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Gender Parity

Gender parity—what has been my experience and how has it shaped my view of hiring practices in theater? How has it changed over my thirty-eight-year career? Was it ever an issue for me? How has it (or hasn’t it) affected my hiring decisions?

When I was approached to share my thoughts on this subject, many memories came rushing back to me about why I chose this profession and how it has shaped me and my beliefs.

One of my strongest motivators for choosing theater was my heartfelt belief that the theater business was one in which your gender, look, sexual preference, ethnicity, religion, and political leanings were considered as unimportant criteria in making hiring decisions. Putting together the best people with the best chemistry between them was how to put together a theater production. It was one of the few places in the world where your ability to do the job was the most important decision maker. This was what I thought theater to be.

I grew up in Canada throughout the 1950s and 60s—my high school guidance teacher had three suggestions for my professional life—teaching, nursing, and social work. There was a significant pressure for me to train to be a teacher—my dad thought it would be a good backup in case of a failed marriage or if my husband died. My work hours would be the same as my children’s school hours. There was never any suggestion that I might not get married or have children—that of course would be my main role. When I told my dad that I was going into professional theater, he worked hard to convince me to get my permanent teaching certificate and then pursue theater if I absolutely had to. I didn’t follow his plan.

A street sign
Hitting that glass ceiling.
Photo by Marcia Zidle.

When I told my dad that I was going into professional theater, he worked hard to convince me to get my permanent teaching certificate and then pursue theater if I absolutely had to. I didn’t follow his plan.

Want ads of the time period were full of advertisements for Girl Fridays and it was not only acceptable but expected that women would be paid less for doing exactly the same job as the men they worked next to. When I was working on an assembly line assembling color televisions in a factory in Toronto one summer as a university student, I asked the foreman why my male fellow student on our assembly line was paid more per hour. After all, our jobs were interchangeable and we often switched around. I was told, not unkindly, that he made more money because he would someday be a head of a household, unlike me. When I left the job, this foreman told me how sorry he was to see me go and that I could always have a job with their factory. It wasn’t quality or quantity of work that was the issue regarding pay—it was gender. What we get paid sends a myriad of messages and it was decades after this that the law changed in Canada to equal pay for equal work.

At university in the early 1970s, I discovered an amazing thing called theater. It was fantastic to find something about which I was so passionate, and at the same time, I felt really good at. I was wanted for my skill set. No one seemed to care about gender—they cared that I could call really good cues, was mentally and physically present in the rehearsal hall, and ran a performance with sensitivity and artistry. Were my notes helpful and did the performance grow the way that the director had envisioned? Even when I read in a textbook about producing theater that men made better stage managers than women and women made better assistant stage managers (because women are good at detail), it didn’t put me off theater. This was an old fashioned and dated way of thinking. I had a dream and it was attainable!

In 1975, as I was about to graduate from university, I was a finalist at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada for the production assistant job. The other finalist was a man. Both the interviewers were men who had been part of the original stage management team in the first season at Stratford in 1953. (All stage management jobs in the first season at Stratford were held by men.)  I got the job. It didn’t occur to me that I might not get it on the basis of gender; I thought I wouldn’t get it based on lack of experience or skills. That would have been legitimate—I had neither. I got the job because the production stage manager told me a joke and I laughed. Many months later, he told me that when I laughed at his joke he decided to hire me. He thought I had the right sense of humor to be a stage manager and much more so than the other candidate. I don’t think gender was even on his list—clearly sense of humor was! (Some would say my whole career is based on a joke but that’s another story for another day…)

The first five years of my career were enormously rewarding, happy, and fun. I worked really hard and was learning new things every day, and the women and men with whom I worked were caring and nurturing of me as I learned my profession. I’ve been mentored by the same male artistic director, female set and costume designer, and actress/director/teacher throughout my entire career. All three spent countless hours talking to me in those early years—shaping my knowledge and thinking by telling me stories of the theater and educating me about both the art form and the business of theater. They were the first people I called when I didn’t know which way was up, and they guided me with wisdom and patience.

Theater wasn’t without its pitfalls for me—three different men of the theater crossed the sexual harassment line. I reported these incidents to my various male bosses each time (each incident was at a different theater) and each time I was advised to keep my mouth shut if I wanted a career. It was also a time when there were no women on the crews backstage at any of the union houses at which I worked except for wardrobe.

I liked being a stage manager; I felt well respected by both artists and administrators. I’ve worked with twelve different male artistic directors and four female artistic directors throughout my career. I’ve worked with one male artistic director at two different theaters and with another male artistic director at three different theaters. At Stratford I worked with my first female director, but I can think of only a handful of plays (out of a couple of hundred) that I worked on that had a female director in the first twenty years of my career. I’ve worked at six different theaters with female management leaders (not including the theaters that I have managed). Three times (beginning in 1984), I worked at theaters that had both leadership roles led by women.

As a production manager, I felt much the same as I did as a stage manager—that I was respected, needed, and wanted by both artists and administrators. I was first hired by a male artistic director. When he left the theater, I had my first experience working at a theater where women led both the artistic and administrative functions. I didn’t like it more or less than my previous experience working for a guy.

I was also hiring assistant stage managers, production assistants, and then entire production staffs. I don’t remember specifically thinking about gender in hiring different people. I do remember thinking about whether personalities would fit together, and who had high working standards, passion about the work, and best skill set. I have always thought that smart, engaged people are drawn to the art form, and that most of us are capable of learning whatever is necessary to get the job done—but you can’t teach personality.

In my mid-thirties, I began to look for general management positions rather than production or stage management jobs. It was then that I felt like I hit a wall. I couldn’t get any interviews; no one seemed to take me seriously, and for the first time I wondered if my gender was holding me back from progressing in my career. Male friends with seemingly less experience and with what looked like equal talent were beginning to be selected for great new management adventures, while I continued to apply and be summarily rejected. My trust that theater was truly an egalitarian workplace began to erode. I wondered whether I would be getting interviews if I were a man with my credentials. I was becoming jealous of the success of my male friends in getting to where I wanted to go and leaving me behind in their dust—I felt the glass ceiling and I didn’t know if I would ever break through. I was losing confidence and questioning whether I was good enough to move up the ranks of the profession. All of my male friends and colleagues in stage/production management who  wanted to take the next step had moved ahead, but I couldn’t seem to even begin to open the door.

The driving reason I wanted to manage a theater was that I felt that the center of what we do is the actor/patron relationship. Too many of the theaters I was working at had managements that did not live by this central value, and I was getting bitter about the whole business. I was becoming the smart-mouthed, biting stage manager in the green room with nothing good to say about any person in management. I realized that I needed either to be part of the solution to address the lack of attention to the actor/patron center or get out of the business and do something else. Although I might not be as smart or as savvy as some of the folks in management, I knew that I would care about the artists and the audience, and put this philosphy at the center of the business strategy.

After several years of getting nowhere in my job applications and approaching forty, I went back to school to pursue an MBA. It was frightening and exhilarating at the same time. And it was so self-indulgent! At business school it was all for me! I pressured myself to do more and learn more and to achieve—in the end it was all about me learning a new language of business. I was shocked and encouraged by how well I did and discovered gifts I never even knew I had. I realized that numbers make natural sense to me.

I wonder why I never had an inkling of this. Was it because I was a girl and not encouraged in school to explore that part of myself? I asked my best friend from high school if she would be surprised to hear that I had an affinity for numbers and she told me she would be shocked. Whatever the reason, it was so cool to find that studying statistics was fun and applicable to the skills I wanted to learn.

My first job after my MBA was as the manager of the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Canada. My mentor artistic director was the general director and he is the person who pushed to get me hired. Without him I wouldn’t have found myself in such a prestigious institution, nor would I have had the terrific learning experience that was my first true management job. He taught me an incalculable amount about managing people, boards, and a theater. All of my interviews were with men. I had two board presidents in my tenure, one male and one female.

It was at a donor event in Edmonton where I had my first “Well, little lady, this is an awfully big job for such a little lady” moment. I was taken aback and miffed. I can’t remember what I said, but the man’s wife touched me on the forearm and looked me in the eye and said, “Good for you, dear!”

My second theater manager job, beginning in 1996, was at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Moving to the United States from Canada was a culture shock—we may be neighbors, but we are two distinctly different countries.

I was hired by an A.C.T. board search committee headed by a woman who is famous in Northern California for her advocacy around giving women professional opportunities. She was the one who researched and found me in Canada, and approached me about interviewing—her source was my male artistic director, who again helped me make another step in my career. I know that the female artistic director, Carey Perloff, was asked, “What kind of message would it send to the community if A.C.T. has two women heading up the organization?” She had apparently replied, “I don’t know. What message do you think it would send if two men were the head of the organization?”

As I became more experienced in gender parity (or lack of it) in various organizations, I also became more thoughtful and aware that fewer women were writing plays or directing them in the theaters in which I worked. There were more roles for men in plays than women. In the resident acting companies, about 25 percent of the actors were women. Color-blind casting was practiced extensively.

When I interviewed in 2010 for my current job at Dallas Theater Center, I didn’t even think about whether gender was an issue in the search committee’s thinking. I felt like I was checking them out as much as they were checking me out.

The committee was headed by the male board chair, but there was no doubt in my mind that women had played a crucial and significant role in building DTC. There was palpable power exuding from quite a number of women on the committee. One female past chair was fantastic, and when she talked of the unique opportunity that was in Dallas at that moment and the difference that an arts leader could make right now, I was thrilled. The board leadership team members were articulate and persuasive, and made me feel very wanted. The male board chair was very impressive and the male artistic director made me want to move to Dallas and partner with him.

One female past chair was fantastic, and when she talked of the unique opportunity that was in Dallas at that moment and the difference that an arts leader could make right now, I was thrilled.

Now, I’ve worked with amazingly talented and very powerful women in the theater in both Canada and the United States: Maggie Smith, Jessica Tandy, Martha Henry, Jackie Burroughs, Maggie Tyzack, Olympia Dukakis, Susan Benson, Eve Ensler, Leigh Silverman, Lisa Kron, Jayne Houdyshell, Judy Kaye, and Carey Perloff immediately come to mind. They are all people  I admire and whose artistic ability has helped to shape my theater practice and career. At the same time, male artists of equal talent, skill, reknown, and genius have also shaped me: Robin Phillips, William Hutt, Jeremy Brett, Hume Cronyn, Brian Bedford, Nicholas Pennell, Tom Stoppard, Keith Michell, John Neville, Malcolm Black, Bernard Havard, and Zaz Bajon are some of the men of the theater who have nurtured me and my talent.

So what about gender parity? The answer is that I frankly don’t know whether or not I was held back because of my gender. Maybe I had a chip on my shoulder and it made me an unattractive candidate. Perhaps there was parity but experiential learning wasn’t meant for me.

I do know that I was extremely lucky to have had the luxury of being able to return to school for two years to get my MBA. It was thanks to my uncle; he was the adult who was my great supporter all through my childhood, and the money he left me put me through school without amassing debt. Without it, I don’t think I ever would have had the chance to do what I have been doing for the last twenty-one years. That’s what eventually opened the door for me—and once I squeezed through, I stayed. I’m thankful for him, and for every man and woman who has taught me and influenced me to be the person I am today. It takes a village to make a theater manager—however one gets the opportunity.

Thoughts from the curator

A discussion and response to the call for better gender parity in theatre.

Gender Parity


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Thank you for sharing your story, Heather. I think you and I are about the same age, and it's fascinating to look back (and forward!) at our careers regarding gender issues. I believe it would be valuable for more of us to do so, and I thank HowlRound for the opportunity.

My theatrical experience - first as actress, then as business owner, now as writer and leadership consultant - leads me to the same questions you share: how much of a role did gender play? Was it the MBA or lack thereof? 

I thought of the theatre as biased against women from the time I auditioned at TCG in 1969, and noted that every resident theatre had (by my count) about an 80/20% split in favor of men. I didn't complain, 'cause I was lucky enough to get lots of offers, but it was clear that every play I could think of had way more men than women. Katori Hall spoke memorably about this at the 2012 TCG Fall Forum, as to the double whammy of gender with race.
As a performer for 20 years (at Trinity Rep, Arena Stage, Long Wharf, On and Off-Broadway) I hungered to work with colleagues, and they were usually my competitors! Just as I was shifting my career away from acting, a bunch of my competitors banded together to write and perform MAMA DRAMA at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. We did it: 5 of us cast onstage together because the writers insisted! Shortly thereafter this writer wanted someone else to play her role, and I completed my career shift.

When I joined my husband Roger Morgan in Sachs Morgan Studio: Theatre Design Specialists, we were 50-50 partners though I had not been active in the company. I decided it would be healthy for the Studio AND for me if I ran the business so Roger - who hates business - could focus on design. Fortunately, It worked, as I learned how to do it by the seat of my pants. The gender issues I encountered over the next 25 years were outside the Studio, not inside. There's a story all its own (beginning with being asked by clients to get the coffee or tea, or pass it, or clear it away... every one of us has dealt with that one!)

I've written much more in this response than I intended, while on a flight to Dallas to attend the Women Presidents Organization (WPO) annual conference. Gender parity among WPO business leaders is frequently a hot topic. Clearly I have to return to this subject.

And see you in Dallas, Heather!

Heather, I have always loved your story and your perspective...thanks for being one of my mentors along the way.

Heather, thanks for this wonderful, and in-depth personal account. I think a lot of us assume that people in high-profile positions in the theatre just sort of parachuted into those roles from Olympus or somewhere. Your journey -- bucking your father, and working (for less) at a factory to pay for college, and finding a way to break through a glass ceiling -- is inspiring for all of us.

Thank you for telling your story in such detail and with so much self-awareness and curiosity. As a woman in my 40's, I really value hearing the stories of artistic women in the generations above and below me. It helps me make sense of my own story and allows me to think more critically about my interpretation of my career path's relationship to gender. I also appreciate hearing about the people who have helped and mentored you along the way - a reminder that careers are built on relationships as much as they are on accomplishments.

This is so fascinating..interesting that you aren’t sure whether gender played a role in your career or not. And, if it did, how much. I think that’s true for so many of us; we can look at the big picture and say, yes, women are under-represented in our field, but it’s so much more difficult to suss out why we may be hitting a brick wall at any given moment. Kudos to you for getting an MBA and taking it upon yourself to become more competitive regardless!