Panelists offer insight into gender bias in theater

Last Thursday, an audience gathered in the Adams Memorial Theatre to listen to a panel discuss the biases its members have encountered as women in theater — both in academia and in the industry. The panel consisted of Helga Davis, a professional performer and creator; Mandy Greenfield, artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival; Amy Holzapfel, chair of the College’s theatre department; Natalie Robin, a New York-based lighting designer who is currently advising senior theses in the theatre department; Alexis Soloski, New York Times theatre critic; and Kristen Van Ginhoven, Artistic director and co-founder of WAM Theatre.

Holzapfel began by showing a powerpoint of various statistics on those involved in theatre, including that 77 percent of theatre audiences are female, but 80 percent of playwrights are male and 90 percent are white. There is very little data on writers and actors who identify as transgender, but out of the entire 2015 New York City season, only five productions included trans characters. In terms of leadership in the League of Regional Theatres (LORT), the Artistic Director roles are almost exclusively held by white men (54 in total), distantly followed by white women (14) and men of color (5). There is only one woman of color in the role of artistic director, and the executive director role looks even more dismal. 34 white men hold that title, followed by 19 white women, with no men or women of color in the role. This seems to be the trend in every theater role, with the exception of costume designers and stage managers.

In terms of role opportunities, the film industry is even worse. Only 29 percent of protagonists and 32 percent of speaking roles are given to women. The resounding message of this panel seemed to be, “Why are women’s stories somehow deemed less worthy or less interesting than the stories of men?”

“Women get taught very early to imagine themselves into male characters … for men there are not the same automatic expectations, that you will imagine yourself into Jane Eyre,” Soloski said. “There is an expectation still that women will be interested in men’s stories. But what about the men that come to the theatre and it’s a story about women? What are they gonna do?”

As a critic and theater-goer, Soloski said, “I want to hear about people who are a lot like me and I want to hear about people who are not like me at all, and that means that we need a diversity of makers and we need a diversity of critics. We need a diversity of experiences.”

Yet even more troubling were the numerous accounts of subtle (and not so subtle) sexism that these women have experienced. Although Robin has “never had the experience of someone saying to me, ‘You’re not going to get the job because you’re a woman,’ clearly something is happening that is causing these statistics.” She went on to talk about how difficult it is for designers with children to work. “When I’m in tech [rehearsal], I’m there [at the theatre] for 16 hours a day for six days,” Robin said. “In off-Broadway, it costs more to pay your babysitter than you have made designing that show — a whole show — and you can’t pay for tech.”

Soloski recounted her numerous interactions with box office attendants who assumed she was not a theater critic. “I’d say, ‘Hi, Soloski, it’s press.’ And they’d look over my shoulder…And then I learned that they all assumed I was a small Russian man, Alexi Soloski,” Soloski said. I don’t think there was a quality of my writing that was particularly masculine or particularly Slavic, but there it was. Because theater critics don’t look like me … There are very few women doing this.”

Davis, by comparison, focused on racial matters. “[The] issue of race is the thing that hits me first,” Davis said. “And then right behind that is the way it hits in that I am a woman and black. I have gone to and tried very hard to be in more commercial kinds of work, and I would show up in this body, with this hair, and I would open my mouth to sing, and I would open my mouth to speak, and I would hear things [such as], ‘oh wow, you speak so well,’ and I can’t believe people are still saying that or having that issue. And then I didn’t look the way they thought I should look and — God help me — I didn’t sing they way they thought I should sing.” Although she is a popular radio personality on New York Public Radio, Davis also experiences racism among her audience. “I can’t tell you how many times I met people from my audiences who were shocked to find out I was Afri-can-American,” she said.

Overall, the panel delivered some insight into how much white cis men dominate the theater world and offered small solutions. All of the panelists endorsed the idea of having this conversation and bringing awareness to the issue of institutional inequity and that the best solution is to raise each other up. “When you love something, don’t be cool about it,” Soloski said. “Tell all your friends about it [because] men are rewarded for their potential. Women are rewarded for what they’ve already done,” she said.