TACTICS: Interview with Erin Merritt

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.

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ERIN MERRITT
Freelance director, dramaturg/adaptor, teacher

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

I was just born that way. When I was 2, I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix; at 4, I was Peter Pan; and at 5, I alternated between being John Lennon and Speed Racer. In high school, when asked what role I wanted to read for in Threepenny Opera, I said Macheath, because that’s the best role in the show. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a man—I wanted to be whomever was in the center of the most exciting action; I wanted to be the fastest racer, the most outrageous guitarist, the most dangerous criminal, the wittiest member of the band, the person to watch and the center of the action. When I was growing up, there just weren’t really any women or girls who got to do what I wanted to do, in real life as far as I knew or on TV—I seriously doubt anyone has ever watched Speed Racer and wanted to be Trixie. I also noticed that boys couldn’t be convinced to play girl roles even for a moment (Peter Pan needs both a Captain Hook and a Wendy), and even though I couldn’t blame them, somehow that seemed off to me—anyone should be able to pretend to be anything he or she wanted, and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with being a girl.

As I got older, I kept looking for ways to stretch myself beyond what was being offered. I don’t write original work, so I couldn’t just write roles for myself and other women like me, and as recently as 1998, the kinds of gutsy roles I wanted were still incredibly rare, so I had to find those roles in some creative way.

Given all that, it was probably inevitable that I would start Woman’s Will, which was an all-female Shakespeare company in the Bay Area for over a decade. The first show was intended to be a one-off, to give women who wanted something more a chance to explore roles that weren’t defined by the men around them. As we stepped into these new roles and found we easily filled them, we also became even more fierce advocates for the full realm of gender parity—women and girls must see modeled and be given access to the full range of human experience, and men must as well. How strong a species could we be if men were allowed to express as many emotions as women and women were celebrated for being as fierce as men? Each person to his or her natural inclination, without need of explanation. Of course, as of 2013, women, the majority of our population, are still experiencing less access in almost every way than men, so for now I’m fighting for women’s parity, but this will allow men to stretch themselves in new ways too. I’m just trying to create onstage the world I’d like to inhabit in real life.

And by the way, almost everything I say in any of these answers could also be said for actors of color, disabled actors—anyone beyond the able-bodied white men who have most of the bounty right now.

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

I think that really depends on where you are. In the Bay Area, things are bad, but as far as I can see, they are worse elsewhere. And really, they are so much better than they were just 15 years ago—if things had been as good then as they are now, I could have started a company that featured women playwrights instead of giving women men’s roles. Back then we only had Caryl Churchill, Paula Vogel, and a bunch of women writing sentimental plays about how bad men were to them or whether or not to have a baby; now we have both men and women writing full-blooded women into every type of visceral situation. The equitable plays now exist. The current challenge is to create the demand for those plays among audiences, funders and programmers.

The single best way to resolve this issue is to build diversity and create equity at the management level, especially in programming seasons and casting. We all gravitate towards art that speaks about and to us, and since most of the leaders are old, white men, it’s only natural most things we’ll see will be aimed at old, white men (and the token “women’s plays” will be stereotypical instead of relevant). Without diversity among decision-makers offstage, we can get nowhere onstage. People in power and privilege have a vested interest in supporting the structure that got them there, plus they’ve worked so hard to get there by pushing their vision strongly that sometimes they simply can’t see the world through anyone else’s eyes. This power issue will persist even if women come to run everything, so the power always has to be challenged, but getting more women and people of color in the ranks sure would help a lot.

Even the so-called enlightened power-holders are relying on an outdated fantasy that “women’s plays” (ie any that aren’t entirely focused on men) don’t sell tickets. Brothers and sisters, I’m here to put that tired lie to rest. 60 – 70% of any company’s audience and ticket buyers are women, and we’re not opposed to watching men onstage, but we want to be able to identify with female characters too. We might not want to see a “chick play” any more than the men do; though Menopause the Musical certainly made bank a few years back, most of us want to watch women who are real, and big, and not all about their genitals or their relation to men. We are whole women, and we identify with whole women. We’re tired of identifying with Hamlet, Peter Pan, and Speed Racer instead of seeing ourselves. And men would like to see active women too. Woman’s Will’s audiences were always at least 50% men. And 65% of our ticket buyers were male. Put women in active roles, and everyone will come see your shows. And funding? Hell, when no one is putting women on stage, funding a company that is doing so is a no-brainer. We never had any trouble getting funded. Getting past that absurd fiction about what audiences want couldn’t be simpler, but the season programmers have to be willing to look at the facts. Again, if there were more women programming (and more women on boards), this notion wouldn’t be controversial.

Probably the biggest, secret challenge that’s keeping us from mastering the simpler challenges above—the main barrier to women’s success and advancement in theater has to do with childbearing. By the time we have resumes and respect enough to advance, we’ve reached childbearing age. Once we have children, we have to be with them, especially if we’re single parents or are parenting with someone who has a traditional day job or travels for work. We become the ones who have to stay home when the children inevitably get sick—that makes us “unreliable” and our situations “too difficult to bother” when someone can hire a childless person or a man in our place. It also makes it very difficult to rehearse at night, since that’s when most people bond with their families and put the kids to bed—I might be able to stick the kids in a corner during a daytime rehearsal, but I can’t very well have them sleep in a rehearsal hall. Those of us who make our money solely through the arts also have an even harder time making ends meet once we have kids—most of us can no longer travel for work, and even the relatively lucrative teaching gigs usually occur—surprise surprise—when school is out, meaning we have to find babysitting (-$) in order to make money. This can make us feel there’s no point in continuing. This happens at all levels too, and it goes way beyond actual barriers to imagined barriers as well—I once applied for a high-level position, had a first interview at which I was told I was perfect and would I mind as a technicality coming back to meet the rest of the staff; at the second interview I only got questions about my children (which is illegal, by the way)—why would I want a job when I had small children (hello?!? rent to pay + love my career?), how could I possibly do the job when I had children (hello!!!! I ran a whole company with two babies! I think I can be someone’s assistant when I have two school-aged children!)—and this was from a woman in an almost entirely woman-run company! This may be a particularly heinous example, but I got the same tired “but we’re not sexist” response you’d expect when I talked to them later about the inappropriateness of the interview, and we all know as soon as that line of questioning came up there was nothing I could have said to get that job. This is a much harder nut to crack than getting plays by women produced, but ultimately we must change the perceptions and conversations on family issues to achieve true equity.

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

Modeling gender parity and pointing out or even marketing that one is doing so successfully. Counting numbers of women onstage (and I think we’re now counting those backstage too). Starting/joining support groups or talking informally with others who are seeking the same (strength in numbers and shoulders to cry on). Creating or speaking on panels, writing articles and giving interviews on the subject. Studies documenting the low rates of women in positions of power in both stage and film, and dissemination (isn’t that an interesting word there) of those studies. Rewarding companies that are working within parity, including giving them awards or funding them for that reason. Shaming companies that are not working at or achieving parity. Withholding money: not re-upping a subscription, because who needs to see Wilson, Rabe, Shepard, La Bute and Bogosian all in one season? That’s a rhetorical question.

ACT: What tactics have been most effective or least effective? Why do you think those tactics worked or did not work?

I’m not sure any are or aren’t effective—it’s hard to say what really changes people’s actions in the long-term—but I hate to resort to shaming and feel it should only be a last resort. Over all I think we do better to affirm hiring women rather than bully people into doing it. We are right, but people need to see it’s a benefit to hire women; for long-term change, we need them to hire because they understand why it’s a net plus to do so, not because they are afraid not to, because that fear will subside eventually.

Activism in this area does seem necessary, but the people who are in the best position to change things quickly are those who are in power: ADs, producers, and sometimes directors. When these people make choices that favor gender parity, whether or not we trumpet that fact, the change is made. When that show full of women gets good reviews and that show written by a woman pulls high-brow audiences, the choice is reinforced. So the best way to make changes is to help these people see the light. What reaches them, in my experience, are the following things: the ability to get or do something that makes them look cooler than their peers, get extra funding and either gain new audiences or prevent the loss of existing audiences. As an AD, I wouldn’t listen to random people trying to shame me, but I was susceptible to peer pressure and to wanting to outdo my sister and brother companies; and I wouldn’t listen to audience members who tried to tell me how to do my job artistically, but I did take into account times when they said they’d like us to do more programmatically or logistically—make shows more accessible, for example—as long as it was doable and didn’t contradict our mission. So I think the most effective change agents here will be other ADs and trusted audience members, especially donors and board members.

Over time, we want to make sure affirmative hiring occurs everywhere—that women and people of color are able to work their way up to those positions of power, either within established companies or by having the resources to start their own companies. That’s the single most effective tactic to achieve parity for any disenfranchised group, and it is already happening, slowly, but at increasing rates.

Right now, I’m not sure what else works. I now spend much of the year elsewhere, where I am a newbie seeking work and reliant on others’ impressions of me to get that work. It’s also a much smaller market, where I simply must “get along” in order to get any work at all. Most actors and other contract workers are in a similar position, and I don’t know that it is safe for them to speak up. I canceled the subscription to that all-testosterone-all-the-time season, but I haven’t had the conversation with that company yet because I don’t want to alienate them before I’ve ever gotten to work with them, and I don’t know them well enough to know how to bring it up constructively, though I suspect they might be open to the note.

The activism that definitely does work is to model how we would like to be treated and cast—bring in monologues that are as well-rounded as possible, written by women and, when it makes sense, even roles that were originally intended for men. For those who have it in them, work with others or alone to create your own projects, your own companies that accomplish this work. As Woman’s Will proved, it does trickle up. And even if you can’t do that, keep talking, writing, supporting people who are doing the work that matters in all areas of parity—for women, people of color, actors with disabilities and so on. As theater artists, we have a responsibility to represent the whole community, not just the white male part of it; we have a responsibility not merely to reflect what our audiences expect but to lead them to imagine and desire much more than the status quo.

ACT: How do you measure the effectiveness of your advocacy actions?

I can only speak to the advocacy that Woman’s Will was doing as part of its core activities, but there was plenty to measure there, especially in the following areas:

Anecdotally—Audience members told us our work changed their view of the world and their place in it: one woman told us she finally understood the inner workings of sexual harassment when she saw a tiny woman play Angelo in Measure for Measure; a male stage combat choreographer changed the way he thought about how and why men and women approach violence, which in turn changed his approach to choreography; women in the prisons where we performed told us they were moved to see how strong we were together and that we didn’t need men; our male actors playing women suddenly noticed that women’s roles were smaller and much less active than the ones written for them… each of these epiphanies meant someone was viewing the world onstage and off as inequitable now but changeable.

In numbers and dollars—We never once marketed our shows to men, yet plenty of men came and supported us with donations. Women came too, and families. Audiences in the most conservative reaches of the Bay Area were plentiful. This tells us that there is zero risk in putting on shows full of active women, even women “taking over” men’s roles. The general public is ready for it if we’ll only provide it.

Changes in the field during our tenure—Almost as soon as we started producing, other companies expanded their roles for women, most notably filling more small Shakespeare roles, including ones which fight, with women (a couple companies even tried single all-female productions). That didn’t last forever, mostly because it’s not always artistically viable to throw random cross-gender casting into an otherwise “straight” show, but I did notice many more genuine women’s roles crop up in following years. All-male productions from around the world showed up too—for awhile, gender exploration was cool. Woman’s Will can’t take all the credit, and there was no doubt coincidence played a role, but at the very least it helped producers imagine other ways to cast women. Which leads me to…

Further work by our alumnae—Because there was so little meaningful work for women both onstage and backstage, we were able to attract incredibly talented actors (and designers) even with our tiny budget. When they left us, they had resumes that featured iconic roles like Othello, Iago, Richard III, Pericles, Earnest, Orlando… that told other casting personnel these actors could be trusted to carry a show. Maybe more importantly, our alumnae knew for themselves that they could carry a show. Of course they got their next big roles through their own talent, but that extra leading role credit or that great review got at least some of us through doors that had been shut to us before. It also, in some cases, helped expand how casting personnel saw some of us; I can’t imagine anyone producing a comedy and not at least reading Lizzie Calogero for some role in it, but not many people expected that she would also blow everyone’s minds as Iago. I have never seen anyone anywhere play that role better, and I have no doubt it got her other work.

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

One? Here is the minimum that people should be doing…

If you’re in a “position of power”:

1. Program plays that are by women and/or feature well-rounded women characters, and yes, that’s characters, plural. May in Fool for Love is not good enough.

2. Make sure your casting calls specifically list all roles that could be played by any gender and encourage women to read for any roles that could possibly be played by women. Your shows will automatically be easier to cast because there are plenty of women eager to work.

3. Specifically reach out to artists who are parents to ask them how to make your rehearsal process more possible for them. It’s often much easier than you think, and it helps women both stay in the field and keep their skills sharp. Any changes you make will also help working fathers.

4. Remember when hiring that many women have shorter, less impressive resumes than their male counterparts because there are fewer roles for women performers, and because for both performers and designers, they may have had to take a break or work less if they had kids. Finally, sexism still exists in all sorts of subtle ways—women are rarely considered to direct “male plays” (Shepard, Mamet, Bogosian, etc), which are still the bulk of produced plays, for example. Understand that a sparse resume for a woman may indicate a lack of opportunity, not a lack of ability, so give her serious consideration. If you truly believe she’s worthy but too green, see #5.

5. Mentor a woman.

If you are an audience member, especially if you are a donor or board member:

1. Support theater companies that already strive for gender parity by going to their shows and donating. Let them know you appreciate their efforts.

2. Take young girls and boys both to these shows. Girls have been identifying with male protagonists for years; boys are equally adaptable, especially if they see female protagonists as often as they see male ones.

3. Ask your favorite companies that aren’t producing women why they aren’t. Let them know you are more willing to support them actively when they do, that they won’t lose audiences or donor dollars if they make this important change.

If you are an artist:

1. Include women in meaningful roles in whatever you create. There’s no reason you can’t do it in equal numbers with men, or if one project must be majority male, make your next one majority female. You won’t lack for personnel—females make up 52% of the general population, and we all know there are more of us in the field. Though individual women differ, our social training makes us fairly likely to be able to work collaboratively, and over my career so far, my all-female productions have featured less personal drama than my mixed-gender shows.

2. If you are a woman, do not take no for an answer. Hang around and make yourself invaluable and inevitable. Go out there and make your own work if you have to. I did, and plenty of people (including men) rallied around me—they will rally around you too if your artistry is sound. Don’t give up.

3. Join a board (or a company that seems redeemable) and speak up.

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.

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4 responses to “TACTICS: Interview with Erin Merritt

  1. Yes! I am in awe of you Erin Merritt. What a fantastic interview- really clear suggestions on what to do and how to do it. Engaging in this feminist salon is so incredible in big and little ways. We are filling each other up with ideas, actions and ways of saying what is hard to say. And good news is happening. The tides are shifting. Speaking of which, I was just cast in a show at Tides Theatre and my offer letter included the following which totally blew me away. “we are also brainstorming possible ways to help out with childcare….nanny share?” This company was started by three moms and Wow. That’s what I’m talking about. Miss you here and hope you can come see “Sweet Bird of Youth” this summer while you’re here. Opens July 19th.

  2. Lovely Fontana, you know the feeling is totally mutual. See you soon, and thank you for being the catalyst for this giant leap forward for womankind!

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

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