(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: 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?
CHANEL GLOVER: I am a very recent transplant to New York City, so it’s probably more constructive for me to discuss gender parity from the perspective of an MFA playwriting student, as that is the most recent and significant theater community that has so far shaped my views on this issue.
I often describe my program, mainly when thinking out loud to myself, as a room full of white guys with beards (or almost beards). And I don’t mean this derogatorily, but it simply is the best way to describe the demographic makeup of the program. Just as one would describe their husband, brother, or friend. If you glanced around our seminar room, where most of our classes are held, you would in fact see at least five white men sporting beards, one white woman, and a speckle of color, like one determinedly-placed spot on a white T-shirt. Out of a program of nine students, five of them share features with Abraham Lincoln. Those numbers grow worse as one becomes colorblind; essentially, eight out of the eleven artists in our classroom are male, including faculty members. So to say that playwriting programs play a role in the state of diversity disparity in theater, would be stating the obvious.
Theatre, as we know, is a collaborative art form. And because I’m very young in the theatre—a lawyer in my previous life—surrounding myself with like-minded individuals with the potential to form short-lived or long-lasting collaborations was a major reason I signed on to an MFA program. But I soon discovered, with a buried assumption, that the other playwrights, the actors, the directors and our audience were mostly male and mostly white. It of course does not follow that mostly male and mostly white means mostly the same voice…though sometimes it does… And while I was slowly beginning to embody that lone fish lying on the shore grasping for a way back into the ocean, they were forming connections, forming collaborations. Through no fault of my colleagues or myself, I often, if not always, found myself outside of these exchanges. (Case in point, four of my classmates have recently banded together to produce a night of one-act plays to be performed at a small theater in Chicago. I applaud them for creating theatre, but also acknowledge that there was no invite to any of the women in my class. And they have every right to be or not be inclusive.)
While I was still able to create theatre in my program, mainly because of programmatic infrastructure that mandates such creation, I often felt the sting of persuasion to meld my work into subject matters and styles that would get a rise out of the audience or a following by eager actors and directors like my male classmates sporting beards had. I desperately wanted supporters of my work too. I badly needed that source of encouragement, or so I believed. I sought validation for work that was not my own, and soon abandoned my search when the pressure of appropriating became too much. I finally found comfort in my own words, despite its immediate effects.
I often felt alone in my work, alone in my training, alone in my perspectives, alone. Not because I chose to be, but because if I was being true to myself, I couldn’t help but be. This feeling is more eloquently described in Junot Diaz’s MFA v. POC.
Of course this all informs my unique perspective of the world and stimulates my writing. Of course all of my classmates are a supportive bunch of writers. Of course they each have a different perspective from which their work emanates. And of course I respect each of their voices, as they have in some way influenced me as a playwright. But I often cannot help wonder how my experience would be different had there been more women and people of color filling the seats in my seminar room. And as I find footing in NYC, I can’t help but worry that my time in the Big Apple will be similar to my stint in that seminar room.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of gender parity?
CG: There are four actionable steps I recommend in addressing issues of gender/diversity parity in a university theater community, at least as a place to begin fostering an open conversation and a more inclusive environment. This should of course follow with tangible/sustainable changes:
- Recruit and retain faculty, staff, and students who will contribute to the diversity of the school.
- Revise the curriculum substantially so that it adequately reflects the diversity of the school.
- Host monthly or bi-monthly diversity training for faculty and staff, and possibly students.
- Form a committee to oversee accountability and to continue the conversation.
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of gender in theatre?
CG: I often felt like I suffered alone in my MFA program, and I use ‘suffer’ lightly. Yes, I had classmates who shared my demographic: woman and black. But I say ‘suffered’ because we—women playwrights, actors, directors, tech crew—were often too absorbed in our respective programs to do anything about the lack of gender parity other than the occasional grunt fest at the bar. We settled for what was given to us because it was difficult balancing our personal needs as artists and students, with the overarching needs of the theatre community. We would complain in passing to one another, but often felt disempowered to do anything about it; not appreciating that in numbers came solidarity and power and thus, a platform and morale.
Continuing the conversation means that the lessons learned from one day achieving gender parity in theatre, will one day be employed to achieve parity in theatre among different cultures, abilities, and sexualities. Continuing the conversation provides hope that one day theatre, from behind the scenes to the stage, will start reflecting our society.
Chanel Glover is a lawyer who occasionally dabbles in playwriting, but desires most to be the first Black Lesbian Superwoman to rid the world of menacing stereotypes with just the stroke of her pencil. In May 2014, she completed an MFA in playwriting at Ohio University where her full-length plays How to Eat an Oreo, Black as the Dirt and They’re Not Rappers have received staged readings at Ohio University’s Seabury Quinn, Jr. Playwrights’ Festival in April 2014, April 2013 and June 2012, respectively. She can be found everywhere, as she is a superwoman in training, remember? And raised American nomadic. For more on her adventures visit: http://chanelandrow.wix.com/chanelandrow.
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