Welcome to the TACTICS (Theater Artists’ Collected Thoughts Insights Challenges & Strategies for Gender Parity Advocacy) interview series curated by Amy Clare Tasker.
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 theater.
Artistic Director, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival
Who are you? Can you give me some background on how you came to be an advocate for gender parity in theater?
I started performing and loving theater at age 5. I didn’t realize until later that there were so many barriers to access for women and girls, since children’s theater is heavily populated by women and girls. Unfortunately, this seems to result in women theater artists getting relegated to doing only youth theater – that certainly happened to me. It’s framed as a compliment – “Oh, you’re so good with kids, you should stick with that” – but hidden in that is an implication that you’re not good enough to work with adult professionals. Funny, because I’ve done both and I think adults are easier!
Another thing I learned from children’s theater is that we have no issue at all with girls playing roles written for men, but suddenly they get to theater school and they’re not allowed to anymore. It’s very jarring – when you’re under 18, you’re praised and encouraged if you’re the kid in the room willing to cross gender. But as soon as you grow up, that instinct and desire is completely smacked down. Instead you get trained in how to fit into certain gender stereotypes – are you an ingenue? A young mom? A character actress (theater speak for “not conventionally attractive”)? In my MFA program, we were actively encouraged to use our sexuality to win roles. It’s all very messed up and confusing.
What do you think are the most urgent or significant challenges women theater artists are facing right now?
I’m always surprised by how conservative the theater community can be. I’ve worked in marketing in a traditional subscription-model theater, and there was always a fear of shocking some imaginary audience member. Whenever you have a conservative culture, you’re going to have a conservative patriarchal hierarchy – the white guy is going to be at the top of the food chain, and we’re going to let him because it feels safe and comfortable and because if he’s up there, our subscribers will also feel safe and comfortable. It’s the HR version of relying on the core classics to bring in audience.
The numbers tell us that the vast majority of LORT theaters in the country are run by white men, and the vast majority of plays they produce were written by white men. As with most other fields around the country, the bigger the company, the more likely it is to be run by a man – and his salary is going to be bigger than a woman in a similar position, maybe at a smaller theater. I like a lot of those plays very much. I want to keep doing them. But there has to be a balance, and I think the balance can come from achieving gender parity in other areas.
What tactics have you used (or seen used) to advocate for gender parity in theater?
There are a few of the major companies who step up and show everyone else how it’s done. I keep a close eye on Oregon Shakes, because under Bill Rauch there’s a real emphasis on all kinds of parity. Ten years ago, you saw racial diversity on stage but the backstage and design teams were all white. Now you see more diversity across the board – not there yet, but they’ve come a long way – and you also see more women directors and designers. I also love seeing how Bill in particular is using non-traditional casting, including cross-gender choices. OSF is in a great position, because they’re such leaders in the field. If they do it, then all the other smaller Shakespeare Festivals can say, “well, they did it at OSF.” And people from all around the country are seeing those shows.
You have to take a stand, though. Somewhere in OSF’s strategic plan, I bet it says “In five years we want to achieve X% of roles played by actors of color, X% of designer positions staffed with women, etc.” You can’t just smile and say “Gosh, that would be nice.” It has to be a commitment across the organization.
I also think to advocate for it, we have to do it. There’s no use in my saying “MTC should hire more women actors” if our stage is full of white guys. We’ve got a long way to go. But we’ve got to stop using our audience as an excuse. They can handle it – they can handle a lot more than we give them credit for.
What tactics have been most effective or least effective and why?
Again, back to those strategic plans and making a statement of commitment. I think that’s effective. That’s what we can do as leaders of organizations. Not everyone gets to sit where I sit, though – 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. Your power lies in your talent and who you are. Actors are so used to feeling powerless – I think that’s so messed up. Actors should be empowered. Directors, designers, all that stuff – we’re a pretty recent invention. We’d be nowhere without actors, and instead we make them feel like bottom-feeders. Actors are always kowtowing and degrading themselves and their talent to me, apologizing for everything, and I just hate it. I want all actors to have more self-respect. I hate traditional auditions, with actors parading themselves like slaves at an auction – really, we should be auditioning for each other.
How do you measure the effectiveness of your advocacy actions?
Well, I’ve always cast Shakespeare on Tour with gender parity. We’ve always had women playing men and sometimes the reverse as well. No one has ever complained, and we go into some communities that are pretty conservative. You put a crown on a woman, start calling her King Alonso, and use the masculine pronouns, and kids think “Oh, that’s a man, that’s the king – okay, I’ll go with it.” I think it shows our audience they can be or do whatever they want, but we don’t make a big issue out of it. We just do it. Kids are smart, they figure it out – and sometimes they tell us “well, in Shakespeare’s time, boys played all the parts, so it’s no big deal.” And I think it’s not just kids who are okay with cross-casting, I really think your average audience member isn’t going to freak out if Hamlet is played by a woman. So what’s stopping us? Is it because we think it HAS to be an issue and that we have to make the whole show about that one choice? I hope not – I think we’ve moved past that with non-traditional casting across race with Shakespeare, and gender is the next barrier to fall.
What is one action someone could take today that would make a difference?
What if we all said, next season, we will commit to gender parity? Would all our subscribers stop buying tickets? Would audiences not show up for Free Shakespeare in the Park? Would actors get black-listed and never get cast again? I don’t think so. Remember, women buy the majority of the theater tickets in this country. Some will shrug, some will be thrilled, but I think very few people will throw down their ACT season brochure and say “That’s it! I’m never going to the theater again! Those bitches are demanding equal representation!”
So it’s on us. We have to stop begging people with no stake in this to change for us, and make the changes ourselves, in any way we can.
Amy Clare Tasker is a San Francisco theater director and a member of “Yeah, I Said Feminist: a theater salon.” She is online at www.amyclaretasker.com and @AmyClareTasker.
Tune into our national Howlround conversation on advocacy best practices, moderated by Marisela Treviño Orta and Amy Clare Tasker. Thursday, May 2 at 11AM PDT/2PM EDT on Twitter at #newplay.