“Raise your right finger to how girls should behave.”
That lyric, from the musical adaptation of the canonized film “Mean Girls,” was penned presciently by Nell Benjamin, and it arrives on Broadway at a striking moment for women across all fields, but particularly those working in entertainment. In the midst of Time’s Up, equal gender representation is more talked about than ever, and yet the just-concluded 2017–18 Broadway season saw a meager 17 percent of its offstage talent composed of women.
The theater is an industry that prides itself on the progressiveness of its content and creators. But how accurate—or earned—that pride is is a question without a clear answer when it comes to the inclusion or empowerment of women. Backstage spoke candidly on the subject with three stage stalwarts. Each woman, though hailing from distinctly different realms, had many shared views on the work theater still has to do to move toward equality.
Benjamin, a freshly minted Tony nominee for her contributions to the “Mean Girls” score, is no stranger to female-centricity in her writing, having been previously Tony-nominated for “Legally Blonde.” But with “Mean Girls,” ushered to Broadway by the film’s creator, Tina Fey, she felt an increased pressure to relay its feminine ferocity to a new generation of girls and women. LaChanze, the Tony Award–winning actor for the original production of “The Color Purple,” is also a frequent purveyor of women’s stories, and is now back on Broadway—and Tony-nominated—for her titular role in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” about the iconic pop star’s life and career. But, as she points out, her ascent through American theater as a dark-skinned African-American woman has stringently dictated which types of female stories she has been able to tell.
And Leigh Silverman, Tony-nominated in 2014 for the Broadway revival of “Violet,” rose up through the ranks Off-Broadway in defiance of what she refers to as the “young male genius” paradigm, which has historically created massive disparity in the number of women deemed capable of the authority to lead a room. Here is an excerpted conversation with women working in theater about women working in theater.
Here’s a statistic: Out of the current Broadway season, women account for 17 percent of behind-the-scenes talent. Let’s start there: What are your thoughts on that number?
Leigh Silverman: Well, that number sucks. In 2006, when I was directing Lisa Kron’s play “Well” Off-Broadway, I was only the seventh woman to ever direct a straight play Off-Broadway. At the time, it just seemed shocking that it was so low in 2006. Even though more women are directing on Broadway all the time, statistically we’ve remained very low because there are more shows on Broadway than there have been. We talk about women and about diversity and people of color, and you really see the core values of the people who are producing Broadway shows when you look at those numbers of women and people of color actually working on Broadway.
Nell Benjamin: Particularly in theater, where you’re going to be working long hours, you’re going to be out till midnight, people hire their friends, people they know, which makes a lot of sense from a creative and personal point of view. The tough part is that if you were not in there at the beginning, it’s very hard to get in there later. I think, rather than moan about the number—which is terrible and we all know is terrible—it’s finding those opportunities to get people in the room with other people, before a situation arises where you’re working on a show that’s high-stakes and a director is like, “I just need my people.”
LaChanze: If you take a look at even our production [“Summer”], there is not one female represented on our crew. [Producers] are really sensitive to that issue, having gone so far as to insist on a majority-female band and majority females onstage, because these are very smart men that we work for and they know that that’s what’s lacking and they want to actually address that issue. But it still doesn’t go unnoticed that in order for this production to be done, it was predominantly men that put it together.
Do you think progress in theater as far as female representation has been particularly slow?
NB: I am surprised that we’re just now having the conversation, given how generally “progressive” theater tends to be. I don’t know if I would compare it to other industries, but the great thing about theater is it has these conversations onstage, so the question is, can we have these conversations offstage and have them a little quicker? Sometimes, when you’re working in a room—and I don’t think this is just for women, but for any writer—something hits you the wrong way and you think, I’m not sure that character would say that. Those are the moments where you look around and say, “Huh, I guess I am the only voice for this gender/race/background in the room.”
LS: I think it’s a fantasy that we think, as theater people, we are progressive. I think that one of the ways theater can actually become a more progressive place is to recognize that that’s a fantasy, and I think some theater still has work to do in that area. Actually, the real difference is between commercial theater and noncommercial theater, because it feels to me we are in the dark ages when it comes to who people feel like can make money and create moneymaking shows. I do feel like there is a great effort, starting now, to have more inclusive seasons, to program with an eye for underrepresented voices, and to have more women leading. But the closer you get to the money, the fewer women there are and certainly fewer people of color.
L: The answer to that question is yes. But I do think with the whole movement that’s been happening this past year with gender, we are aggressively making strides. I think the sensitivity is almost like a splash of cold water in the face for everyone. Now it’s like, “Oh, wait, that’s true,” and everyone’s becoming much more aware. I feel a sort of rapid adjustment happening. But we are still definitely underrepresented. I mean, think about it, how many women have been nominated for director [Tony Awards]?
You’re all established now, but going back, what was it like when you were young women breaking into—or attempting to break into—this industry?
LS: There’s this amazing Jill Soloway quote where she says, “Men are hired for their potential and women are hired for their experience.” I think people have a hard time imagining a young woman leading a room with authority. They look at a young man and think, Oh, he’s a wunderkind. Society has operated under the belief that there’s a “young male genius” who can just take over, as opposed to women, who really have to prove their merit, and that’s very difficult when you’re just starting out.
NB: It’s one of the reasons I write what I write: so people can see powerful women onstage. Girls can see this and say, “That could be me, I could be a boss like that.” I was lucky in that I don’t think it’s the experience of most women to come in and say, “I’m sorry, is my gender a problem?” Because I thought it was just that I was new at this. Honestly, it was only later in exploring it and sort of comparing [my trajectory to others’] that I would think of that.
LS: I believe there are a couple of amazing things that have to happen in order for women to get hired. You have to, of course, be “good” and have craft so that when people do turn to you at the time of need, you’re able to deliver the goods. But you also have to have the good fortune of having people who believe in you so they can turn to you and say, “We’re gonna give you this chance.”
L: Coming up through the theater in America, while I have had success, I have had success in certain types of roles. I am an African-American woman of dark skin tone, and there are very specific roles that are usually given to African-American women of a darker hue. Let’s start with “Once on This Island”: peasant girl. Let’s go to “The Color Purple”: young girl, beaten. Let’s go to “Ragtime”: Her baby’s taken. The majority of the roles I’ve played are women who have been either impoverished or subjugated in some way. So while I’ve been fortunate enough to have success because these roles exist, they are stereotypical roles.
What, if any, are the actionable steps to be taken to make theater better for, kinder to, or more welcoming of women?
L: I wish there was more sensitivity to childcare. I feel that, for instance, as a lead actress, I’m able to negotiate certain things in my contract that will allow me the opportunity to have my children more present. But I know women working in the ensemble that struggle because there is nothing set up for them and their children, there’s nothing that helps them create space to have their children in the theater. And I think that’s hugely insensitive and unfair to all of the parents out there.
NB: A friend of mine who doesn’t work in theater but is very high-powered in the legal field was asked what advice she would give to women, and what she said really surprised me. She said if you are a parent and you have to reschedule or miss a work thing because of an important kid-related thing, please don’t lie. Please tell them, “As a mom, I have to deal with this parental thing.” She said no one does this because they think they’re not going to get promoted because they have kids. But the more of us who do it, the more it will be understood.
In a larger sense, we have to remind folks that different voices are profitable. That has been borne out. “Hamilton” bears it out, “Wicked” bears it out. These musicals that are a cross-section of society do well because people like to see themselves onstage.
LS: When I was coming up, there was a feeling that only one of us could get in through the door. There will always be competition between directors, because only one of us is hired for every job. But I do believe that can go hand in hand with having a theatrical ecosystem that can be inclusive. I think the answer in this moment isn’t, “Oh, everyone’s nicer.” The answer is that we actually take a rigorous look at the people we’ve worked with before; the relationship of directors in power to the rest of the room they’re working with. We look at who gets nominated for awards, who’s in charge of the nominating, how that system works. If we can really, in this moment, take a rigorous, honest look at how the theater community is functioning systemically, I do believe we can be the progressive place we all want to be in and work in.
To end on a note of optimism, what in this moment excites you about being a woman working in theater in 2018?
L: Working on “Summer.” It is a musical [depicting] one of our African-American female icons, and a woman who created a genre of music. Being onstage with all these powerful women is absolutely thrilling; not only the other [women playing younger versions of] Donna, but the women in the ensemble. They are all a force to be reckoned with, and it’s thrilling to feel their energy; collective, feminine energy—which is extremely different from male energy—bringing such power. It’s the female strength that I revel in every night, and it’s beautiful and it’s complex and it’s rich and it’s sensual and it’s strong.
LS: When I look at the season announcements that are coming out and I see so many women, I feel so encouraged. That feeling I’ve had for most of my career that there can only be one, or there can only be one a season, or the feeling that I’ve had many times being on panels where I’m the only woman director, or I’m answering questions about what it is to be the only woman in a season, or the only woman nominated in a category—those questions are tiresome. I look to the next [generation of women directors] and I see this army of fierce young women. I think they have a very different sense of what it is to be a woman in this industry because they’ve grown up with a very different sense of “their place.” And I think my idea of paying my dues and their idea of paying their dues are completely different. I’m grateful for their insistence on change and I think it makes the work that we all do feel more possible.
NB: There is a lot of precedent for creative girls doing their own thing, but there’s not a lot of precedent for girls who do their creative thing and run their own business accordingly and make a life for themselves; girls who manage to run the writers’ room in addition to being a voice in the writers’ room. I think I’m seeing a future where girls don’t see that as a problem, and they think, I can [run a room] and I am good at it. That’s what is exciting. The conversation has at least moved to the fact that, while the number may be terrible to even get you in the room, once you’re in, there are women out there being raised to believe you deserve to run the room, not just be in it.
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Photographed in NYC on March 29 by Emily Assiran