Why I Will Never Produce Another All-Female Outdoor Show Again
This summer, my company Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company produced an all-female version of The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. The production was free to all and produced in a local city park. And after that experience I know one thing for sure: I am never producing another outdoor all-female show again. Ever. And neither should you.
Let me explain.
We performed in a local park in Somerville, Massachusetts. It had to be free and open to the public in accordance with our permit from the city. The show was cast with a group of ten young women. The director, most of the designers, the stage manager, and our full administrative staff were female.
Some men would try to move or touch the set, talk to the actors while they were backstage during the show, or just park it right behind the backstage area and sit there for hours—one of them eight hours straight one day—watching us.
And that was great—our mission is to give opportunity to female theatre artists. But what that meant was: there were no men. None. It was young ladies as far as the eye could see in that park without any male company.
Vaguely, I must have known that a few homeless people would populate a public park in summer every now and then. But I really didn’t think much of it. I would be there every day anyway if there were any problems, so it would be fine….
It was not fine.
The men who frequented the park (and I say “men” not to point fingers but because every single one of them was, in fact, a man) were often homeless and almost always drunk or high. We are in the middle of an opioid crisis in Massachusetts, after all. So there we were, fifteen or so young women in a park going about our theatre business. It wasn’t long before the men began to approach us. Some would try to move or touch the set, talk to the actors while they were backstage during the show, or just park it right behind the backstage area and sit there for hours—one of them eight hours straight one day—watching us.
I talked to the local police about the issue, and was told there was nothing legally I could do. It was a public park and as long as these men were not physically doing anything wrong, they were allowed to stay. Simply making us all uncomfortable was not a reason to ask the police to remove them. Having to deal with men, under the influence, by myself, in a park was not something, as Artistic Director, I was prepared for.
I had some very unhappy actors on my hands. Actors who were being leered at and approached by strange, often intoxicated, men. The few times I approached these men to ask them to move, not touch the set, or sit with the rest of the audience while the show was going on, I was met with a level of aggression I was not prepared for.
These gentlemen did not appreciate a freckle-faced little lady telling them what to do in anything resembling an authoritative voice. They would yell back at my request and I would immediately back down. I learned to quickly change to the safest possible tactic: flirting. And it was awful. It felt gross. It still makes me angry even thinking about the fact that the only workable tool at my disposal to diffuse that situation was to put on a smile, apologize profusely, and gently manipulate them in my girliest, highest-pitched voice.
The more we stand up in front of the world, do the work, and speak the speech, the faster things will change. I will not be silenced. I may not do another outdoor all-female show, but I’m not through fighting yet to make women’s stories more visible.
Having to lower yourself to flirting and smiling at a man who you find frightening in order to ensure your safety and the safety of those around you is humiliating. And though no one made me do it, I don’t really think I had any other choice in that moment. Engaging them at their level of aggression would not end well. For however strong, and smart, and capable I feel on the inside, I was still 5’6” and 120 lbs on the outside up against a man twice my size who was getting angry and already in an altered state of mind.
As much as I hated doing it, and as much as I hate admitting it, it was the only safe way to deal with that particular breed of Angry Male. Because even men whose lives are in shambles, who have nowhere to go but a public park, and nothing to kill the pain but these substances still believe that as a woman I must interact with them in a certain way that maintains gender roles. And that they have the right to leer at young women any time they please, especially if there are no other men around to stop them.
By the end of the run, I had asked my boyfriend to come to the shows to sit backstage and discourage these men from approaching the actors. It worked. They were gone. As he sat up there one day, my female usher and I sat at the Front of House Table when a man approached: drunk, scary, and carrying a giant handle of whiskey. He began to regale us with tales of his drinking, of men he had suddenly decided to beat up, and of how no one messed with him. He stayed there at the table talking at us for a good fifteen minutes, and all of our quiet smiling and gentle encouragement for him to leave was not working. I suppose I could have asked him to leave, but my thought was, “This man is clearly unstable and drunk—what might he do if I upset him?” I texted my boyfriend to come down to us. And the second he appeared, the guy scampered off in a hurry.
And that just proved to me these men know what they’re doing. They know that this behavior is not acceptable, but they believe they have a right to my attention, to my time, and to look at my body as much as they want, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.
The bottom line is, it’s sad, but it is not safe to do an all-female show in a public park. In 2015, it is still not safe—even in broad daylight—to be female in public…unless your boyfriend is there.
Finally, so I don’t leave this all wallowing in victimhood, let me say that it was still a great show. We brought art to a community that lacked it. We showed women in strong, dynamic leading roles to people that were not usual theatregoers. That is how I fight this system. There will always be people at your work, in your town, in your government who do not see women, minorities, or people with disabilities as beings with thoughts and feelings as acute and complex as their own. But the more we stand up in front of the world, do the work, and speak the speech, the faster things will change. I will not be silenced. I may not do another outdoor all-female show, but I’m not through fighting yet to make women’s stories more visible. I’ve barely even started.