by Joan Lancourt
It’s an old story – too old for the 21st century and getting stale! In a recent HowlRound, they asked, “Where are the women?” Well, there were about 50+ of us at the StageSource sponsored Sat. morning meeting on Gender Parity at the Boston Playwrights’ Theater in Boston, along with a noticeable number of men. There were women of all ages, representing many facets of the theater world. The energy built through the morning, until it was clear that there was a shared commitment to more than just ‘another conversation’.
As we talked, an analysis began to emerge. It’s a systemic problem. Just raising awareness isn’t enough. We have to actually change the status quo. We have to create a new norm.
Creating a new norm means it’s no longer acceptable to have ‘best’ (as in “We choose the best plays.”) defined by men. And it’s not just about numbers, it’s about seeing our stories on stage. So, it’s no longer acceptable to have women included primarily as love or sex objects. Or to have older actresses told “Sorry, we have nothing in your demographic.” And it’s absolutely no longer acceptable to have plays about white men considered universal, while plays about women are considered to have a limited audience. Lee Mikeska Gardner, the new artistic director of The Nora Theatre Company gave lie to that old chestnut. The Nora’s mission for the last 25+ years has been to do plays that give voice to women. They’re still at it, so the audience is clearly not that limited; and their next 3 plays are by women, will be directed by women, and of the 8 roles, 6 are women.
Very quickly, the talked turned to what it would actually take to create a new norm. Changing the status quo is never easy. Talk is cheap; action is hard. It takes grit and determination, and real commitment. My definition of commitment is doing something when it’s not convenient. It’s about making choices of where to put your time and energy when there are conflicting demands. And it’s about organizing to create power. No existing power structure has ever given its power away voluntarily. If we want to be at the so-called ‘table’, if we want to be a representative part of the decision making process in theater institutions of all sizes, if we want gender parity, we will have to organize. Our power lies in our numbers, not individually, but collectively.
There were calls to “fracture the glass ceiling until it no longer exists”; to “mobilize the audiences whose stories are not being told”; to “confront the theaters that have ‘traditional’ seasons”; and “Being nice won’t do it. I haven’t been ‘nice’ in a very long time.” These sentiments captured the sense of urgency that filled the room, but they were supported by dozens of pragmatic ideas about the specific steps and actions that were needed to achieve real gender parity.
The goals of ‘50/50 by 2020’ had a nice ring of simplicity to it. The need for better data was explored in some depth: there are no shared national definitions of what we’re counting, no shared reporting methodologies, no shared language. Are we looking at snap shots or trends? How can we compare fringe, small, midsize and large theaters? And fabulously, thanks to the power of tweeting, one participant piped up –“I just tweeted my husband. He’s a data guru and he volunteered to help us analyze the data we collect.”
And the ideas continued to flow: We need to look at our boards; I carry a list of 10 favorite plays by women so when someone say’s ‘I can’t find good plays by women,’ I just pull out my list; how about crowd sourcing the data collection; how about ‘power mapping’ the decision makers; we need to get the audiences, donors, and boards all pushing for gender parity; let’s identify which theaters are not representing gender parity; how about a 50/50 Award; women are the primary ticket buyers – how do we leverage that; how about a Forum in which each theater has to report its own data on gender parity; what about a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval that theaters could display in their lobby and programs; how about plays being submitted anonymously; let’s run a workshop to encourage male playwrights to write about women; let’s build relationships with other social justice organizations and with groups that are not currently coming to the theater; and don’t forget university theater departments. The possibility of a Roundtable of ED’s and ADs at which we would present an Action Plan garnered a lot of favorable nods.
There were suggestions for individual actions as well: let’s target out state reps; give theater tickets as gifts; carefully choose your monologues when you audition; make sure you go to plays by and about women and take others with you; and get more men involved.
By the end of the meeting, the energy had increased. It was palpable: not angry or bitter but determined, feeling the strength of the moral high ground, and the potential of harnessing the collective power in the room. Nineteen people signed up for the task force that will sift through all the ideas and come up with an action plan. That’s more than 1/3 of the attendees! Even if only ½ of them actually come, that’s a good critical mass. Stay tuned – or better yet, join us. We’re having our first task force meeting on June 2 at 10am at the StageSource office.
Dr. Joan Lancourt is currently Chair of the Underground Railway Theater Board of Directors. Her recent 3-part article, “Why Boards Don’t Need to Be Bored: New Challenges and Best Practices for Not-for-Profit Theater Boards” appeared in HowlRound, ArtsEmerson’s Center for the Theater Commons. Her career spans work in the public, not-for-profit, and corporate worlds. She was an Executive Coach in the Achieving Excellence Executive Development Program at the Kennedy School for 10 years; she has worked at Digital Equipment Corp. and Arthur D. Little as a management and organizational consultant, both in the US and internationally. Prior to that, she held various positions in the pubic, not-for-profit and academic sectors, in health care cost containment, mental health, foster care and public welfare. She has a Ph.D. from the Heller School at Brandeis and an MSW from UCLA. She is a published author of multiple articles and books on community organizing (“Confront or Concede, The Alinsky Citizen Action Organizations”), organizational management and development, and leading organizational change (“Intentional Revolutions, A Seven Point Strategy for Transforming Organizations”). She is a long-time progressive political activist, with hobbies that include photography, travel, antiquing, cooking, and learning about Asian art.