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.
Director, The Triangle Lab
(Cal Shakes & Intersection for the Arts)
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 a director who very early in my career became an artistic director when I founded Crowded Fire in 1997. Early on in the company’s history we did a Caryl Churchill play and then a Naomi Wallace play, and then found ourselves known as a company that was interested in women writers, especially women writing in that tradition of poetic political inquiry. I gravitated naturally to the writers we produced – like Liz Duffy Adams and Christine Evans – who had strong women in their plays and strong views on inequality of all kinds in their writing. When I look back on it, it helps me understand the way sometimes male artistic directors say that they “just don’t resonate” with a long list of plays by women, because that’s how I was choosing too, just picking plays that felt like they had a worldview I shared and responded to. In fact, when I look at what Marissa Wolf (who succeeded me as the artistic director of Crowded Fire) has done in terms of programming work by writers of color, I feel really critical of my own choices and how white the list of writers was in my time there. So I think that’s a long-winded way to say that I was an advocate for a particular set of writers – many of whom were women – but at the time I don’t know that I framed it to myself consciously as advocating for gender parity. Where I did work more deliberately to support women artists was in thinking about who was in the ensemble, who directed for us, and who designed for us. In particular I think Crowded Fire has always had a really strong group of women designers in the mix, something that is still very rare.
Now, I’m running the Triangle Lab, a new program that is a joint project between Cal Shakes and Intersection for the Arts, and it focuses on connecting artists with communities, really trying to look at how theater artists can be a part of addressing community issues and solving civic problems. That means that questions about voice and representation are top-of-mind for us and means that I’m always thinking carefully about who’s not in the room who should be. Lately that’s meant a lot of talking and thinking about communities who aren’t participating in theater-making or theater-going, but it’s also meant thinking about curation and who our curators are, and what it means to work in a field where most organizations have a single-curator (artistic director) model.
ACT: What do you think are the most urgent or significant challenges women theater artists face right now?
I think that there is a fundamental misallocation of resources in the field right now, with a huge investment in institutions and much, much less in artists. And since inequity in the society as a whole is reflected in our field too, of course you’ll find women and artists of color represented more heavily among the people who don’t have salaries and health insurance, but who are integral to making what we call the American theater. So I think one of the most significant challenges facing all theater artists and the field is that it’s nearly impossible to make a living doing this, and I think that’s more challenging if you have the time constraints and expense of children, or can’t easily travel for jobs out-of-town, etc.
I also think that there is a kind of double-whammy of age discrimination that hits women particularly hard. We’ve heard a great deal about how reluctant mid-size and larger theaters are to hire people in their 20’s and even 30’s into leadership positions, but then as you get older you start to experience the field’s infatuation with the young and hip and the differing responses people have to a 50-year old man and a 50-year old woman. It’s only exaggerating a bit to say that lots of women my age in the theater worry that we might skip straight from being an emerging artist to being a little old lady. “What’s that grandma doing up there?” I hear people say disparagingly when a grey-haired woman takes the stage at a conference, and it’s very disheartening.
Finally, I think that theater schedules are very, very challenging to parents. And, again because of the way the world is, that ends up impacting women more than men. Here’s an easy one: in full-time rehearsal processes, why do we take Mondays off? If you’re not seeing your kids for six days in a row, maybe take Saturday or Sunday off so you can spend some time with them when they’re not in school. And at what age is it really ok to leave town for 4 or 5 weeks and leave the kids behind? And what do people say about mothers who do that? I think for a lot of women, having kids means significantly scaling back their theater work, and maybe taking time off just when their careers might otherwise have been taking off. It takes a long time to come back from that and it’s a major factor in the availability of women who are seasoned enough to be considered for leadership roles.
ACT: What tactics have you used (or seen used) to advocate for gender parity in theater?
I think being at the table yourself as a woman artist is a great first step. And then once you’re at the table it’s important to speak up for this issue, to bring it up when it can make a difference, and to invite as many other women to the table as you can. I also think that it’s essential that we be talking about racial and cultural inclusion at the same time, I don’t think you can divide the issues, and I think that the staggering whiteness of our seasons and our audiences is at least as pressing as the gender parity issue.
ACT: What tactics have been most effective or least effective? Why do you think those tactics worked or did not work?
I think you have to get specific about the why (Why is it important for women to be equally represented on stage and in leadership? How will this benefit your theater?) and the who (not “Do more plays by women” but “Do this great play by this particular woman). I think it’s important to count and check whether a community as a whole is doing a good job (or an improving job) at equal representation, and perhaps to call out a theater if they are egregiously excluding women, but I think in general scorecards on a particular season are not that helpful.
I’m always a fan of both story – personal stories that illustrate the issues – and language as advocacy tools. I think when we name the problem and find language for it – even just the term “gender parity” which is so specific in its goal – then I think we can make great strides.
In terms of tactics I’ve used myself, I feel the proudest of the women artists I’ve mentored or helped take the next step in their careers. I recently saw a friend of mine in New York who’s just finishing the MFA program at Columbia and doing amazing work and she told me that I had given her her first professional directing job when I hired her to direct a Crowded Fire show. I started Crowded Fire in part because no one wants to take a chance on young directors without much experience (and it felt easier to just start a company than to get hired to direct — little did I know!), so I always tried to make sure I was taking those chances on people whose talent was not yet reflected on their resumes. And when I had the opportunity I often chose women.
ACT: How do you measure the effectiveness of your advocacy actions?
One of the thing I’m learning working for a bigger theater is that change is visible internally way before it becomes visible to the broader community. And those internal, private steps, even just small changes in one person’s mindset, are essential to policy change and have to come first. So I think we have to gauge carefully and be more patient than perhaps we’d like to be to see if a particular advocacy effort is paying off.
ACT: What is one action someone could take today that would make a difference?
Find women artists whose careers you can support. Program their plays, cast them, hire them to direct. Interview them for leadership positions and hire them when you can. If you’re not in a position to hire others, then choose to collaborate with other women and to find ways to support each other’s careers.
If you’re a woman artist struggling with these challenges then one thing you can do right away is stop beating yourself up for the glass ceilings you’re running into. You’re not crazy – there are real issues in the field. Save the energy you’d spend being angry at yourself and put it into efforts to make 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.