Designing Women

Despite the assumption that the arts are a bastion of liberalism, women remain wildly underrepresented onstage and off. In the past four seasons on Broadway, women held only about 16.9% of the writing credits at most. That number does not improve much when the range of theatres is expanded to include the entire country where it is estimated that approximately 24% of all plays produced feature a female writer despite the fact that women make up 51% of the population and about 65% of Broadway audiences. Earlier this year it was revealed in a study on the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) that with the exception of costume designers, women make up a minority of the designers hired for LORT productions. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother), “The U.S. Department of Labor considers any profession with less than 25 percent female employment, like being a machinist or firefighter, to be ‘untraditional’ for women. Using the 2008 numbers, that makes playwriting, directing, set design, lighting design, sound design, choreography, composing and lyric writing all untraditional occupations for women.”

Although the numbers paint a bleak picture, at the University of Pittsburgh the Department of Theatre Arts faculty and instructors are making an effort to empower their students through classroom and production experiences. The University of Pittsburgh Stages’s recent production of Water by the Spoonful, for example, featured an all-student, all-female design team. Lighting professor and designer Annmarie Duggan commented, “This is the first time in my nine years at Pitt on the main-stage [that all of the designers were women].” The student designers, themselves, seem to have recognized this unique opportunity to collaborate with fellow students and fellow women.

Becca Smith, the set designer and projections co-designer said that she thinks stereotypes often influence inequality in the workplace. “Men are seen as being able to make strong decisions and to be able to vocalize their opinions,” she said. “One of the things Annmarie pushes on [her students], particularly female students, is to be able to walk into a room and defend your idea,” she added. Smith, a senior majoring in theatre arts and communication/rhetoric, came to scenic design from her earlier passion for scenic painting. She previously designed the sets for Stop Kiss and Matt & Ben. Speaking to her training over the years in the theatre department, Smith said, “Moving from last year to this year, Gianni [Downs] pushed me to… own your ideas and not make compromises because you don’t feel confident enough in a room full of men to have the dominant idea or opinion – that being a woman doesn’t make your opinion any less valid.”

Lauryn Morgan Thomas, the production’s lighting designer and the other half of the co-design team for projections, echoed Smith’s sentiment. “The women in our department are very strong and confident leaders, and it's an honor to learn from them. Annmarie in particular, who is my mentor both in lighting and in life really, has been an incredible role model for me,” she said. Thomas, a junior theatre arts and English major, is a performer as well – appearing in Pitt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the fairy Peasblossom. This was Thomas’s first design and she met the challenge with the help of her fellow designers and Professor Annmarie Duggan, especially “how to carry yourself in a professional setting, and knowing how to pick your battles,” she said. Thomas went on to compare working on Water by the Spoonful to her experience at a regional theatre this past summer. “I was rarely respected,” she said. “I never had control of the room (and I was the stage manager, go figure) and it was very difficult to get my ideas heard. It was kind of jarring, but I think that after that working on Water with both Annmarie and the other talented female designers taught me more about having my voice heard.”

Upon hearing how her students  responded to the experience, Duggan said, “That’s good news…. I know women can succeed and that they can thrive in this field, which is not something a lot of them are told in high school before they come here.” Not only are the students told they can thrive in the field, they learn that lesson through the examples of their peers and faculty. “There are so many strong, fierce, intelligent women doing amazing work, particularly here,” said Smith. “Annmarie, being my advisor, I get a lot of direction from her,” she added, “but even just in passing conversations with Lisa and Cindy and Karen and Kim and Michelle, they always have something awesome to contribute to my education and, supplementally, because they’re women, it’s empowering to me as a student.”

In addition to drawing support from their faculty mentors, this design team unanimously agreed that they have never been a part of a team that was so supportive from within. The production stage manager, Valerie Huang, a junior theatre arts major who previously stage managed The Fever Chart and God Committee, found comfort in working with her peers on this production – her first on the MainStage. “I felt like it was easier to voice my concerns [as a stage manager] and it was nice to work with colleagues as opposed to people in higher power and more experience than you. In essence, it was less intimidating,” said Huang. Kim Potenga, a senior theatre arts and human resources management major, said, “I think we, as designers, all approached this show interested in being strong collaborators and supporting each other, largely because we’re all friends outside of this production.” Madrid Vinarski, the production costume designer, agreed, saying, “It was a very supportive environment. We would chat a lot more outside of meetings than we usually do and share our materials with each other.” Vinarski, who performs as well as designs (and appeared alongside fellow designer Thomas in Midsummer), is a senior theatre arts major, also commented that working on Water by the Spoonful with female collaborators gave her a new sense of appreciation for what she does as a designer and with whom she designs.

Indeed, the University of Pittsburgh department of theatre arts is enabling its students to stand up for their work, which will help to change those startling sexist statistics. Potenga commented that it is precisely because she has been trained by accomplished female faculty that she feels ready to enter professional theatre world and do anything she sets her mind to: “I’ve never had the outlook that anything in theatre is less possible because I’m a woman,” she said, “and I would largely attribute that to the fact that Pitt’s female theatre faculty are so accomplished.” Smith even added, “I think… seeking out female collaborators is something that is going to be more important to me in my [future] work.” As the department continues to train students to enter into the workforce, with any luck, the statics of the present will become the trends of the past.

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