Turn Up the Volume

by chandra thomas

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Turn Up the Volume

(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 (ie. 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?

CHANDRA THOMAS: There is inherently a female sensibility that female theatremakers bring to the room. I think actually one of the complications we encounter though is that the female dramaturgy is not monolithic in look, sound or feel.  For example, I co-founded viBe Theater Experience (an arts and education non-profit organization dedicated to empowering teenage girls through the collaborative performing arts in New York City) in 2002 and served as Director of Programming until 2012. The young women we worked with during that time came from all over New York to create their own plays, solo shows, music and the like. Most had never stepped on a stage before and few had ever experienced theatre, with rare exception through school fields trips to the occasional Broadway play or a production at their school or at a religious institution. These young women would come together in their respective groups to develop and perform original works that spoke from an often raw, always truthful place in their writing and performances that were pointedly influenced and colored by the world immediately around them. There was a specific female dramaturgy in their work. And then, as a professional writer and producer, I would describe the dramaturgy in the projects that I write, develop and am creatively drawn to as having a wide mix of voice, tone, style, use of rhythm telling smaller stories with the intent of a greater reach, even as I am particularly invested in exploring stories from female experiences. Different sensibilities, all part of the female dramaturgy. I find it more inspiring to discover how we can empower more platforms for the voices of female storytellers rather than attempting to identify any particular agency to determine what fits and doesn’t fit “the female dramaturgy”.

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?

CT: I am New York based and it feels like the conversation around issues of gender parity pops up with some regularity but it feels even rarer that we see much discernible actions, particularly by larger theatre institutions. We’ve read the articles and seen the blog posts and attended (and even spoken on!) the panels about the subject. Some of it becomes “speaking to the choir” (though sometimes even the choir needs reinforcement and more tools to sing their harmonies). And, of course, the New York theatre community has a wide range of missions and aesthetics so, on the one hand, it feels like a lot of the bases are covered but yet and still there is this noticeable imbalance.  While, undoubtedly frustrating at times, I find this issue fuels my investment in and enthusiasm for my fellow female theatremakers as well as being part of and supporting structures that actively tell stories from female creators. Also, ironically, I find less of a need to explain our stories and their importance and more compelled to just tell them.

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?

CT: I think we absolutely NEED gender-based theatres. I am of the school of thought though that we need theatre from as many different voices as possible. It seems that the aesthetics and stories we share become broad and generalized without a full spectrum of storytellers and creators, and the development of their specific and varied voices. As with everything, there are the drawbacks to “gender-based theatre” that we see in the New York theatre world. There can be a kind of compartmentalization of audiences as there are inevitably people who are less likely to go to a production that is produced by a specific theatre that presents works from voices different than themselves– how many times have we heard, “Oh, that play is about _______________ people; that’s not me so I won’t like it.” But even this can be reduced through well-orchestrated collaboration within the theatre community. When thinking about this and similar discussions I often reflect on something Anne Bogart (legendary director and one of the founders of SITI Company) would often say during my time at Columbia [University] which I paraphrase here: the more specific you can be in your work and in your storytelling, the more universal your reach as you will touch the foundation of humanity. It seems fitting to emphasize the power of specificity when considering these questions.

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

CT: Oh, so many ideas running through my head but I will exercise as much brevity as possible! [laughter] It seems like there are still theatre companies that do not recognize and acknowledge that gender parity issues actively exist in the theatre, including their own. I would recommend more theatres create active plans on how every department of their particular company can contribute to improving disparities on an institutional level, and then on a collective level with other theatre, arts and social-engagement organizations in their respective community. Thinking “outside the octagon”, as I like to say, when forging well-executed partnerships can allow for greater diversity in artistic voices while also distributing budgetary and coordinating requirements. For example, the recently announced The Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, where virtually every DC-area theatre will produce a world premiere by a female playwright in 2015 is absolutely exciting and inspiring. This ambitious initiative also speaks to the great possibilities in collective response and collaboration when tackling entrenched norms. Additionally, it seems like more theatre companies need to maximize opportunities to turn up the volume on how ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and geography also affect gender parity issues. I would recommend more diverse incubation of female writers and theatremakers that go beyond the readings and very barebones workshops but track toward more full productions.

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

CT: It is crucial that we continue to engage in these conversations and not just during designated months or in limited forums, but through regular, daily discourse and approaches. It is our brainstorming and creative problem solving and organizing of people and voices alongside our simultaneous actions that will continue to make strides to a greater gender balance in the theatre. Additionally, it bears repeating that these conversations also need to incorporate the discussion of ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and geography as these experiences further affect, influence and shape the experience of gender. Theatremakers are among the most innovative, forward-thinking, resourceful and collaborative people in the world—if any group has the tools to address gender parity, it is us.

Originally from New York, chandra thomas works an actor-writer-producer. As an actor, her theatre performances include contemporary and classic works Off-Broadway, in New York and regionally. Her résumé also includes work in television and film. As a writer, her plays, solo shows and independent films include, Standing At… (Heideman Award Finalist), a rhyme for the UNDERground, Complete Sentences…, and others. Projects as a producer include spork*Festival, a festival of original short plays, films and discussion the “in-betweener” experience, the LOVE/YOUTH Project, a collaborative theatrical response of professional artists to violence against LGBTQ youth, and others in theatre and film. MFA: Columbia University. www.chandrathomas.com / @truechandra

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