Summer 2015 was the genesis of a thought: Write about powerful women in Los Angeles Theater. Focus upon a more cohesive picture of theater culture. Open up a dialog about what the landscape really looked like for women. And discuss their integration in the performing arts.
There was this temptation of course to be the underdog. In the last year alone, I’ve read article after article, tweet after post in social media online – all talking about women in film or women in media. This included a possible unprecedented election of a first U.S. female president. But yet, if anyone mentioned women in theater at all… it was mostly related to Broadway. Women in Los Angeles theater were consistently left out of the “big picture.”
Even more perplexing were my private conversations with a few leaders of organizations who regularly promoted women.
“Oh I don’t think I have anything valuable to say. Ask her…” was a consistent response.
Female actors, writers, producers, A.D.s, builders, and more, participate uniquely in Los Angeles theater every day. In fact, nearly every production you will see has their direct hand or influence in the telling of a great story. “Then why is it hard to be visible?” I kept thinking anyway.
So I asked co-Artistic Directors Danielle Ozymandias (Broad’s Word Ensemble / Sacred Fools Theatre Company) and Alicia Conway Rock (Sacred Fools Theatre Company) to open an off-handed dialog about various personal experiences that might encourage more women to be comfortably vocal with the vital roles they play. Come clean with their successes, challenges they face or even explain their resistance (or not) to address the very conversation I’d like to ignite. To be continued I hope… yes! That means share your thoughts and comments with Footlights below or by email.
Style and communication – let’s start there.
Danielle: I make statements when I communicate. I’m definitive, honest and up-front. Recently I was drafting notes to my sound designer who continuously argued with me on several points. I realized I probably could have gotten further with her if I had used the expressions, “I think” or “I feel”. Because that’s traditionally how women communicate.
Alicia: I try to understand how somebody else will understand me. I’m careful about how I ask for things. I make a point to be inclusive and say please, so I’m not brusque. For example I’ll say, “This will work” or “Here’s why this isn’t working” as opposed to “What you need to do is…” or “lt’s just this thought or feeling I have…” I never get pushback.
I spent many years on the road as a field producer for television walking into strangers’ houses that I’ve never met and say, “Hi I need you to trust me…” The ‘ask’ is big. So you have to be very clear. Of course, I’ve had a lot of practice at messing up. But you hone your ability and improve.
Moving up the ranks…
Alicia: Shortly after becoming an official member of Sacred Fools Theatre Company in 2015, I got nominated to be an Artistic Director while working on Candide. I was shocked. There were 17 other incredibly qualified people running. Truth is though, I’m pretty confident. I knew I’d be good at the job. I couldn’t prove it yet.
Danielle: I also wanted to be involved in leadership. I have a ton of experience. But they hadn’t seen it. I wasn’t immersed in the politics and thought. “I won’t be elected. I’m too new. They’ll just know I’m interested for next time.” As I listened to myself during a Q&A with the company I thought, I wouldn’t vote for me. But they did. One of the A.D.’s later said, “It’s clear that you’re accountable.
You run your own female theater company…
Danielle: Fifteen years ago I belonged to a theater group that did a lot of slapped together stuff. And, the A.D. was also super sexist. Women walked into auditions and felt judged, but not on talent. I said, “Screw this!” and started producing at The Elephant Theatre. Lindsay Allbaugh took me under her wing. She gave me a checklist and a calendar and said, “This is how it’s done.” I became good at it.
In 2013 a group of us started Broad’s World Ensemble. I wanted to do all-female/female-centric shows with large casts of women; new, eccentric, classical plays that would never get off the ground elsewhere. At first we were a committee of ladies. But we discovered committees don’t work. They elected me Artistic Director.
Do you apply the Bechtel Test?
Danielle: We talk about it. But that’s such a low bar. That’s never what we’re aiming for. We have widely different ideas and disagree on many things. But our core drive is, “Is the story about a woman?”
How does communication play out in various groups?
Alicia: There’s this idea that there’s a way women are and there’s a way men are. The truth is you’re just a group of individuals whose experiences overlap.
Danielle: I’ve noticed though in a group of men and women, often women get talked over or down to and the women are more silent.
Alicia: It’s a cultural habit. A study I read says men perceived that women dominated a conversation if they spoke only a small percentage of the time. They think, “Can we get back to normal?” because they’re accustomed to controlling the conversation.
Danielle: Women are not necessarily raised to expect that their story will be valid or heard or validated by others as opposed to a man’s.
And in the media?
Alicia: I used to not pay attention to my reviews. But I’ve started to notice where I’m literally not mentioned as the director of my own productions. At first I thought I was just being sensitive or irrational or too feminist. But my male friends seem to get reviews touting their incredible artistry where mine ignore I exist.
How can women help shift the behavior?
Danielle: I think more women who do the work for starters. That extends to women reviewers.
Alicia: I don’t think women need to step up randomly in a vacuum. We do need to show up for each other. There are plenty of women who would do the work but feel that they don’t bring enough, or won’t be received well, so they self-limit. But it’s not a zero sum game. The truth is, if you have an artistic drive then you need to just do the work. If one place isn’t giving you that opportunity, find another. You can learn a skill. There’s no reason not to go for it.
Danielle: There are plenty of women taking huge risks regularly. But I think as a group, it’s more common to do what’s prudent, to play it safe. You have to be a little brave and not back off. You ask, “What is the task that needs to be done? What do I not know? Who do I need to talk to? What do I need to learn?” Then figure it out.
Has the 99-Seat Plan played a part in your trajectory?
Danielle: Any time you have a situation where a return needs to be made on a monetary investment, it makes it harder for women to be at the helm of a project. Without it, our pool may shrink, and we may stop being able to do new and innovative story telling. There’s this pervasive myth that women’s stories don’t sell as well as men’s. So I can’t imagine that I could have become a director without 99-Seat.
Alicia: I wouldn’t be directing theater. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be doing theater at all. So I do think it stacks the deck against women because the perception is that taking a gamble on a woman is a real risk for investors. Making change doesn’t benefit your pocketbook unless it can be proven. Right now there’s a place where people can engage in craft at relatively low, personal risk as opposed to a showcase situation where you have a huge investment that has to make money. Showcase creates infrastructure, which is great. But the more important thing for art is that it creates room for risk. Without risk, you’re not making art. You’re making a product.
For women it’s a choice. If you’re any good at your job, if you’re invested, there’s opportunity.