By Fontana Butterfield Guzmán, actor and director
At our most recent “Yeah, I said Feminist.” Theatre Salon we were riffing, working on developing our logo. I suggested “Changing the Canon,” which morphed into “Transforming the Canon,” “Exploding the Canon,” “Birthing the Canon” and “Firing the Canon.” Let’s just say that the concept of “the canon” brings up a lot of feelings when speaking with a group of feminist theatre artists. The canon, which Wikipedia defines as “a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works, e.g. ‘the canon of great literature,’” translates to a lot of plays written by white men, with the majority of acting parts for men with a couple of women thrown in. The women’s parts are divided into “the girl who tends to be kissed” and the “other woman”; gender-neutral roles are assumed to be played by men. This definition of the “canon” of plays has been told to us over the years to explain away the unequal number of men and women in the major acting school programs and therefore on our major stages.
And the word “feminist”? Discussing what “feminism” is, and what our individual reactions to that word are, has been a big part of the Salon. It’s a hot-button word and a lot of us have strong and confusing feelings about what is means to be a feminist. A good part of the Salon’s conversations have also been about defining what it means to be a feminist theatre artist. The question I have put forth at the top of each of the Salons is “Who are you, what do you do and how do you feel about the word ‘feminist’?” There have been as many varied responses as there have been responders, from young women fresh out of college looking around to see where they can find work, to women who fought for our rights in the 1960's and 1970's and are amazed that we are still fighting for equality, to women like me who thought we didn't need to be feminists any more and are surprised to find that, now that we are established, it's really difficult to make a living doing what we love—especially after taking a break to start a family.
For me, focusing on that one question over these past few months has been about finally waking up and starting to ask other hard questions: Why is it that fewer women are on our stages? How long are we going to sit back and accept that it’s a hard world out there for a female theatre artist? I know that I am tired of hearing “There are just more parts for men and more good plays written by men. It’s just the way it is.” We want to work. We want to work in the theatre and to tell our stories and be heard. So—let’s fire the “canon!”
The current political climate is a huge marker of how women are fighting back. We drifted away from “feminism” as it became a bad word associated with angry lesbians and asexual women who hate men. Although we have four new female senators after the election, we are still at 20 out of 100—but, hey, we've come a long way, baby. Why do numbers matter? “As we increase the number of women, it brings to the forefront issues of women and families in a whole different way,” said Stephanie Schriock in the “Kansas City Star” on November 13, 2012. Schriock is the president of Emily’s List, an organization that works to elect women who support abortion rights to political office. “Women bring a different life experience,” says Schriock. Women do bring a different life experience. That is why I want more woman-centered stories on stage, center stage. Women can be the ones that have the adventure, not simply be the supporters of the plot.
The creation of the “Yeah, I said Feminist.” Theatre Salon came out of a two-sentence Facebook status update I made in August: “I’m thinking of starting a feminist theatre company. Yeah, I said Feminist.” The responses came pouring in: “Do it!” “Love it!” “Great! Even though it should be every theatre.” “Sign Me Up!” “Will you be pre-casting women and making men audition?? I’m in!”
We now have over 250 members on our group page. Members include actors, playwrights, directors, casting directors, artistic directors, designers, dramaturgs, theatre journalists, theatre activists and university professors. We plan, among other actions, to encourage theatres to produce more plays written by women. At our first salon, for example, Christine Young announced that she was working to launch Works by Women SF, a website that “supports productions written, directed, designed, performed and/or produced by women theatre artists—a small step towards the larger goal of achieving gender parity for women in theatre nationally.” The website will include a library of plays by female playwrights, blogs, forums, discussion groups, images of women onstage and “Meet Ups,” where Salon members meet and see a show together to support theatres that have gender parity in their productions. Another example is Shotgun Players (of which I am a company member), which has committed to a season of all-female playwrights for 2015. One member suggested at our Salon convening last Sunday that we get other theatre companies to pass the torch and continue this action of planning a season of all-female playwrights for 2016 and beyond.
Our mission statement so far runs like this: “A Theatre Salon created by Bay Area theatre artists whose purpose is to change the tide. We are watching. We are counting. We are changing the landscape of gender parity in our theatre community.” More than this, we are also working to include ideas of sustainable action. By counting the numbers of artists working, we can hold a mirror to the community and say “this is who is working on your stages, does this seem fair? Is this how the Bay Area is representing?” We are frustrated with theatre companies putting up one play per season written by a woman (if that!). We are disheartened that the majority of Equity contracts go to men. Female parts can be cast over and over again but it’s really hard to find enough available male actors. So basically, men are earning more than women on our stages.
When we, who live and love in this Shangri-La of progressive thinking that is the Bay Area, think of how radical and forward-thinking San Francisco is in terms of civil rights, free thinking, technology, LGBT rights, etc. etc., it is alarming to find that our theatre community is okay with unequal representation of women in theatre. We have the opportunity to change the idea of the “canon”; to show New York and the rest of our country what it means to be forward-thinking.
One of the Salon’s major goals is to shine the spotlight on the theatres that are producing plays with gender parity among directors, casts, designers and playwrights. To do this, we are creating a stamp of approval, similar to the Eco green leaf, for the spotlight theatres to put in their programs and season brochures. Because it matters. Because I believe in the words of Cheris Kramarae, who said, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.”
The views represented in this Chatterbox Art & Opinion post are those of the individual author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Theatre Bay Area or its staff.