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TBA Online: News & Features: August 2018

Women in Tech

Tuesday, August 14, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Nicole Gluckstern

Although gender parity is a frequently discussed topic in the Bay Area theatre scene, the gender gap in production jobs still persists nationwide. According to a recently released study of off-Broadway theatres, conducted by the League of Professional Theatre Women over the course of seven seasons, women accounted for only 8 to 21 percent of lighting designers, 16 to 21 percent of sound designers, and 21 to 35 percent of set designers. Only in costume design (64 to 79 percent) and stage management (about 70 percent) are the numbers skewed in their favor. 

Even so, the Bay Area boasts a strong vanguard of female-identified designers, directors, and fight choreographers whose reputations for stellar work keeps them in demand, and whose presence helps inch the gender ratios of every production that much closer to parity, serving as an encouraging model for younger designers on the rise. To many theatre-goers, these unseen heroes of the production room may only be a semi-familiar name in a collection of programs—in charge of positioning the spotlights, not standing in them—but they are the linchpins of creating the overall experience of theatre

The Set Designer: Nina Ball  

Photo by Jon Tracy

When scenic designer Nina Ball arrives for her interview, she’s frantically fielding texts. She’s juggling seven projects, along with the normal demands of family life, including an 11-month-old baby, and it’s hard for her to find a free moment. One of the Bay Area’s most consistently inventive set designers—her credits run the gamut of local theatres from American Conservatory Theatre to Shotgun Players, where she is a company member—Ball likes to work big. Multi-story structures. Giddily tilting platforms. Steel girders and towering arches. 

 “I love transformation of space,” she exults. “What is that moment in the play where something shifts, and how does that help tell the story?”

Although her first career path was in biology, Ball gradually realized her real passion lay in the arts, studying fine art and photography at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, and eventually gravitating towards set design in San Francisco, first at City College and then at San Francisco State University. She credits the sciences with giving her a leg up with the analytical and problem-solving side of design, and her background in photography with her understanding of lighting and composition.

She admits to stage design’s challenging way of “constantly demanding can never turn it off,” but appreciates the autonomy and scheduling flexibility it gives her as a working mother. “It’s super family-friendly,” she asserts, “and that’s great.” 

The Lighting Designer: Heather Basarab  

Photo courtesy The Tam News

By the time you read this Basarab will have moved to Chicago, a blow to the community she’s been active in since the mid-90s. Despite that, she’s confident we haven’t seen the last of her. Out-of-town designers, she points out, are currently on trend in the Bay Area.

Basarab’s proud to say that, save for an early stint as a barista, she’s made her living solely from theatre. Drawn in part to the artistic nuance of lighting, "like the love child of painting, sculpture, and dance,” and partly to its rigor, “lots of nuts and bolts and logistics and math in service to a really intellectual conceit,” Basarab began dabbling in it while attending UCLA, and wound up changing her major and pursuing technical theatre ever since. 

Although her days have lately been spent working as a theatre educator, having her evenings (mostly) free gives her the ability to take on regular lighting projects. “I have a hard time turning anything down,” she admits ruefully, counting Shotgun Players, Cutting Ball, and Aurora Theatre among her regular clients. 

“I mostly love people and companies that prioritize design. If there's no design, or if design is not prioritized and respected, why not just stay home and read the play?”

The Rising Star: Brittany Mellerson

Photo courtesy Ms. Mellerson

She might be best known as a lighting designer but Mellerson’s theatrical resume is far more complex. Cautioned to “say yes to everything when you get out of school, you’re too broke not to,” by her professors at Point Park University's conservatory program, Mellerson’s busy schedule includes regular gigs and residencies on both coasts in lighting, sound, and as a master electrician. 

As a black woman, one of the less desirable realities of her chosen profession has been her lifelong struggle against being tokenized in the production room.

First … I needed to be seen as an adult, so I could stop being seen as ‘black girl,’ then I needed to be seen as a lighting designer, so I could stop being seen as a ‘woman,’” she muses. “I’ve never really bitched about it because in my world almost everything is male-dominated [but] at the same time that just means everything in my world is a challenge.”  

All that’s really missing for her is the Tony she’d planned on winning by the age of 27 (she’s 26). But until she gets one, she’s content to let her love of the work be its own reward.

“There’s so much to say artfully, and so much to do physically, how could you ever get bored? As a designer, no day has to be the same.”

The Fight Director: Carla Pantoja  

Photo courtesy Ms. Pantoja

Although not every company finds the budget to bring in a fight director, the prolific Pantoja’s heard enough horror stories of fights gone wrong (broken arms, slashed tracheas) to willingly work with a variety of budgets and time constraints from inquiring companies. What she can’t abide are last-minute panic calls from shows that open in a week or two and “suddenly” realize they need a fight choreographer. 

“I call those ‘theatrical hospice gigs,’” she comments wryly. “Those just hurt my soul.” As one of her mentors—long-time Bay Area fight director Richard Lane—once pointed out, a production company committed to putting on a musical would hire their music director and dance choreographer before rehearsals started, so why wouldn’t you hire your fight director equally early in the process?

While she admits to having run into some patriarchal attitudes over the years in her male-dominated profession, what she’s noticed lately is that she’s being approached more often for specific, contemporary works dealing with violence against women. 

Perhaps it’s thought that as a woman, I can approach and work on these pieces with a little more mindfulness, insight, and care of the actors … I do know what it’s like to jog down the street and to be treated like prey, so I do have a certain insight going for me.”

The Costume Designer: Alina Bokovikova

Photo courtesy American Theatre.

Newly finding her footing in the Bay Area, Bokovikova’s costume designs have nonetheless found good homes in a diverse range of companies, from Cutting Ball to San Jose Opera. Like Nina Ball, her path to theatre design was circuitous. She has a master’s in education and art school training from her previous life in Novosibirsk, Siberia, and it wasn’t until she moved to Redlands, California with her husband and children that she became interested in stagecraft—so much so that she eventually earned another master’s in costume design from U.C. San Diego. 

Here in San Francisco, she heads the Costume Design program at the School of Fashion of the Academy of Arts and frequently turns to her students for assistance with her outside design projects. By facilitating collaborations and internships at Bay Area theatre companies, Bokovikova provides her students with real-world production experience.

As for her aesthetic, she’s especially attracted to “abstract, avant-garde theatre...European style,” and enjoys best the costume designs that allow her to combine the “historical with the modern,” such as her critically-acclaimed, flora-laden costuming for Cutting Ball’s Hedda Gabler

“I want to work on … shows where I can bring some design and visual interest...but those theatres that are doing exciting stuff are not supported well … no one has costume shop! If I want to have good quality, I have to do it for myself.”

Nicole Gluckstern is an arts journalist and theatre-maker in San Francisco. You can read her most current work at the East Bay Express and KQED Arts, or stalk her on twitter at @enkohl