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.
NYC-based playwright, performer, and Teen Programs Manager at Step Up Women’s Network
Emily Kaczmarek is a playwright, performer, and educator based in New York. She has worked as an OUTspoken peer educator at NYU’s LGBTQ Student Center, and currently oversees teen empowerment programming for Step Up Women’s Network.
ACT: Who are you? Can you give me some background on how you came to be an advocate for gender parity in theater?
I’m predisposed to be a screaming advocate for gender parity in any and all contexts, and especially in my home context– the arts. As a kid I staged “mandatory” (seriously, I used that word) classroom productions featuring my reluctant peers; I typed out scripts, directed, and cast myself in starring roles to boot. Then I went to Catholic girls’ school for 6 years and delved into performing, rehearsing for two or three productions at any given time, always in the company of dozens of other fearless female theater artists. At the end of high school I came out as queer, thus falling into another vibrant, inclusive community of women celebrating women.
I found my voice in college writing queer female characters for the stage and screen, and became active in the gay rights and women’s rights movements (the latter of which is, sadly, as pressing as ever). As an emerging playwright in 2013, I want the theater to be as strong and vital and relevant and exciting as it possibly can be, which, of course, requires inclusiveness, diversity, and gender parity.
ACT: What do you think are the most urgent or significant challenges women theater artists are facing right now?
I think women artists are up against this quaint little default notion of the American play, which of course reflects an insanely outdated notion of “America” and American life. In other words, I think that, unfortunately, many theater practitioners and– perhaps even more critically– audiences still hear “great American play” and think Death of a Salesman. Which of course, is a great American play, but by no means reflects a modern America, and it’s this notion of white male stories as default, normative, non-niche, that is so problematic and prohibitive for women artists, queer artists, and artists of color.
It’s as if theater– especially Broadway– doesn’t trust us to tell universal stories. That soundbite from Washington, “Women are not a special interest group,” is constantly echoing for me as I navigate the theater community. Supposed “niche” storytellers need to be prolific about putting our own stories out there– we need to inundate the marketplace (with quality work, of course). White, straight, male stories don’t comprise the majority of human experience, in the US or anywhere else, so they certainly shouldn’t comprise the majority of theater.
ACT: What tactics have you used (or seen used) to advocate for gender parity in theater?
Mainly I try to practice what I preach and write as many “strong female leads” as I can. I write to avoid cliche, to create women who are real, multifaceted, and exciting to read, play, and direct. I think that, to an extent, I do this naturally– because I’m a woman. While I certainly don’t believe a great female character MUST be written by a female-identified person, I think it helps. So far, I’ve had the privilege of staying pretty involved throughout productions of my work, so I’ve been able to really see my visions through to fruition.
Many of the women artists I know do the same thing– own and drive and champion their own projects; they’re much more likely to self-produce in a warehouse in Brooklyn than sort of passively send out a script for approval. Submissions are important, obviously, but so is getting your own handprints all over your work– alone, in collaboration with others, whatever. I see women helping women, all the time– casting each other, networking, sending each other exciting opportunities. I know this woman who, literally, I’ve met twice, but somehow I got added to her email list of women she loves, and half the actresses for my new play were referrals from her. They’re all stellar.
If that’s not advocacy on behalf of women artists, I don’t know what is– and naturally, it so often takes the age-old form of women talking to each other. When we do that, I swear, magical things happen.
ACT: What tactics have been most effective or least effective and why?
My work at SUWN isn’t arts-specific, but it’s certainly relevant to this conversation in that it’s impressed upon me the importance of role models. And not just pie-in-the-sky, epic role models like, say, Caryl Churchill (someone I might cite as a successful female playwright), but accessible, real-world role models who are where you’d like to be in a handful of years– and, ideally, who you can talk to. We work to connect girls with successful women whose backgrounds and experiences are similar to their own, and simply having a flesh-and-blood point of reference– “oh, THAT’S what I can be doing in 10 years if I work hard and advocate for myself”– is immensely powerful.
Also: when it comes to advocating for gender parity in the arts, we have to instill artistic and creative confidence in girls early. We have to encourage them to be imaginative, to value their own ideas and experiences as creative material. We have to stress the importance of a strong command of language, of public speaking skills, of collaborative skills, of asking questions. We have to teach and relate to young girls in a way that takes the emphasis off their looks/manners/other trappings of traditional femininity, and puts the emphasis on, “What can you do? Make? Be? What do you THINK?”
If we send the message to girls that their thoughts and ideas are valued far more than their bodies, faces, or (I might get in trouble for this) test scores, imagine the artists and art we might nurture!
ACT: How do you measure the effectiveness of your advocacy actions?
I’m really still starting out, so I have yet to assess my own advocacy actions in a thorough way. But recently I heard a businesswoman say, “We’ll know we’ve achieved gender parity when there’s a mediocre woman running a company.” I thought that was so profound in a wry, snarky kind of way, and I really liked it.
So to translate for the theater world, when I cease to be blown away and starstruck by every single female theater artist I read about or experience, I’ll know we’re getting close.
ACT: What is one action someone could take today that would make a difference?
Buy a ticket to a play by a woman, and bring a man with you. We all need to start experiencing art by women as normative, and as not exclusively geared toward women (the term “chick flick” fills me with some serious rage). The position of writer is an intensely powerful one in many ways, and exposing men and boys (early and often) to women inhabiting that position is a major step toward change.
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.
I am LOVING each and every TACTICS interview I’ve read so far – though they’re coming out at such an awesomely rapid pace that I’ve only hit about half. Thank you, thank you Amy Clare Tasker and interview subjects for all of the wonderful food for thought!
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