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(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.)

TCG Online Conference Salon
Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc
Gender Parity in the American Theatre

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

JULES ODENDAHL-JAMES: I am a dramaturg, director, performer, educator and scholar. Since 2011 I’ve been the Resident Dramaturg at Duke University, working at the intersections of production dramaturgy and interdisciplinary curriculum/project development. I tend to pursue freelance projects with social justice motivations and documentary storytelling structures. As a scholar, I’m interested in notions of truth, evidence, and aesthetics located in overlapping histories of technological and structural development across documentary forms (photography, cinema, audio, video and theater).

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

JOJ: In many ways, I feel like the very epitome of a stereotypical American woman: white, middle-class, college educated, feminine-looking wife and mother. And in other very real ways I stand outside the norm: professional theater artist/teacher, out lesbian, parent and spouse without recognized legal standing for either of those roles. Negotiating the gap between public perceptions and personal realities motivates much of my pedagogical, artistic, and political work.

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?

JOJ: In my early career, I created theater under the auspices of my own company: Bold Maids Productions. I co-founded the group with my spouse and another colleague during our graduate study at UT-Austin. (Split Britches was a definite inspiration and not just because we were a dyke couple with a straight writing/performing partner.) As a trio, we wrote and performed pieces that were often in response to particular incommensurabilities we saw and experienced as women, women in theater, and women in theater in an academic context.

The company was my conscious attempt to foreground feminist politics in theater practice after being told during graduate directing study that I would be wise not “to insert feminism into every play.” As if attention to academic theory and material differences of gender, race, class and sexuality were additives, like salt, that could ruin the “taste” of an artwork. I heard no such admonishments of colleagues who were pursuing either traditional or so-called “non political” experimental performance.  Interestingly, once I came out, I experienced less pushback within the context of my MFA training. Of course, there was a flipside to acceptance. My phone would ring to work with a queer or woman playwright but the call wasn’t always prompted by a shared aesthetic, rather it was based on a presumed commonality because of a shared sexual orientation and/or gender.

After we moved to North Carolina, Bold Maids continued to write and perform sporadically and pursued a modest production calendar of plays by and about women frequently collaborating with other independent companies or under larger institutional umbrellas. All of us – producing and collaborative artists – had other income-earning jobs (some of them in academic theater, some of them not). While we never thought of our company as an avocation, we came to a point where we had to acknowledge whether we could collectively, feasibly put all our efforts into its growth. Being spouses, doctoral students, and either parents already or planning for children absolutely influenced our decision to dissolve and pursue projects independently.

Becoming a parent and coping the chronic illness of an immediate family member also changed the scope of my professional career. While I have found and created networks of support for artist friends and colleagues, I still feel as if women in the American theater remain just one personal crisis away from leaving the profession (whether under their own steam or not). Starkly contrasting identity-based impressions of and expectations for theater artists directly influences who gets hired for what show, why they are hired, how their material circumstances are accommodated, and the size and dimension of their larger careers.

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

JOJ: I remember very public and very important debate in 1996 between August Wilson and Robert Brustein over artistic representation, cultural appropriation, power and respect in American theater like it was yesterday. Unfortunately, I also feel I’ve had some version of that debate just yesterday. Despite seventeen years of “open” dialogue about parity and diversity fundamental structural inequities remain. The only thing that has changed is the level of frustration on the part of artists and institutions. While I acknowledge their necessity to raise public awareness, I am tired of endless roundtables and town halls that seem more like exercises in public expurgation while the status-quo machine of production endures. Institutions chafe at the suggestion that there are artists and audiences who feel underserved. So long invested (unconsciously) in the notion “If you build it, they will come,” they seem reluctant to take a long, hard look at the material expressions of a motto that sounds grand but is inherently passive (you make and they will just magically find their way to you) and profoundly unspecific (what exactly being made by/for who?).

Artistic employment remains problematically connected to certain identity markers unless you are a white man (and a white man with a particular pedigree). This connection is its own kind of discrimination: women and non-white artists compete over an artificially constrained body of work and opportunities while institutions promote their “diverse” programming without transforming their business or artistic practices. [I want to be clear this is not simply a problem in commercial and LORT theaters. Smaller “alternative” companies can be just as fixed in their assumptions about identity even as they embrace experimental narratives and performance practices.]

To pull back the curtain on this disparity is to risk already limited employment viability. In so-called “post-racial” America, expressions of overt racism (sexism and sometimes homophobia) have mutated into more insidious assumptions of cultural competency and aesthetic skill.  The question becomes which side of the Janus face of American theater is more honest with me as a woman and/or artist of color? The one that flat-out ignores me or the one that says I’m welcome in but only in particular ways for particular work?

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?

JOJ: Last July, I was invited by Devra Thomas and Sylvia Mallory to participate in a public conversation of local women theater artists titled “DASH—An Interruption of Triangle Theater” (livecast and archived thanks to HowlRound and NewPlayTV). Inspired by the national conversation about parity and diversity provoked by the Guthrie’s ’12-13 season announcement, my contribution to “DASH” was data: information about the upcoming season of shows from regularly producing theater companies across the five municipalities that make up the Triangle, NC. While this snapshot was compiled from available material at the time (some companies had not announced shows nor had all hired their artistic staff), the numbers seemed to echo a similar kind of stasis for women and artists of color in American theater:

  • ·         Women directors 31%,
  • ·         Women playwrights 15% (33% if one counting co-authored musicals, children’s theater and devised work)
  • ·         Directors of color (women and men): 6.5% (individuals who directed more than one show in a season for the same theater were only counted once)
  • ·         Playwrights of color (women and men): 7.8%
  • ·         Women Artistic Directors (not including chairs of academic departments): 21%

Despite NC’s non-white population of 33% and rising (particularly the Latino/a community) and a number of successful individual artists of color (actors, directors and playwrights) who produce new and established work, there are no theater companies in the Triangle dedicated to staging African-American or Latino/a theater outside historically black colleges and universities and the Teatro Latino Series at the University of NC, Chapel Hill.

Out of this discussion the Ladies of Triangle Theater (Twitter @TriThtrLadies) was born. For the past year we have continued to network, talk, and support other participants via Facebook and there are plans to expand into a support organization with a specific mission, funding, and advocacy plan.

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?

JOJ: Our “DASH” conversation uncovered a number of limitations (from lack of complex roles to childcare/rehearsal schedules) for women artists in the Triangle theater community; however, there were those who expressed concerns about the limitations of organizing around gender parity issues alone/primarily.  Some LoTT participants feel they solve disparities by making work independently. If that means productions are sporadic, presented in found spaces with tight budgets and a team of talented volunteers those constraints are acceptable trade-offs in order to control both the means of production and its content. Others have become part of the producing structures at more established independent companies and found artistic homes there. Still others are frustrated by the lack of representation within and beyond acting roles but worry about rocking the boat for fear of finding themselves overlooked for jobs in a relatively small theater market.

There are also age, stylistic, and experiential gaps among participants. We do not share a collective definition of feminism nor do all ascribe “feminist” to themselves or their work. To be a “woman artist” or an “artist of color” instead of just an “artist,” can feel as if you are forever bound to lead with aspects of your identity rather than your talents. On the other hand, if no one reflexively examines the ways in which companies represent and shape artistic and audience communities and then actively interrogates gaps and absences, only perfunctory gestures will be made towards inclusion. I remember one DASH participant commenting how she wished productions that featured all women performers or those that were engineered by a largely female creative team didn’t have to be “an event.” Why can that not be just an accepted, expected feature of local production? she wondered. Her question made me wonder about the tipping point between drawing attention to examples of parity and diversity and parity and diversity as the status quo. I don’t have an answer, but I think that will be a central conundrum for LoTT as we move forward.

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

JOJ: I’m going to offer an answer to this question by extending my thought about making parity and diversity the status quo versus a special event. In my teaching, work by women and scholar/artists of color appears on the syllabus without my framing its inclusion as part of a “diversity” unit. That work is simply the work we study. I actually hadn’t realized how regular a practice this had become until I was compiling materials for a teaching portfolio. Certainly, I would be remiss in not recognizing how my own privileges influence my perspective and my approach. Students’ perceptions of my identity and the institution where I currently teach allow me freedoms of choice and experimentation not readily or equally available to others.

That said, I want to close with a hopeful hypothesis. The more students’ (who are future artists and audience members) expected world of theater/performance includes a consciously constructed range of artists, forms, and traditions, the more they are primed to feel something is incomplete when that diversity is absent and interrogate and push back against absences. Mine is an admittedly personal, incremental, and probably not unique strategy but it’s one that reflects the feminist principles of canonical interrogation, multi-vocality, and multi-dimensionality that mark my work as a teacher and artist. It is one way in which I remake the world of theater in my own image rather than adjust my image to fit limited and limiting definitions.

Jules Odendahl-James holds an MFA in directing (UT-Austin), a PhD in Performance Studies (UNC-Chapel Hill), and has been making theater in the Triangle, NC since 1997. Her primary academic research explores the relationship between forensic media and documentary performance, traumatic events and public memory. She was a member of the Performance and Integrated Media Humanities Writ Large working group, the Queer Latin@ American Migration & Performance inter-institutional working group, and is the faculty advisor for the Me Too Monologues at Duke University. Recent dramaturgy: CANE created by Thomas DeFrantz; Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus; Lear by Young Jean Lee; Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women, 8 by Dustin Lance Black; Ragtime: The Musical by McNally, Arhens & Flaherty; and Carson Kreitzer’s Self Defense or, The Death of Some Salesmen.

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.