The Difference of the Starfish

by Kristen van Ginhoven

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for The Difference of the Starfish

(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. 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 blog salon: Gender Parity in the American Theatre

JACQUELINE LAWTON: Year after year, research shows that approximately 17% of all plays produced in the United States and the United Kingdom are written by women. We’re stuck at this number and it’s hard to comprehend.  Last year, Forum Theatre convened a symposium to investigate the gender imbalance in theatre and posed this question: Is there a female dramaturgy (i.e. a specific point of view that female writers bring to theatre)?  If so, what does it look, sound and feel like?  Who holds the agency for it?

KRISTEN van GINHOVEN: A specific point of view is brought by anyone who chooses to participate. For me, it is less about the point of view that female writers might or might not bring to theatre and more about creating the opportunity for equal representation. Working towards equal and diverse representation in telling our stories is the best way to inform audiences of the look, sound and feel of as many points of view as possible. This inevitably leads to greater understanding of the entire human race with our myriad of histories, beliefs and goals.

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

KvG: I live in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. With a plethora of culturally rich organizations, lots of natural beauty and proximity to New York City and Boston, the Berkshires is a paradise. We have four nationally and internationally renowned theatre companies; Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, Shakespeare & Company and Williamstown Theatre Festival. All four were founded by and/or are led by women. There are also many other world class non-profits in the Berkshires that have women in leadership roles, including Jacob’s Pillow and the Norman Rockwell Museum. When I moved here in 2008 I was surprised to learn that, despite all the women in leadership roles, the statistics of plays produced in this area that are written (or directed, designed, etc) by women is very much in line with the 17% norm. Chris Rohmann, a theatre writer for the Valley Advocate, wrote in 2012:

A year ago I did a count of plays produced by Western Massachusetts professional theaters to see how many of their productions in the previous year were written by women. The results were not pretty: 39 plays by men (not even counting those by Shakespeare), 13 by women.”

The Berkshires is socially aware and actively engaged and I have encountered lots of encouragement for my work with WAM Theatre, the company I co-founded in 2010. From the educated audience, to the talented network of theatre colleagues, to the other non-profit arts organizations, WAM Theatre has experienced positive support for our mission to create theatre for everyone that benefits women and girls. Plus, we have the Women’s Fund of Western MA and many other sister organizations who put women’s issues at the heart of their work. Yet, despite this, the statistics in recent years are not much better than what Chris Rohmann found in 2011. In some cases, they are worse. Interestingly, when I have conversations with people in the Berkshires about these statistics, they are often surprised to hear the actual numbers.

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?

KvG: Yes, but…

The Yes: I’d love to believe that by being a strong emerging presence in my community, and advocating for women’s voices and women’s stories, the other larger more established companies will recognize their lack of equal inclusion and will adjust their programming.  Telling women’s stories is only one side of the Yes. Women also need to be mentored and sponsored and given jobs as designers, actors, technicians, directors, producers….

The But: By having ‘Women’ in our title (WAM = Women’s Action Movement), we find that mothers bring daughters or grandmothers to our shows. That’s obviously great, but we also need men to be involved in this conversation so WAM is trying really hard for our work to be seen as theatre for everyone. Our most recent production of Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson went a long way to equalizing the gender breakdown in our audience. It was the first time I received as much email feedback from men as I did from women!

JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?

KvG: Action is definitely the integral word and comes back again and again as the key to change.

Geena Davis’ two-step fix seems a great place to start and can be applied to gender, diversity and inclusion.

Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.

In order to get people to take action, they need to be aware there’s an issue. Education, therefore, becomes another key component.  For myself, I was always aware of the issues facing women and yet, it was not until I read “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn that I was compelled into action.

People need to believe they can make a difference. Reading “Half the Sky” made me believe, for the first time in my life, that I could make a difference. It’s the starfish fable.

A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked he could see a young boy in the distance, as he drew nearer he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water. Time and again he kept hurling things into the ocean. As the man approached even closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time he was throwing them back into the water. The man asked the boy what he was doing, the boy replied, “I am throwing these washed up starfish back into the ocean, or else they will die through lack of oxygen. “But”, said the man, “You can’t possibly save them all, there are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The boy looked down, frowning for a moment; then bent down to pick up another starfish, smiling as he threw it back into the sea. He replied, “I made a huge difference to that one!”

JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?

KvG: By telling stories in the theatre we create community and broaden people’s understanding of the issues, which actively helps create change.

In WAM Theatre’s case we take that one step further and donate a percentage of our box office proceeds to organizations that benefit women and girls. By highlighting women theatre artists and the stories of women and girls in our productions and through that, supporting courageous organizations working on the front lines of women’s issues, we have found a way to help turn oppression into opportunity.

Philanthropy through the arts. It’s working and it feels great.

Kristen van Ginhoven is a Canadian director, educator, actor and producer who lives in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. As Artistic Director of WAM Theatre her directing credits include: Emilie: La Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson (Northeast Regional Premiere), The Old Mezzo by Susan Dworkin (World Premiere), The Attic, The Pearls and Three Fine Girls by Martha Ross, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Jennifer Brewin, Alisa Palmer and Leah Cherniak and Melancholy Play by Sarah Ruhl. Elsewhere as director: Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada, Barrington Stage Company, Capital Repertory Theatre, Cohoes Music Hall, Emerson College, Siena College. Kristen travels the world as a freelance artist for the International Schools Theatre Association, is a member of Canadian Actor’s Equity Association, an associate member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and was a member of the 2013 Lincoln Center Directors Lab.

About WAM Theatre:

WAM (Women’s Action Movement) Theatre is a theatre company based in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and the Capital Region of New York State. Inspired by the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, WAM Theatre was founded in 2010 by professional theatre artists Kristen van Ginhoven and Leigh Strimbeck.

WAM Theatre’s philanthropic mission is two-fold: first, to create theatrical events for everyone, with a focus on women theatre artists and/or stories of women and girls; second, to donate a portion of the proceeds from those events to organizations that benefit women and girls. Since 2010, WAM Theatre has donated over $10,500 to its beneficiaries by creating professional theatre for everyone that benefits women and

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.