“The rarest of all women.”
-Winter’s Tale (V.1)
Of the 981 characters in Shakespeare’s canon, 826 are men while only 155 are women. Women account for less than 16% of written Shakespearean characters. The absence of female opportunity is mirrored behind the scenes of, not only Shakespeare plays, but most professional theatrical productions. Female scenic and property designers make up only 22% of the professional field, and lighting designers and sound designers have an even smaller female representation, with 16% and 14% respectively.*
After looking at these percentages, our Shakespeare On The Green company this year is pretty special. Nebraska Shakespeare is proud to have a cast that is almost 40% female and a production team made up of nearly all women.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, I would like introduce you to a few of the bright, talented, female artists that will be working on King Lear and The Merry Wives of Windsor this summer!
How did you choose this vocation (or did it choose you)?
Honestly? A little of both. I was at boarding school and my RA was worried I wasn't getting out enough - she suggested I attend an after school meeting of the tech theatre club and I sort of never left. The combination of art, collaboration, and organization needed to do this work has always managed to challenge my heart and brain in a way that no other "job" has.
It chose me; but I think it is important to participate to do whatever I can to contribute. The dynamics of our country are too volatile to not participate.
I was a theatre and art major and hadn't figured out that the two might go together into an actual job. I needed a professor to point out that I was good at it. A student should not underestimate the power of one great class.
It chose me. I went to college to study acting. The school I went to does not allow freshmen to audition, but required us to work on technical crews our first year, and I was put onto the lighting crew for our first show, which was a musical. I was blown away by what lighting was able to do during a production and have been involved with it ever since.
It definitely chose me. I graduated high school wanting to go to culinary school and open my own bakery. Went to a community college with no cooking classes. Fell into illustration, then used those skills for the theatre and found out props requires all the skills in multiple fields that I enjoy. Now I am a devout properties technician.
We had the challenge of 'sound designing' an Edgar Allan Poe piece in college and I went above and beyond what was required because that is how it HAD TO BE DONE. Adding a soundscape to a poem allowed the audience to experience a familiar piece in an unfamiliar way. Without sound, it was just a (brilliant) poem they have heard a hundred times. Using sound to comment on action, enhance drama/comedy, illicit a physical response, create excitement/sadness/anger and explore all other purposeful ways sound could add to a production became really important to me after that.
Do you feel your gender gives you a different
viewpoint on your art? If yes, how so?
I think our gender gives us all a different viewpoint on everything we do, not just those of us doing art. But, yes, I do think that I design with a particular approach because I'm a woman - I'd almost say I design defensively. This has traditionally been a man's field (both theatre itself and scene design in particular). I think that, because of that, I strive to create designs that push boundaries and are deeply rooted in the text of the piece - I want to make sure all of my choices are justified because I work with the assumption that at some point some decision I have made will be challenged and I'll need to defend it. As a woman in this discipline, I personally would rather that my art never seem "male" or "female" ... I don't want the audience to know that I'm woman from my design.
I suppose it does, but not in the “average” way, or at least what I perceive as the “average” way. I think maybe women are so focused on being undermined, insulted, etc. that they concentrate on their voices being heard. But I think I make decisions comparing (in my brain) what a male and a female might do/say/react in any particular moment…and then make my decisions/answers/conversations, etc. based on BOTH genders.
Maybe not a different viewpoint, but a slight preference for designing more women's costumes, in a world where so many plays are heavily populated by men.
Possibly, although I've never thought about it that way. I approach a project from an emotional standpoint pretty consistently, and that could have something to do with being a woman, but I can't say definitively.
For sure. The women in tech theatre I've noticed are generally costumers or painters. Sometimes electricians. Of course they're all fantastic and admirable. I've grown so accustomed to being the only woman in a scene shop that I don't really get affected by it anymore. I no longer feel like I have to prove myself exactly, only that I have to be sharp and not make stupid mistakes because stupidity is unproductive. Artistically, I feel like being a woman in this industry adds patience to my life. As in, the need for patience.
That would be a 'heck yeah.' Being a lady gives me an understanding of the privilege I do and do not have. I remember being on tour with my band in California and walking into a venue to have the door guy ask me whose girlfriend I was. People assume your role because of your gender. That is changing in some mindsets, but for the most part, the music industry is a man's world still. Women have been unsung heroes in music until just recently. Social media and publications like She Shreds have given women's voices a wider range of exposure. Girls are seeing representation on stage more often, which is important. Women are demanding respect in their fields. (Did you know that Louie Armstrong's wife, Lil, wrote most of his hits?)
What have been the biggest challenges and/or
opportunities of being a woman in your field?
Hah, which field? I started in this business working in scene and prop shops. Those jobs are especially tough on women in a way that I would assume is similar to what women in construction jobs encounter. I think that in general the field has gotten more progressive over the years - I know plenty of female carpenters and technical directors - but there is still the inherent sexism of, "Hey little lady let me help you with that big scary saw." As a designer, my challenges are usually in how I communicate with those shops as an artist versus as a technician. I think that in the last few years, specifically, the opportunities of being a woman designing scenery are focused on the outreach - how do we make this art about being strong role models for the next generation, just like in many other fields. Because there were traditionally less women doing this, my generation is still (I believe) enjoying a little bit of the benefits of the "novelty" of having a female scenic designer ... although I'd be perfectly alright with losing that and just being hired on the basis of my work.
I think my biggest challenges are the same as many women. Lack of respect, opinion not being listened to, actually being cut off while I talk/express an idea, the butt of female jokes (jokes of anatomy, etc.); and just in general, not taken as seriously. When I was younger, I knew it was because I was female and young and a thin resume. But now, I have age and maturity, I have the resume….so it becomes very apparent which shortcomings occur because of my sex.
I am surrounded by many women in the costume shop, supporting me, challenging me (in a good way). One challenge is that, when costume designers are women, it can be assumed that the process is very arts and crafts, as opposed to a fine art.
I think that I am often underestimated, or talked down to, by the men in my field. In addition to being a woman, I look much younger than I actually am, and therefore people often assume I need to be taught. Although I don't know everything, and will never claim to, I do often have to deal with this aspect before I can get to the point of accomplishing what I actually need to know.
Being allowed to speak. Thanks to some very uplifting mentors, I have learned how to be loud and get my side of a situation out there in words in a meeting, but there were times team members would make expectations of me or my crew that were unrealistic and I would get talked over or ignored while trying to make the actual possibilities clear. Assumptions are never good.
A sound designer has a challenge with every show because EVERYONE knows something about music and some directors are used to doing the sound themselves so there might be a difficult time giving that control over to a designer. I love celebrating women in music. I look for every opportunity to build other women up.
Does your design process change when
you are working on Shakespeare?
Shakespeare in general? No. Shakespeare in the Park? Absolutely! I approach pretty much all shows in the same way - read it, research it, discuss it, adjust until it's right. The unique challenge of the repertory in the park is that I need to find a way to merge the needs and aesthetics of two sometimes completely disparate show concepts. Last summer the shows ended up having more in common than we expected at the onset so the final set grew together relatively organically. This summer ... I'm not so sure yet.
Not in who I am as a person, or a stage manager. There is a level of elevation I like to always achieve on any project; but I am more aware of it during Shakespeare. Part of that is because of my respect for the company, the language, the text. Of course, there is always the equity factor, the fact that there are more males many times; you have to keep proving you not only have the job, can do the job, and know what you are doing….but that you can actually achieve the job without sex (or “being sexy”) being a factor.
For Shakespeare, especially outdoors, everything needs to be bigger and bolder to be readable for the audience. Tiny details, like embroidery, small buttons and shoe details, while nice additions, cannot be seen by 2/3 of the audience.
No. I approach it as I would any other production. I feel like there is more room to push the aesthetic with Shakespeare because the work is so bold, but my general approach remains the same.
Probably not much. This is my first summer with the company but I have worked with Nebraska Shakespeare's Director of Production before and I think the system of organization I used previously worked well with him, thus with all other departments. I am open to altering my process as needed. I'm not yet sure what the deadlines are for prop cuts/adds/changes, but that is very important. Going in, my process will be the same. I do expect it to change though.
It doesn't change from other theatrical productions. I gather or write as much music/sound as I can before rehearsals begin. I call it building a 'bank' to share with the director. The director usually listens on his/her own time and then we sit down and talk about the feel of the show and where we definitely need sound/music, where we could have sound/music, etc. During rehearsals, I will listen to options from the bank with headphones in to see what fits and once I have an idea, I play things out loud at rehearsal to see how it enhances/changes/fights against the scene. Then we make decisions and BAM! we have a sound design.
Describe your artistic philosophy in one sentence
and three hashtags.
Art is what centers us, inspires us, and connects us to one another; it is a fundamental expression of our human experience.
Art should be expressed truthfully, from the heart, mind and soul.
Just because you can dress yourself, doesn't mean you're a costume designer.
I really enjoy working as a part of a full production team and allowing our ideas to inspire each other to create a cohesive world for the characters to inhabit.
Art lays bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers- Anne Bogart
Thanks to all these wonderful (and extraordinarily busy) women for providing their wisdom, experience, and expertise for this interview. Please join us this summer to see these professionals do what they do best.
Personally, I cannot wait to get started.
*-National study completed during the 2015-2016 season. Published on theatrewomen.com