Monday, August 23, 2010

Equality starts with encouragement

This weekend I attended the first annual Chicago anti theatre conference. I had a fabulous time talking to some really talented people and will be posting ideas that came out of the conference over the next few days.

First I'd like to go back to the subject of women in theatre. I was initially speaking about my experiences as a female technician. This weekend I continued the conversation with female playwrights, directors and administrators and I think that their opinions really helped me clarify some of my own.

First, in speaking with these other women I realize that I am lucky to have found such supportive female mentors.  A few women spoke in the room about finding other women to be their harshest critics, that an older generation of women have taken a competitive attitude of "I had to work really hard to get here and you're crazy if you think some young woman is going to come take it from me." (for a specific experience check out Kate Powers post on the 2amtheatre site). Maybe it is because there are fewer female technicians, or maybe because technical work is somewhat less competitive, I have always found the women around me to be incredibly supportive and encouraging of one another. Especially when I was working as a tech director, the other female tech directors I encountered took extra time to take me under their wings and guide me as much as they could, and I, in turn, have tried to do the same for other female carpenters and tech directors.

One of the panelists in the "gender equality" discussion described her efforts to encourage female playwrights. This particular company pulled members of the community, actors and other artists who seemed to have a story to tell, and hosted playwriting workshops for them.  Through the workshops they were taught the basics of how to construct a script and were able to work through the process with a mentor. Some of these women came out of the workshops with excellent pieces of theatre that have gone on to be performed in other venues. It is not that women are less talented, or even less interested in the long run; I am beginning to believe that the difference is in encouragement.

I never would have had the career that I have had so far if Armie, my mentor, hadn't suggested it to me. My freshman year of college I thought I wanted to be a high-school drama teacher (after one education class I knew I didn't). I never would have thought of becoming a technical director except that Armie pulled me aside and told me "you're pretty good at this, you could be incredibly successful." That little seed was all I needed, but how many women have that seed planted? If we don't see women playwrights, or women tech directors or women artistic directors around us, are we thinking to encourage female students to pursue those fields?

I am reminded of a professor who spoke to a group of women when I was in college on the subject of equal encouragement. "When a young women tells people she wants to be a teacher," he explained, "people in her life will often tell her how great that is. When a young man expresses an interest in teaching, he is more likely to have people ask him if he wants to become a college professor." There is nothing wrong with becoming a high school teacher of course, but there is something wrong when a young man is asked to push himself just a little bit harder, into a more competitive, higher-paid field, and a young women is not.

I find myself in endless, fruitless debates at times about what is to be done to combat the gender disparity in our culture. Why do we have to force diversity? Doesn't that amount to reverse discrimination? It's not an easy question to answer right now, and maybe the best we can do in the moment is some artificial formula for diversity. But we have so much opportunity to change the future. We can start right now by encouraging artists and technicians as early as possible to dream a little bigger and reach a little higher.

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