Dynamic and Evolving Conversation

by Megan Sandberg-Zakian

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Dynamic and Evolving Conversation

(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)

Diversity & Inclusion:--Gender Parity in the American Theatre


JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.

MEGAN SANBERG-ZAKIAN: I’m a theater-maker, mostly a director, just finishing up an amazing two-season residency at Underground Railway Theater in Cambridge, MA – thanks to a TCG Future Leaders grant.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, culture, and gender? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?

MSZ: I’ve always been perceived in professional settings as a white, heterosexual, able bodied, upper middle class woman. I’m aware that this perceived identity has allowed me certain kinds of access that have been mostly beneficial to my career. I can generally “pass” with that list of adjectives, and my other identifications – including an ethnic heritage (Armenian/Jewish) that includes two twentieth century genocides, and an early career spent mostly with a Black theater company – are able to remain hidden until I chose to reveal them.

JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?

MSZ: I’ve been thinking lately that perhaps one of the components of privilege is feeling confident that you can walk into a room and be totally 100% yourself, and that will be an asset, rather than a liability, to professional success and opportunity. I feel that “who” I am has more often created opportunities and opened doors than the opposite – which is an enormous privilege.

In terms of gender: as a single woman without kids, I have some obvious logistical advantages over my colleagues with different constraints on their time, different financial obligations, and different stakes around whether or not to answer their phone in a meeting. I suspect that there are some invisible advantages too. My experience of myself as a female theater artist is basically a positive one. I’ve almost never felt that being a woman influenced my colleagues’ expectations or assessment of my work, or kept me from getting a job that I wanted. I sometimes wonder how this feeling would change if I had children – and how much of my success as a female director is due to my willingness in my 20′s and early 30′s to prioritize my career above romantic relationships.

That said, there were times, mostly early in my career, when I experienced what I would classify as harassment. Amongst the usual assortment of vaguely inappropriate comments about what I’m wearing and what I’m doing later, I can think of one particularly hard moment at a benefit event when a (somewhat inebriated) major donor insisted on a dance with me before he would turn in his check. I remember walking outside afterwards, not wanting anyone to see me cry, while simultaneously hoping that the Artistic Director would run after me to say, “I’m so sorry I made you feel like you had to do that. I’ll never put you in that position again.” Of course, he didn’t. But I never put myself in that position again – and I hope that if I’m in the position of being an Artistic Director at some point, I’ll create an environment of appropriate respect and vigilance amongst young artists, donors, and anyone else who’s invested in the work we’re doing together.

JL: Where do you feel we are in terms of gender and race in larger landscape of the American Theatre?

MSZ: I feel we’re in the midst of a dynamic and evolving conversation. How can I not feel energized as I write these words as part of this wonderful blog series initiated by our largest field organization, which continues to reiterate its commitment to catalyzing this conversation and supporting concrete strategies for change?  Being connected to TCG and to thoughtful colleagues around the country motivates me to persevere in working towards an American Theatre that is expansive enough for America, that, like each one of us, is large and contains multitudes.

JL: How do you feel your community has addressed the issues of race and gender parity? How has this particular issue impacted you and your ability to practice your craft?

MSZ: I’ve been heartened by the dialogue that’s been taking place in the Boston theater community over the past few years. In particular, there is a strong group of young female directors that works frequently on the large and mid-size stages in the greater Boston area, which I find very encouraging – especially when compared to the numbers in other cities. It’s a good place to be a woman director. Non-white directors and, in particular, designers, are less well represented – but there has been some good movement around shifting these paradigms, and a lot of really passionate conversation.

JL: Do we need gender based theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community? What is lost?

MSZ: So, here’s the metaphor I’ve been thinking about: I love the little Thai hole-in-the-wall on the corner, the dosa stand down the block, and the fact that there are three different Nepalese restaurants within ten minutes of me. The specificity of what these restaurants give me is important. They teach me about language, flavor, and ritual of a specific place. They help me understand a little more about where things come from and why. As a sort of food tourist, I’m able to return to the same places over time, taking in an embodied experience of a certain culture and aesthetic. The restaurants I return to are the ones at which I feel welcome, of course – more welcome every time I come. Maybe they even inspire me to try adding some Nepalese elements to my own cooking.

And, you know: sometimes when you cook with people who share your background and values, in a kitchen that feels like home, you can push farther, and what you get is a meal that’s as vivid and fully realized as it could possibly be. And that has enormous benefits for both the chef and the diner. Of course, this doesn’t mean that either chefs or diners need to spend their entire careers in one restaurant, and it doesn’t replace the enormous value you might also find, as a chef, in working with a bunch of other chefs from around the world, and making a crazy mash-up fusion meal and learning from each other. Yes! Let’s do that, too. But I do believe our community-specific institutions provide an important and irreplaceable foundation – a ground, to paraphrase August Wilson, on which we might find our footing, to which artists and audiences can return to for that particular kind of sustenance you can only get at home, and which invite the rest of us to share the meal in a spirit of curiosity, celebration, and delight in the opportunity to experience some damn fine home cooking.

JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?

MSZ: Theaters that make an authentic decision about that as a goal – and not all companies can, or will, or should, make that decision – can set concrete, definable, short-term goals, and hold themselves accountable for reaching them. My suspicion is that when theaters finally make commitments like “We will pay at least 50% of our artist salaries to women” or “We will make sure that there are viable female candidates and candidates of color in every interview process,” they will seem more logical than radical. These kinds of promises are not aspirational, they’re structural. They give us the bones, the architecture to be the kind of field we want and need to be.

Megan Sandberg-Zakian has spent the past two seasons at Central Square Theater (CST) in Cambridge, MA, as a recipient of TCG’s Future Leaders grant, collaborating on a constellation of development and production projects engaging artists, audiences, and local organizations. Most recently, Megan co-developed and directed a “docu-play” about Occupy Boston, No Room For Wishing, which was co-produced by CST, Company One and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, and is currently touring. Other recent directing projects include co-developing The Cabaret Series at CST, co-directing the Boston premiere of Tarell McCraney’s The Brother Sister Plays at Company One (IRNE Award, Best Production; IRNE nominee, Best Director; Elliot Norton nominee, Best Production), Lydia Diamond’s Harriet Jacobs at Underground Railway Theater (Elliot Norton nominee, Best New Play; IRNE nominee, Best Ensemble, Best Actress) and the Rhode Island premiere of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Perishable Theatre/Trinity Repertory Company (Motif Awards, Best Production, Best Set Design, Best Actor). Megan has served as Associate Artistic Director of the Providence Black Repertory Company (RI) and The 52nd Street Project (NYC). Megan is a graduate of Brown University and holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College. www.megansz.com, www.cabaretseries.com, www.noroomforwishing.com

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com