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An Open Letter, Revisited

Today I am upset with gender dynamics. In that way, today is like most days. I'm frequently upset by that, and many other related things. But today, I am very frustrated. So, I wanted to revive a short piece I wrote a few years ago, in 2017.


An Open Letter To The Man Who Called Me Sweetie:


Call me sweetie like it hurts. Like a slap in the face, like a splinter in the heart, like I am something to be defined by sugar and spice and everything nice, to be crystallized, caramelized, melt in your mouth and at your words — call me sweetie. Call me sweetie and take that platform away from me like I’m not strong enough to lift it, as if you could do this better than me, as if the sweat and sawdust that I am covered in just magically appeared and I didn’t work for it. But I get it. Oh, I get it, this is the set, the stage, the theatre, and this is your space, to wield drills and saws and wood and words and there is no room for someone of my gender.


Ask anyone to name a playwright and they will most likely give you Shakespeare, possibly Miller. Followed by Williams, Wilde, Ibsen, Shaw, Brecht, Pinter, Moliere, Aristophanes, Euripides, Sophocles, the list goes on. How many people have ever heard of Caryl Churchill? Elizabeth Cary, Margaret Cavendish, Elizabeth Inchbald, Hannah Cowley, Lorraine Hansberry? These are more historical playwrights but to this day male playwrights overshadow their female (and gender non conforming) counterparts. Some claim this is simply because ‘women can’t write as well as men,’ but let’s face it. That’s bullshit.


In 2009, Princeton economics student Emily Glassberg Sands conducted an experiment to uncover the disparities between genders in playwriting. She submitted the same play to literary managers across the country under two different names: Michael Walker and Mary Walker. And guess what? “Mary’s” play was judged far more harshly than “Michael’s.” Sands then looked at Broadway, where less than 1 in 8 shows have female authors. Despite their rarity, those shows actually sell 16% more tickets, on average, than shows written by men. But those shows are often cancelled after the same run length or a shorter run length than less profitable, male-authored shows. And, of the plays that are produced in a year in the United States of America, only about 22% are written by women. But the problem only starts there.


Even in plays written by women, women are rarely featured. The theatrical industry carries around this sort of Shakespearean inheritance, as if behind every artistic director there is a stuffy, old white man in a lace collar whispering “Excuse thee, women art not allowed in mine playhouse,” and begging theatre artists to return to the ‘good old days of yore’ where men are the only ones allowed. This ancient mentality stunts modern growth in many regards: as Stella Duffy, actor, author, and director, states, "When we do not see ourselves on stage we are reminded, yet again, that the people running our world … do not notice when we are not there. That they think men (and yes, white, middle-class, middle-aged, able-bodied men at that) are all we need to see."

Take a look around at high school theatre companies across the country and you will actually see a majority of female actors. That majority continues into the professional level but you’d never guess because so many are out of work or relegated to lesser roles simply because so few shows feature women. And, when so many women audition for such a small number of parts, every single feature is taken into consideration, so roles can be lost over wide hips or a crooked nose. A couple years ago, Pioneer High School student Libby Hollman created a psychology project to discover bias in casting choices and you want to guess what she found? A more “classically” attractive person will almost always win out over a less attractive but more talented person. This can create an atmosphere of hatred and envy between actresses and propagates the idea that a woman’s worth is only based on her physical appearance.


Oh, and that physical appearance most definitely cannot include bulging muscles. Which brings me back to technical theatre. From a physical standpoint, women are considered weak, fragile, better suited for sitting or sweeping. In our society, physical strength is revered as a masculine trait. When I say the words “construction work,” the image that will pop into most minds is that of a large, imposing and muscular man, usually in a yellow hat. Very few people will picture someone like me. So when I go to work at the Riverside Theatre in Ypsilanti and the director tells middle aged men to report to me in regards to set construction, they blanch. Some look around to make sure that a 17 year old girl is really about to be their boss and that some lumbering 38 year old man with epic tattoos isn’t about to jump out and take my place. The theatre industry is steeped in this mentality. Women often find themselves as the only one in a set shop full of men. You’d assume this means women are more welcome in a costuming department, right? But no. Women make up only 31% of costume designers. Women have been and are considered both physically weak and artistically incapable, so women are also excluded from the design process. Women make up only 21% of scenic designers, 13% of lighting designers, and 8% of all sound designers.


Throughout history, theatre has been used and viewed as a force for social change, for highlighting wrongdoings and for bettering our world. From Greek political satire to Brechtian Theatre of the Oppressed to the Federal Theatre Project to Rent and to Hamilton, theatre has been a voice for those who feel voiceless. So, why is this industry so behind in gender equality. And, more importantly, what can we do about it? For one, we attend female written shows. We support female actors, directors, designers, we write our own shows, we especially support female playwrights, actors, directors, designers, and technicians of color. We support queer women, differently-abled women, people who aren't women and don't subscribe to a gender binary, we support all those who have been kept out of the halls of theatrical power for so long. We keep going. We keep writing and speaking and lifting and sewing and we prove that we can. We scrub graphite stains from our hands, we bandage blisters from character shoes, we wipe the sawdust from our brows, scrape fabric glue from fingers, we prove it. We prove it so that one day we won’t have to.


So, to that old man who dared take my platform, I refuse to be called sweetie. I refuse to be candied, to sugarcoat this to fit your worldview. I will not be the concessions at a show when I have poured my soul into the theatre. I have a feeling no one really likes the taste of sawdust anyways.


Sources:

1. “Rethinking Gender Bias in Theatre” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/24/theater/24play.html

2. Women in Theatre: Why Do So Few Make it to the Top?” https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/dec/10/women-in-theatre-glass-ceiling

3. “Sexism in Theatre Infographic” http://www.indiewire.com/2015/06/sexism-in-theatre-infographic-women-fill-9-of-sound-jobs-underrepresented-in-most-design-fields-203384/


Picture: https://www.americantheatre.org/2017/02/14/chicago-theatres-gender-breakdown-its-not-good/


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