy higher up on the chain of command letting me know that he’d read my blog, apologizing for the incident and informing me that there is, in fact, a sexual harassment policy and he’d be happy to discuss it with me, which I did. By 4pm, there were 2200 views on the blog, a dozen new followers on Twitter, several new likes for my company on Facebook and more support than I thought possible or probable.

I started this blog about four years ago. It got more views on Friday than it has gotten in every day previous, all added up and multiplied by 2. Then, 3. And so on. Anyway, the difference is a lot. More people have now seen this blog post than have ever seen a show I made, or even several of them added up and put together. The theatre world, as a whole, has never paid me much a nevermind before but suddenly, poof, over 5000 people from all over the world, just because I got pissed off enough and the people who forwarded and reposted and shared are likely ALSO pissed off enough and good god, can something really be done?! Not for me personally, I’m well on my way to resolving the interpersonal exchange, but for the theatre culture as a whole.

I suspect this post got a lot of attention largely because of the personal bit at the end. I’ve written angry blog posts before. Hell, I’ve written angry blog posts about gender in theatre before! But this one struck a chord and I suspect that the stinky thing that happened at work is the reason. However, one guy being thoughtless isn’t the big problem (though it was certainly a problem for me.) The problem is that the theatre has an extreme gender bias (and a race, and a class bias, as well, just by the way) and that inevitably leads to smaller personal injustices like the one I experienced. Like the ones a lot of women have experienced. Like the ones most women have experienced. I had the (relative) good fortune to be the victim of a completely obvious example of sexism, one that no one has been able to argue with  – but every day women contend with less clear-cut, more sticky situations than this and the theatre community generally rolls its eyes at you when you say something. Not this time. Gratefully. But you can bet your ass that every other time I’ve ever brought up gender bias in the past, eyes were rolling (from both men and women) all the way around the room. Hell, I’ve rolled my eyes at myself sometimes. I was rolling my eyes as I typed the thing up. (“Here I go again. Talking about this gender thing. You know you’re asking for trouble. Can’t I just deal?!”) So, I’m encouraged by all the comments and support and if anyone’s rolling their eyes, I’m not seeing it this time. Which is great news, I think. Maybe it means that, as a culture, we’re ready to deal with gender parity for reals.

I have this fantasy in which scads of people call lots of theatres to book tickets for a show and after asking the usual sorts of questions, they ask, “And what’s the gender breakdown of this show?” And when they’re told 11 men and 1 woman, they say in a voice as sweet and innocent as they can muster : “Ah, nuts. I was looking for a show with more women in it. If I buy a ticket for THIS show, I’ll have to see THREE productions of The House of Bernarda Alba to make up for it and I just don’t think anyone’s doing it at the moment. Can you help me find a show with some gender parity? And bonus points if it’s written and/or directed by a woman!”

The evening I posted my rant, I saw this article about race and gender disparity and in it, August Schulenberg points out that every year this statistic comes out and every year there is a flurry of conversation and then it remains the same. That’s not okay with me. And it seems like it’s not okay with a whole lot of other people. Because I posted what I did, I found out about 5050 in 2020 and several other organizations and people who are working for gender parity. I get to join a chorus of people who feel as fed up as I am. It feels good to know I’m not alone. Like, seriously, not alone.

And thank you. I haven’t said yet. But thank you. To all the people who shared and reposted and tweeted and facebooked and commented and commented on the discomforting comments and to those who just read and gave it all a good think. Thank You. It is extraordinary to be heard and received and supported.

And if you’re still reading, I will confess to you that I feel TOTALLY weird about it all. I feel vulnerable and exposed and uneasy. I didn’t actually mean to get into the middle of a controversy. I just needed to get some stuff off my chest (and here on the internet no one’s looking at my chest while I do it!) In riding this roller coaster of an experience, I realized that a part of me is waiting for the inevitable shoe to drop. Because every time I have ever spoken up about gender politics in the past, I have gotten slammed. It happened last week when I talked about it with a handful of people and my system can only imagine how much more intense the slamming might be by talking about it with thousands of people. I can’t stop thinking about it all, dealing with it, trying to make sense of it, attempting organize it into a coherent response and every hour that I spend doing those things is an hour I’m not spending working on my art.

There is a whole heck of a lot that’s bubbled up as a result of my speaking up. And it all veers off in different directions. There’s the bit where I’m grateful I wasn’t wearing a different shirt on the day of the incident, because it was therefore impossible to blame myself. There’s the bit where I think about my recently discovered awareness of, and pleasure in, my own introversion and how my actual response is an example of how introverts respond differently than extroverts and how I’m okay with that now in a way I didn’t used to be (so when I got criticized for not speaking up in the moment, I didn’t take it as personally as I might have in the past.) There’s the bit about how particularly moved I was by the response of the men in my life. I was fully prepared for the men around me to shrug and say, “What’s the big deal?” and they 100%  did not. There’s the bit where I want to respond to all that’s been said so far, across the world. There’s the bit where I want to dust off ye olde women’s studies books from college and get back INTO it, man. And there’s the bit that would like to just crawl back under my covers and be very very quiet for a while.

But I’ve got a show to put on this weekend, so I can’t be getting all tangent-y and perfectionist, trying to squeeze a lifetime of dealing with gender stuff into a single blog post. So I’m going to leave this here for the moment. And just say Thank You to everyone who heard me, understood and made me feel less alone in it all.


In which my tolerance for sexism in theatre reaches a breaking point
September 20, 2012, 4:45 pm
Filed under: art, education, feminism, theatre | Tags: , , ,

Listen. I try not to let institutionalized sexism get me down. While I certainly notice it, I usually manage to keep my frustration in check. But tonight, as I watched Peter and the Starcatcher, I think the well of goodwill was finally drained. Drop by drop, over the years, the multitude of all male productions, or shows with only 1 or 2 women (good sometimes, if you can ignore the lack of humanity written into the women’s parts) or all the shows with eight men and two women, never the opposite, had depleted my stores of goodwill, so there wasn’t much left by the time I saw this show. So this is not just about Peter & the Starcatcher. This show was just the final drop out of the well.

And listen – I could have managed with this one, even as I counted the number of men onstage who had jobs (11) versus the number of women (1) or as I counted the creative team (Directors, Writers, Movement, Designers – 7 men, 2 women.) I could have dealt with the fact that as a much as I admire the movement director, Steven Hoggett’s work, all of it seems to have gender numbers like this (Black Watch – all male, Beautiful Burnout – 5 men, 2 women.) I could have dealt with the only other female character in this show being played in drag, for laughs. Or the entire cast dressed up in drag for a little comic number – cause nothing’s funnier than men pretending to have comical boobs. Right, ladies? Am I right? Especially those boobs made out of baby bottles, oh yeah.

Any one of these things, or any combination of them, would have just washed over me like unpleasant water over a duck’s back, as it’s all just business as usual on our American stages, but towards the end, something socked me in the gut, made me gasp and the well of goodwill ran dry. This was when the heroine of the piece (at least the one girl was a heroine) was dismissed entirely with an insulting, demoralizing, sexualizing and objectifying line. It went like this: When she objected to being demoted from her rightful place as the true hero of the piece (by virtue of being smarter, faster, stronger and a better leader) she was summarily dismissed with:

“And I bet your milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.”

Which shut her right up. And the audience laughed. Ha ha. They recognized that old pop culture reference! Or maybe some of them find it hilarious to see an adult male character making fun of a 13 year old character’s breasts. But in any case, the character, formerly bold and brave and interesting, was silenced – demoted from her role as hero and sent off to go get married and have babies. No trouble anymore.

And if this weren’t EXACTLY what happens to most righteous amazing girls on the brink of adulthood, maybe it wouldn’t sting so badly, but wow is it awful to see happening before one’s eyes. Or maybe it wouldn’t be so awful if the piece were actually grappling with the diminishment of girls through sexual objectification – if the villain saying it to her were really a villain and not just a comic foil and his refusal to acknowledge girls’ heroic qualities might have some meaning. Instead, it’s a total reinforcement. It’s well documented that something happens to girls at this age. They stop speaking up. They start to believe they can’t do math or science. They develop eating disorders. They lose a spark.

Because of Peter and the Starcatcher‘s ending, I would hate to have any young girl come to see this (otherwise imaginative) show. Or any young boy, for that matter. Prior to this moment, I would have happily brought along a young person, despite my frustrations, but after, no way. It has too much potential to have the same silencing effect on a kid watching the piece. That’s damage I would like to avoid for a growing person if I could. I took it personally and I’m a grown-up lady. It is personal, to a degree. I have had the experience of being dismissed in just this way, so it does get right under my skin. Especially since the line is so unconscious and so tossed off. And I guess I don’t need some asshole in a fake mustache diminishing the sexual development of a young girl in the midst of what would otherwise be a harmless vaudevillian romp.

And I’m fed up. I saw this show as part of my job at TDF where I teach young people who see high profile Broadway and Off-Broadway shows here in NYC. In the three years that I’ve been at TDF, I’ve taught: a musical with an all male cast (with one non-speaking woman), an exclusively male cast, a show with 8 men and 2 women, a show with 5 women, one girl – And 28 men. And just to break the odds, a show with 5 men and 6 women.  (Thank you, John Guare.) And I haven’t done the official numbers, but I’m gonna guess that these ratios are pretty much the norm for Broadway and the like. In response to the frustration I feel about this, I do my own personal damnedest to even out the odds, making work with all or mostly women but I despair at the chances of my work or any woman’s work like it being performed at the highest, most profitable level. I feel like I’m fighting a serious losing battle and no one’s talking about it or even acknowledging that there might be a gender problem in theatre.

At least not in our country. In the UK, the extraordinary Stella Duffy has bravely and boldly continued to raise questions on this front and I am intensely grateful for her insight and perseverance. You should read her blog entry about the gender ratios in the UK. I particularly love her idea of seeking to balance out the gap with her ticket buying power.

 For every show with only or mostly men on stage I will buy tickets to three more with only or mostly women. For every time I attend another play written by another usual suspect bloke (some of whom are men I’m personally very fond of, as well as their work!) I will make the effort to hunt out (because it often is an effort) and support the work of a new (which doesn’t always mean young!) woman playwright. And for every time a theatre continues to slap me in the face by programming yet another season of work by and showing men – I may just choose to go to another theatre. We are the monstrous regiment of ticket buyers, we should use that power.

I’m up for giving this a shot. It’s time to get seriously intentional about supporting women. If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll do it too.

*** CODA ***

I wrote this yesterday. Today, I had an experience that is a most strange little addition to this theme.

We had our meeting about this show at TDF today and I couldn’t help but mention my big frustration with the show. While no one else seemed to have seen it in the same way, we had an interesting chat about gender politics and I was, at least, heard. While I was talking about this, our new boss at TDF came in and sat behind me, not saying anything, just present. The conversation turned. We moved on to other topics. We began brainstorming themes and ideas for exercises and the new boss interrupted the flow of people’s contributions to ask me what I thought. I wasn’t quite ready to share. I was still trying to figure out how to frame my thoughts, so I said, “Well – I’m obsessed with gender at the moment, so. ..” and he interrupted me to say, “We all are. Men. Women. I’m looking at your breasts right now.” At which point I turned red, opened my eyes in surprise and said, “Uh. . .” since I’d been in mid-sentence. I tried to just keep talking, because I refused to be silenced in the same way that the character in the show was, and I heard, under my stammering, a sort of footnote to his comment of “And I’m gay!”

Now, of course, in hindsight, I wish I’d been able to stop right there in that moment and say: “And this is EXACTLY my point. Thank you for demonstrating to EVERYONE here how it’s done. That was a princely demonstration of sexism and precisely what happened in the piece. Do you have some instructions about how to file a sexual harassment claim? Because this would be a great example. And there’s such a nice assortment of witnesses. Does anyone have any doubt now that this is, in fact, how men in positions of authority shut women down? And by the way, your sexual orientation has NOTHING to do with it. I would point out that the villain in the piece was also disinterested in women and that did not stop him being a sexist jerk.”

But of course, I just stammered and tired to complete my earlier thought, not terribly effectively, I have to say and I pretended (along with the rest of the room) that nothing had happened. Classic trauma behavior, y’all.

The question is, what to do now. File a complaint? Talk to my immediate (female) supervisor? Let it slide? Just publish the man’s name and let the internet at him?

I’m not in that office very often. Maybe two or three times a year? So it’s not as if I’ll have to see this clod on a regular basis. If I did, I would absolutely take action tomorrow. But I’m a part time employee, working “at will” which means they can fire me at any time for any reason at all.

What would you do?

* Just a note (many days later)  to those who’ve just seen this now. The update on all of this is posted here:

*And here’s where I responded to a commenter who loved the show:

*And here’s what my students thought of it:

*And here’s my response to all my friends who began beating themselves up for their “complacency” after reading my blog:

*My thoughts about all this a year later:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

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.

%d bloggers like this: