Statera Conference in Denver: Theatre has a problem. Women are the solution.

2016 Statera National ConferenceTo see more images from the opening day of the 2016 Statera Conference at the Denver Center, press the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

The American theatre has a big, systemic problem. And those attending the 2016 Statera Conference for gender equity in the American theatre have a simple, systemic solution:

More women. On stage. Off stage. Writing. Directing. And, perhaps most important: In leadership positions.

It is not new information that while females make up 68 percent of the average theatre audience, fewer than 25 percent of the stories they see are written by women. But Friday’s opening keynote address at the Denver Center laid bare some deeper statistical atrocities. For example:

In 2013-14, 73 percent of the Artistic Directors and 62 percent of Executive Directors at leading U.S. theatres were white men. That’s unsurprising. But tellingly – and some might say “damningly” – 65 percent of those working in jobs just below leadership positions were women or persons of color. That means a majority of women already are in place for executive advancement – they just aren’t being rewarded for their experience when leadership jobs become available.

In other words, said one woman in the conference crowd: “Women do all the work – and men get promoted.”

A video look at Tira Palmquist’s upcoming world premiere of ‘Two Degrees’ in Denver.

Tira Palmquist, writer of the DCPA Theatre Company’s upcoming world premiere production of Two Degrees, acknowledged there are employment opportunities out there for women. “But it would be better to have better employment opportunities for women,” she said.

“There is a clear glass ceiling,” said Sumru Erkut, Senior Research Scientist for the Wellesley Centers for Women. “And it’s not getting better. We have come to the conclusion that for a woman to lead a theatre, she has to start one. That’s how she gets to be a leader.”

Statera ConferenceBut Friday’s featured speaker Carey Elizabeth Perloff, who has been the artistic director of the esteemed American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco for 24 years, dared to imagine another kind of future for women in the American theatre.  

“If we could change the gender balance across the board in the theatre from leadership to playwrights to directors to what is happening backstage, I truly think we would be telling more inclusive, more complex and more richly imagined stories,” Perloff said via Skype. “Therefore we would start to cast our net much wider in terms of audiences who are passionate about the theatre.”

Perloff addressed more than 200 women (and a few men) who have gathered in Denver this weekend to strategize, commune, commiserate, network, workshop and rally for the cause of gender equity. Guests include playwrights, directors, actors, teachers, students and administrators from organizations as varied as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Baltimore Playwright’s Festival, Shakespeare Detroit, the Arvada Center, Athena Project, Colorado Shakespeare Festival and Center Group of Los Angeles.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

“We believe the answer to gender parity in the American theatre lies in the philosophy of ‘top-down and bottom-up,’ ” said Statera Foundation co-founder Shelly Gaza of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. “Yes, we work to affect change at the top tiers of American theatres. But we are also working from the bottom up so that we, in a sense, meet in the middle to achieve parity.”

Statera, by the way, is a Latin word for “balance.”

Statera quoteThe DCPA makes a perfect host for Statera’s second national conference, Gaza said, because the Denver Center not only acknowledges the prevailing gender disparity in the American theatre, it is actively working to eradicate it.

DCPA Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson drew applause when he announced that the Denver Center has recently changed one of its stated core company values to equity, diversity and inclusion. “I feel my most profound job as an Artistic Director is to offer windows on the world to audiences – and those windows have to reflect women in our society,” Thompson said.

He introduced to conference attendees the now 11-year-old Women’s Voices Fund, the Denver Center’s $1 million endowment that makes directing and playwriting opportunities available to women.  Thompson pointed out that only about 15 of the company’s first 250 productions over 26 seasons were directed by women – and fewer than a dozen had been written by women. But in the 11 years since Thompson’s arrival, the Theatre Company has presented 26 plays by women – nine of them world premieres.

Here are more key findings and killer quotes from Day 1 of the 2016 Statera Conference, which runs through Sunday at the DCPA:

  • “Until gender parity and gender equity are the norm, there will be a need for all of our passion and purpose and action,” said Statera CEO Melinda Vaughn, who is working for the day “when equal space and equal pay and equal opportunity are not ideals for which you have to fight or create – they are the expectation. That shift in expectation is powerful.”
  • Lucy Roucis, a longtime actor with Denver’s acclaimed Phamaly Theatre Company, which exists to create performance opportunities for actors with disabilities, acknowledged the loss just the day before of prominent Denver director and playwright Terry Dodd. “I saw Terry just last week, and we were talking about this very subject,” Roucis said. “Terry he told me, ‘Lucy, there will be equality in the theatre when there are more women producers. Women have to do it themselves.’ ”       
  • Jane Page, an original member of the DCPA Theatre Company in 1979 and most recently director of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer here in 2011, flew to Denver from Cairo to attend the conference, she said, ”because I feel very strongly about the issue of parity for women in theatre.” Page was accompanied by a college student from Yale she is mentoring at the conference. “After 40 years in the business, I think it’s important for me to be a part of this conversation,” said Page. “But I also think it’s important to hear from those young women who are just entering into the profession.” Page had been in Cairo directing a contemporary version of Tartuffe set in modern-day Orange County.
  • Carey Perloff tried to do everything right when she arrived at ACT in 1992, “but I did everything wrong instead,” she said. She was convinced she would be fired after her first season in San Francisco – which makes her not uncommon among women, she said. “I felt how I think every woman leader feels, which is, ‘When you fail, you fail for all women – and that when we succeed, it’s luck,’ ” Perloff said. ”People told me, ‘You have to stop saying that.’ Because women always say they got lucky when they get a job. But men never do that. The fact is, men are hired on their potential, and women are hired on their resumes. And that makes our challenge that much greater.”
  • The beauty of being a leader in the American theatre, Perloff said, “is you get to choose the kind of plays you want to promote. I always said, ‘It’s such a hard job, but at least you don’t have to do Sylvia – that play where the woman plays a dog. When it’s your own theatre, you get to say no. We are not going to do plays where women are tangential all the time. We’re not going to do plays where women are demeaned. We are not going to do plays where women are two-dimensional. We are going to choose plays where there are women directors involved. And there are vigorous roles for women. And we are going to make sure that the backstage life has women.”
  • A priority of the Statera Foundation, Perloff said, is embracing the role of motherhood that often goes with artistic leadership. “Being a parent is like being in perpetual tech rehearsal,” Perloff said. “But you have to remember that while the days are long – the years are short. If you are a leader, you have more control over your own time and destiny, so it’s all the more important for women to claim these leadership positions.”
  • Sumru Erkut, the research scientist, said no woman needs to be told how difficult it is to maintain a work-life balance – especially in the arts. “I have to tell you – there is no conversation going on about the work-life balance in the American theatre,” Erkut said. “But it’s a reality we have to confront. This is not just a women’s issue. It’s a human-being issue. We have to make it possible for the next generation to both work and be a parent.“
  • Among the more than 50 speakers and workshop leaders presenting this weekend are Actor’s Equity Association Executive Director Mary McColl and American social justice activist Chris Crass. Locally, speakers include DCPA Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson; Directors Christy Montour-Larson (Two Degrees), Ina Marlowe (The Glass Menagerie) and Geoffrey Kent (An Act of God); Actors Meridith C. Grundei (Frankenstein), Lucy Roucis and Lisa Young; and Educators Allison Watrous, Jessica Austgen and Gillian McNally.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

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