Shop Talk: Women in the Theater
A co-presentation of Vertigo Theater Company and BRIC Arts Media
A salon style gathering, a conversation, usually held in a more intimate venue of home and table opened its doors and brought the table talk to the public.
The guests were: Maria Goyanes, Marsha Norman, Ginia Bellafante (moderator), Shakina Nayfack and Tamilla Woodard.
The topic: Women in the theatre. A woman’s place, can it be where ever she wants it to be?
The room was set up with a dining table in the center, by the table a stand with bottles of wines in an ice bucket and on the dining table several decanters of water. The participants entered the room with a glass already in hand and in the 90 minutes of honest truth telling and the explosion of ideas flying around the space, no one had the time nor inclination to replenish their drink.
The moderator, Gina Bellafante, opened the discussion with a reference to Madeline Albright’s quote, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” and how does the panel feel about this?
The quote became a launching point for the evening, starting with the idea that we are critical of women who are successful, we assign motive to a woman which we don’t for a man. When women wear their ambition, we label it in negatives.
How should we handle our ambition? Marsha Norman said when she came up, the door had been opened for her and other women, and she just thought the door would stay open. But it has since closed and no one thought to put their foot in the door to keep it if even slightly ajar. Women, Marsha continued, should not get to go through the door until we have held it open for someone else. Support of other women. Support of their ambition.
So many people, young and old, men and women, feel that “women’s issues” have been taken care of and they can check that off as done and move on. But it is not. We still do not get equal pay, women playwrights are produced far less than their male counterparts. Female directors and producers all make up a fraction of those in the theatre.
Our struggle to be given space continues and may be losing ground rapidly as was illustrated by two women in the evening’s talkback. A young woman asked how she can let her friends know that calling yourself a “feminist” is not a bad thing? “So many young women do not want to use that term. The connotations of the word seem to hark back to bra burning and, I don’t know, male bashing.”
Most of the panel suggested to this young woman to go and find herself new friends, create her own tribe, with women who are like minded and supportive. Life is short; don’t waste time trying to change the minds of those who do not want their minds changed seemed to be the consensus.
Another woman, a mom of a ten year old, said her daughter told her she did not want to excel at anything, but just be average. How do we tell our daughters it is okay, better than okay, that they believe they can do whatever they want, but it takes work and it takes support – again that word.
Support our girlfriends, sisters. Cheer them on. Be each other’s champions. Make noise for one another. Lots of noise.
Gina asked that this question be addressed. “The dark nights. What haunts you?”
Shakina Nayfack is a transgender woman who came to New York in 2010 from Los Angeles and said she dreamed of wanting nothing but to wear sundresses and walk in Central Park, but when she arrived at the NY theatre as a director her first time, she did so as a boy. A calculated move, she said, to get make it easier for herself and her actors. She talked about being transgender and quoted Angelica Ross who said, “If you are a transperson, and you are alive – you’ve already made it.” So many are lost to suicide, drugs or never come out for fear. Shakina said she would walk down the street past cars and wait for one of them to suddenly pick up speed and run over her. When you are operating at that level, inadequacies and anxieties are all there seems to be room for. Which I think for many of us is the case. What we can and often do encounter as women when we enter a room that men do not. There are immediate decisions made as to who and what we are. Having to go the extra mile, do the extra thing, all we do because we are the woman.
Tamilla Woodard said, “People don’t know their biases.” They won’t know why they are having trouble with me as their director, but they are.” As a black woman, she tries to work past it with her actors to find a place where they can communicate, but some individuals she’s found, cannot transcend their own biases. Tamilla delivered one of many quotable quotes of the evening, “You choose what you serve.”
Maria Goyanes is a first generation American who came to the theatre late in life. When asked, “Who is the person she has to fight the most?” Her answer was herself. She lives in a world that was not a place she grew up in, with people she did not know as a child, so she spends time second guessing and wondering if she said it right, did it right.
As I looked around the room and watched many heads nodding in agreement, mine one of them, I thought, yes, women do this. We are notorious for second guessing, for standing in our way.
Then Maria said she made a most recent change in her life that has brought her respect and positive attention. And that is Ruby Woo Lipstick by Mac, which she assured us looks good on anyone. Since she has started wearing lipstick and makeup, she has been taken more seriously. She feels that the makeup gives her confidence and a professional, adult look. It was also pointed out the Ruby Woo is very very red and the color of stop signs and danger signs and it does attract.
Theatre and society were also subjects that heated the room as much as the role of women, and the discussion went to theatre and life’s work and livelihood.
Everyone agreed that if you want to make money and big change, or at least make a mark on a global platform, then television is the place to be.
Yes, TV, with its ability to reach out to millions of homes will have a larger impact, but it also attracts more artists because you can actually make a living in television. The Public Theatre, Maria told us, is still paying the same scale wages for actors it paid 20 years ago. An actor cannot make a living doing theater. They just can’t. Neither for that matter can most playwrights’s unless you are Broadway bound and stay Broadway strong. But the Theatre is about community. It cannot be duplicated. We have to tell our stories to each other and the audience must insist on having that live, profound experience that you can’t get anywhere else. It is the fire that we sit around and tell our tales, and captivate, and share experiences and emotions.
Thank you to Vertigo Theatre and BRIC for bringing this talk to the public. I hope that further discussions will be made available to the public. In the meantime no matter how you stand up for yourself, whether it be Ruby Woo lipstick or holding the proverbial door open, do something to make change. Support a woman, a girl, a friend, self.
If you are interested in further SHOP TALKS you can go to Vertigo and BRIC websites to find out more about future talks. Here’s hoping there are many more.
SHOPTALK is a casual, intimate Q&A between Vertigo community members and invited guests. Each meetup features a select producer, director, writer, actor, designer, or other artistic professional. Shoptalk invites guests to share both their professional expertise and their personal stories in order to educate, inspire, and empower the next generation of emerging artists. Typically held around a dining table, this presentation will be the first time these intimate conversations are opened up to a broader public. http://www.vertigotheater.org/shoptalk
Vertigo Theater Company was formed to foster a diverse, collaborative community that challenges and nurtures creative artists and to develop and produce new works and adaptations that expose both the audience and the artists to experiences beyond their comfort zones. Unlimited by form and convention, Vertigo Theater Company strives to make provocative theater accessible to all walks of life. More info at vertigotheater.org
BRIC ARTS –BRIC presents contemporary art, performing arts and community media programs that reflect Brooklyn’s creativity and diversity. BRIC also provides resources to launch, nurture and showcase artists and media makers. We advance access to and understanding of arts and media by presenting free and low-cost programming, and by offering education and other public programs to people of all ages. More info at http://www.bricartsmedia.org