TACTICS: Interview with Martha Richards

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.



Founding Executive Director, WomenArts

ACT: Who are you? Can you give me some background on how you came to be an advocate for gender parity in theater?

I was originally trained as a lawyer, but I have worked full-time as a non-profit arts manager since 1975.  For 20 years I worked in mainstream performing arts organizations, including three years as Executive Director of Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College and five years as the Managing Director of StageWest, a LORT C regional theater in Springfield, Massachusetts.

At StageWest, I was working with a white male artistic director who chose the shows.  In my five-year tenure, we only did one play by a woman playwright, Lillian Hellman’s “Watch on the Rhine,” and there were no women directors at all.  Since I worked with the budget, I was painfully aware of the fact that women were frequently paid less than their male counterparts for the same work.

When I decided to leave StageWest, friends encouraged me to create a non-profit dedicated to increasing the visibility and opportunities for women artists.  In 1995, I founded WomenArts (then known as The Fund for Women Artists).  Our programs have evolved over the years – originally we were mainly a grant-writing service for women-led theater companies in our region, but now we provide news and information to women artists all over the world and we coordinate Support Women Artists Now Day, the annual international grassroots celebration of women artists held every March.

ACT: What do you think are the most urgent or significant challenges women theater artists are facing right now?

The biggest challenge for women artists and for all artists is that over the past thirty years right-wing politicians have created an atmosphere that is very hostile towards artists and arts funding. When I started my career in the mid-1970s, the country was in the midst of a surge of public support for the arts.  Congress created the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965 and many state arts agencies followed because the NEA provided block grants to them. The arts had strong bi-partisan support in the 1970s and arts funding was steadily growing.  In fact, the greatest growth in the NEA’s budget came during the tenure of President Richard Nixon, a Republican.  In those days lots of people were talking about the importance of supporting the arts so that everyone would have access to them.  That energy stopped in 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president and immediately put the National Endowment for the Arts on the chopping block.   Suddenly, people in the non-profit arts world were public enemies instead of public servants, and the arts were an expensive “frill” instead of the cultural heritage and birthright of every American citizen. The situation got even worse in the 1990s when the recession hit and Senator Jesse Helms led endless attacks on the NEA.  He did not succeed in eliminating the agency, but the budget was essentially frozen. The NEA budget was $155 million in 1980, and it was $146 million in 2012 – fewer actual dollars than it was 32 years ago and a reduction of more than 60% if you adjust for inflation.

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.  For example, when I was running StageWest, I often argued that we should be supported because of our positive “economic impact” on the surrounding businesses. But it always troubled me that my own arguments were pushing the arts to the periphery.  Why was I accepting the nutty proposition that our ability to increase the number of people eating pizza in the mall next door had any relationship to our value as a theater company?

I fear that there is a whole generation of younger artists who do not question the current arts funding environment and do not realize that it was ever different.  After so many years of being told that the arts are a frill, it is becoming harder and harder to remember a world where arts funding was increasing because people agreed that artistic expression was an essential part of being human.

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.”

Another problem is that the general public is very confused about how much artists actually earn.  There is the romantic notion that if artists are really talented, they are very poor and willing to starve in a freezing garret to do their art.  And then there is the completely contradictory belief that all the really talented artists get “discovered” and become very rich.  You can’t think clearly about labor issues when you are swinging between two economic fantasies.  Parity discussions only make sense when you can see the arts as a field where a lot of highly skilled people are trying to find steady work. Unfortunately, most of the general public never considers that middle ground.

ACT: What tactics have you used (or seen used) to advocate for gender parity in theater?

I first started thinking about gender parity in the 1970’s when the women’s movement was blossoming and there were lots of women’s theater, dance, music, and poetry events in San Francisco.  I was an especially big fan of Terry Baum’s Lilith Theatre (note: see the WWSF interview with Terry and her collaborator Carolyn Myer here) and served on their board for awhile.  I was also very inspired by the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women activists in New York who did demonstrations at mainstream arts organizations where they wore gorilla masks and passed out flyers that were very funny. Both Lilith Theatre and the Guerrilla Girls used satire as a very effective consciousness-raising tool.

In 2002 Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett did a study for the New York State Council on the Arts that was specifically about the status of women in theater.  They invited 135 scholars, artists, critics, producers and sociologists from around the country to participate in a series of roundtable and panel discussions over the course of three years to try to find out why women were so under-represented.  They also did a statistical analysis that revealed women were only 16% of the directors and 17% of the writers of plays produced in the U.S. in 2001-2002.  You can read the summary of their findings at:New York State Council of the Arts Report.

The NYSCA study was extremely helpful because it provided employment statistics that were not previously available.  Lots of women in theater used those figures in their grant proposals and advocacy work to prove the urgency of the problem.  Unfortunately, it is very hard to get funding to do those statistical studies, and if the studies are not done on a regular basis, you can’t analyze trends or the effectiveness of your strategies.  It would be very helpful to have more annual studies of women’s employment in theater.  WomenArts maintains a page of links to any articles we find about women’s employment in the arts at: Women’s Employment in the Arts.

WomenArts has been involved in various petitions about gender parity over the years, but we have found that women are often afraid to sign petitions or speak out because they are worried that they won’t be hired if they are labeled as troublemakers.  In a field where work is scarce, this is a legitimate concern.  The Guerrilla Girls solved this problem by wearing gorilla masks at their demonstrations so that none of their members could be recognized.

In 2008 WomenArts decided to take a different tack.  We weren’t getting any traction with our arguments about gender discrimination.  Our feeling was that people didn’t value the diversity and power of women’s creativity because they had seldom seen it.  We started looking for some kind of annual event we could do to raise the visibility of all women artists. I had been corresponding with film critic Jan Lisa Huttner who had created several “WITASWAN” groups in Chicago (WITASWAN = Women in the Audience Supporting Women Artists Now).  People joined WITASWAN by taking a pledge to see at least one film written or directed by a woman every month, and then they got together to go to films. Jan invited me to do a conference presentation with her, and while we were sharing a pizza afterwards, we decided to declare a new international holiday called Support Women Artists Now Day or SWAN Day for short.

We invited everyone on the WomenArts mailing list to create events celebrating women artists during March, which is Women’s History Month.  We provided free downloadable logos, sample fundraising letters, press releases, and mayor’s proclamations on our website.  It was an instant hit, and there have now been over 1,000 SWAN events in 23 countries.

ACT: What tactics have been most effective or least effective and why?

The most encouraging thing to me is that SWAN Day has put me in contact with so many smart and energetic women around the world who are working for gender parity in the arts.  Thousands of women have worked on these issues in the past, and it may take thousands more, but I have complete confidence that we will ultimately prevail. SWAN Day is helping to build the movement for gender parity in three ways – first, SWAN events strengthen the relationships among individual women artists; second, SWAN Day is cross-disciplinary; and finally, SWAN Day is international.

Strengthening Relationships – Many women have told us that working on SWAN events gave them a new appreciation for the other women artists in their community, and many of them are now working on other projects together.  If we want to build a powerful movement, we need to figure out how to build alliances around our shared values and negotiate our differences. This means we need to talk to each other much more, and SWAN events provide a positive environment for that.

Also, when I shared the WITASWAN model with the founder of Works by Women in New York, it inspired her to create a similar group for women in theater. There are now Works by Women groups around the country (including in the Bay Area) where women attend plays by other women every month. These groups are another wonderful way for us to learn more about each other and their existence shows how good ideas can spread quickly.

Cross-Disciplinary – Second, SWAN Day celebrates women in all of the arts, and I think it is very important to build more cross-disciplinary alliances. There are organizations lobbying for more representation of women in almost every art form, but they are not able to create the change they want because they are too small.

We need to create larger alliances between the women working in film, theater, music, dance and other art forms, especially since so many women work in more than one art form.  Also, cross-disciplinary groups might provide new ways for us to back each other up much more.  For instance, a woman in theater might be afraid to speak out against a potential employer in her own field, but she might be able to speak out for women in music with less danger.  At the minimum, we should stay informed about the struggles of women in other art forms and do supportive online actions.

International – Third, SWAN Day is international.  Attitudes towards the arts are very different in other countries, and many countries have much higher per capita spending on the arts than we do. In some countries, there is more gender parity in the arts than there is in the U.S. In other countries the situation is much worse.

We have a lot to learn from studying these other models, and SWAN events provide opportunities for us to interact with women artists in other countries.  For instance, the women of SWAN Day Kenya are reaching out to four other African countries next year, and they hope to involve women from all over the continent the following year. It would be wonderful to do more exchanges like these, especially since it is easy to make contact and stay in touch via email or social media.

Cultivating Leaders and Creating Jobs – There are two other things that I think will be important to building a successful movement, and I would be happy to talk to anyone who wants to explore these further.

First, we need to be consciously looking for women who are willing to speak out and be leaders, and then we need to make sure that they get whatever training or mentoring they need to be as effective as possible.

Second, we need to figure out ways for more people to get paid to work on gender parity issues.  For instance, WomenArts has managed to launch a new international holiday and we only have one and a half paid staff people. We could accomplish so much more if we had five or ten.  I am not sure if the money will come from traditional fundraising or some entirely new strategy, but I think we will make much faster progress if we have more people who are paid to work on gender parity in theater.

ACT: What is one action someone could take today that would make a difference?

I think the most important thing is to find opportunities to talk with other women artists about your concerns so that you can come up with strategies together. Jan Lisa Huttner and I had been emailing each other for more than two years when we came up with the idea for SWAN Day, and I don’t think either one of us could have done it on her own.  We had a lot of fun, and we sparked each other’s imaginations.  I encourage everybody else to do the same!

Amy Clare Tasker author iconAmy 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.

2 responses to “TACTICS: Interview with Martha Richards

  1. Pingback: What Can We Do About It? | Works by Women San Francisco·

  2. Pingback: TACTICS: recap and relaunch | Works by Women San Francisco·

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