Valerie Weak is an actor and theater educator. Since 2011, she has been tallying statistics about gender representation through her Counting Actors Project, which has tracked nearly 400 Bay Area professional theater productions. As an actor, her work has been seen at San Francisco Shakespeare Theatre, Center REP, Word for Word, California Shakespeare Theatre. She also leads trainings for California police officers and physicians through model patient programs at UCSF and Stanford University. She is a member of Actors Equity and of the Theatre Bay Area Gender Parity Advisory Panel.
WWSF: What is the path that brought you to working in theater?
VW: I grew up with a fantastic community theater that did plays for kids and families with kids playing kid characters and adults playing adult characters. It was a place that was very safe and full of friendly and caring people of all ages – a true community. That was my initial interest, and things branched out from there.
WWSF: Who are some of the artists who have influenced and inspired you?
VW: Wow. I’m finding this hard to answer. I’ll describe a particular moment. I was in college in LA when Angels in America premiered at the Taper. I grew up in the Bay Area so I remembered the title and that it had been a big deal at the Eureka, but I hadn’t seen it and didn’t know what it was at all. I got a free student ticket to see Part 1 and Part 2 all in one day. We got there with just enough time to sit down, and then it started. No reading the program. This teeny little man was a Rabbi in the opening scene and then I never saw him again. It wasn’t until I was able to read the program at an intermission that I realized that the man was actor Kathleen Chalfant, who also played Joe’s mother and several other roles in the production. I had seen women play cross gender at the then Berkeley Shakespeare Festival but always in a classical or stylized setting. This was the first time I saw cross gender work in a contemporary play. I was incredibly moved by the transformative work of the actor, and that transformation is what I always find inspiring in theater.
WWSF: Describe a moment from your artistic life or career that you’re particularly proud of, a touchstone moment for you.
VW: When I did SITI Company’s Skidmore training intensive, our final devised piece was A Midsummer Night’s Dream mash-up that had a 1930’s Dust Bowl aesthetic, and I played Titania kind of as the iconic Migrant Mother from the Dorothea Lange photo. That piece of culminating work, which was only seen by people from the intensive, was a really powerful piece, with a very physical fight with the Oberon character, a comic sequence that was a sort of silent movie, and a focus on the friendship between Titania and the changeling boy’s mother – her pregnant friend who died in child birth. It was only 15 minutes long, but it had a little bit of everything.
WWSF: You launched the Counting Actors Project in 2011 and have since single-handedly tallied gender statistics for nearly 400 Bay Area theater productions. What made you want to undertake this project, and what has motivated you to continue it?
VW: I started the project because I had the feeling that I was being gaslighted. I joined Actors Equity and stopped working. Like ground to a halt. Had I suddenly started sucking or was it something systemic or some combo? The project started as a way for me to find out just how much work was available in my community and who was getting that work. I’ve continued my efforts because of what I started learning from looking at the numbers (like how few women writers get produced; and if it weren’t for new plays, those numbers would be nearly non-existent,) and because I’ve realized that as the pile of shows counted gets larger, the more the picture of systemic gender imbalance in the theater comes into focus.
WWSF: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
VW: The concept that a male story is universal and a female story is ‘for chicks’ is a huge systemic challenge. The ‘canon’ of traditional repertory is a challenge. The cultural circumstances that make it so a man in a dress is hilarious, but a woman in pants doesn’t get a strong reaction are a challenge. I could keep going. Many of these challenges are deeply rooted in Western culture, which celebrates men for the value of their actions and women for the value of their appearance.
WWSF: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
VW: Allies and alliances are giving me hope. The fact that conversations about representation are bubbling up in all corners is exciting. Male artistic directors choosing to program a season of all female playwrights, and Shakespeare festivals choosing to do all female casts give me hope. Each time I hear about a playwright who uses the Bechdel Test as part of their process, or a director who champions a female writer, I feel hopeful.
Note: Coming up soon, Counting Actors’ February stats – stay tuned!