Interview with Carey Perloff

Brad Erickson: Gender parity and other kinds of diversity issues seem to be so front-burner right now, but it’s not like people haven’t been thinking and talking and writing about this for a long while. What is it about this moment, do you think?

Carey Perloff: Earlier this year, Ellen [Richard] and I wrote a letter to the whole board at TCG asking them to consider gender in the TCG Strategic Plan commitment to diversity and inclusion. The response from TCG basically said that they only wanted to address issues of racial diversity now and gender was not the priority. End of discussion. From there, we saw your Executive Director’s Note in the Theater Bay Area talking about this issue and here we are. I thought, “You know what, maybe it does happen on the local level, maybe this is where change happens.” And boy, if it could happen anywhere, it’s the Bay Area, because at least we care about it, and we’re a crucible of social change.

There are many, many threads to tease out of this. One has to do with women playwrights and women’s stories and why those are so underrepresented. Another is, obviously, women artists. We look at women directors, we look at women playwrights, but we don’t look at other roles—like set designers, for example. We’re still in a place where set design, because it’s about construction, is a male field, and so there are far fewer women doing that. So there are many different threads to tease out.

We’re in this period of rabid anti-institutionalism. I have to say for women that’s a huge mistake. To rail against the institutions is not ultimately helpful. I have found, as a woman, that there is solace and possibility in being part of an institution, because what women need is a structure to be able to sustain their lives, and that has to do with children. So we might as well admit it.

Two other things I think are really important for us to talk about: The child care issue is huge. Huge. Would that this were a male/female issue, but it isn’t. That [is something] Sheryl Sandberg [COO of Facebook since 2008, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead] is pretty honest about, and it’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way it is; women do lean back the minute the issue of children comes up.

I wanted to be a director and a writer. I never intended to run a theatre. I did it because it was the only way I was going to have a family. You’re very lucky if you’re in an institution as a director because you don’t have to be on the road all the time. Being on the road with children is impossible.

My friends who are women, who have children, who are on the road—many, many directors, I could name handfuls of them—end up opting out of their real front-foot directing careers and teaching instead, because it is not workable. It’s just not workable.

That is a huge issue that the field needs to take on. I cannot believe that TCG hasn’t done anything about this. That we don’t seem interested in this as a field. This is really something we can only do in aggregate. We tried to deal with child care when I first came to ACT, but the regulations are so enormous, a single institution is challenged to do it alone. But it’s not impossible.

That’s one thing. The other thing that’s really interesting to me is that something like sixty percent of theatre tickets in this country are purchased by women between ages forty-five and seventy. But you tell me how many older women there are in this profession. As bad as it is to be a woman, to be a woman over forty-five is virtually the black hole. When Irene Lewis got fired at Baltimore Center Stage—Irene, one of our most important theatre artists in this country, one of the best artistic directors I know, a real mentor to me, a terrific artist, a compassionate human being, just positive in every way—when she got fired, I think I was the only person who called up and said, “Would you like a job? Do you want to come and direct?” That was unbelievable to me. Maybe this is this country’s obsession with emerging artists, but we certainly throw away older artists in this field, and we particularly throw away women over forty-five. And there is an amazing wisdom that any human being [gains] as they get older that we should want to keep in the theatre. We should want to be a field that gets wiser, richer, deeper, and more complicated as we grow up. So there’s room for emerging people and there’s room for senior artists. If I hadn’t had that in my life, the Olympia [Dukakis]s, the Irene Lewises, the Michele Shays, I wouldn’t have had a career. Keeping people in the field should be a goal of all of ours, not throwing away talent when they’re over fifty. Trying to keep women is even more important, because they tend to step out for a while, so we’ve got to get them back.

Now, it is a gift to have this job. The reason I was able to have children, raise them, give them healthcare and send them to schools, and have a marriage, is that I have this job. I cannot tell you how grateful I am that I’ve had this. When Ellen [Richard, ACT’s executive director] said to me that the percentage of women executive directors and artistic directors in the LORT theatres—these are the jobs you can make a living at around the country—has not increased in twenty years, I was utterly mystified.

If you are in a leadership position, the easier it is to make choices that sustain you. So when women sit back when they’re young and don’t try to advance because they’re scared they won’t be able to both accomplish the job and have children, it means by the time they have children they have much less power to say, “This is how I’m going to set things up.”

We have tons of babies here. Beatrice [Basso]. Hanna Cohen, our conservatory coordinator, is about to have a baby. Wonderful Amy [Krivohlavek], our copywriter, just had a baby. And because this is my theatre, we can say, “You want to bring the baby? You want to take this amount of time off? You want to work from home? Let’s talk about it.” We have the best people at this organization. I don’t want to lose these women. We figure it out.

Brad: You’re doing a gender and leadership study. Tell me more about that.

CareyI’m trying to figure out what has prevented other women from getting to leadership positions. Why have the LORT theatres not changed in twenty years? The Duke Foundation said to us, “Send us a proposal about a big idea, addressing a chronic infrastructure issue in our whole field.” Well, this is my question. Why is this phenomenon the case? I’m not trying to address all the issues about gender, like playwrights, or representations of women on stage, which are all unbelievably important. I’m just trying to look at this one issue.

I have four theories, all of which may or may not be true. I think it may have to do with boards of directors, particularly for executive directors. It may have to do with the fact that basically everyone hires the same two search firms when they are looking for executive leadership in this country; my hunch is that the list of candidates is pretty much the same. Are women even getting interviewed? Are they on the list? Child care is going to turn out to be a big piece. I think probably mentorship is going to turn out to be a piece, that somehow we are not actively mentoring women in management.

Sometimes people hire women when it just can’t get worse, so they figure they might as well hire a woman. ACT was a bit like that in some ways as well; it was really in trouble in every possible way.

If you look at entry level jobs in the theatre, there are tons of women. New playwrights, there are tons of women. Young directors, there are tons. So it isn’t that our field does not attract women. There is some kind of bottleneck. There is something that is either internal, external, or both that is saying to these women, “You can enter the field in huge numbers, but you’re not ever actually going to get to the top.” So this research is going to try and look at the issue of bottleneck to leadership.

Brad: You were hired as artistic director at thirty-two. Where did you get that sense of “I can do it” at thirty-two to take over one of the five largest theatres in the country—that just happened to be lying in ruins at the same time?

Carey: Well, what you don’t know can really help you. [Laughs.] Sometimes people hire women when it just can’t get worse, so they figure they might as well hire a woman. ACT was a bit like that in some ways as well; it was really in trouble in every possible way. It had lost its mission. It had lost its funding. It had lost its building. The school was in trouble. I went into the job not quite knowing what lay ahead.

It is a miracle that this board hired me, and that they stayed with me. A miracle. I think it’s partly that ACT had gone through such a near-death experience that when they interviewed the candidates for the job—and I gather it was mostly men who had been successful in other arenas—they felt like nobody quite understood the gravity of the situation, that this place was about to go under.

In some ways the fact that I was young and energetic and, perhaps, naively idealistic was somewhat of a plus. I hadn’t been through it all before. I didn’t say to them, “Yes, but that’s been tried.” Because I really didn’t know. But I was really honest about what I could see happen here.

It’s incredibly important that we say this in this field: that we arent like the tech industry where you fire somebody because their last quarter returns arent good. Very few boards get that there is no point running a theatre as if the only thing that matters is the quarterly profit. The more you commit to somebody long-term, the more successful the organization’s going to be.

The other [factor] for me is that I have an extraordinary mother who always worked, always, and she was a great mother. Which is why I am so passionate about A) women believing they can do both things, and B) women not opting out when they have children.

Of course it’s every woman’s choice. But particularly when upper-middle-class women opt out because they can, because they’re supported by somebody, it’s very upsetting to every woman who can’t afford to. That’s not good leadership. Women on the top need to assert the need for women to be able to both work and have children.

The other thing is modeling. You have to see somebody who looks like you doing the thing you want to do. I never questioned it, because I have a mother who had a very high‑powered career and was a fantastic mother and I have a wonderful father who loves her and supports her and is very proud of her. I was shocked when I got to college and realized that most people had stay-at-home mothers and fathers who were happy to have it be that way.

My first year here was the worst year I’d ever had in my life. I sort of hoped they would fire me, because then I could go back to New York. I was so lonely and so unhappy. I felt so beaten up, by the audience and everybody. I would call my mother all the time, weeping, and say, “My kids are going to think the nanny is their mother. I didn’t make it to this thing or that thing.” She was unbelievably reassuring. She had absolute confidence that this was possible, that my kids were going to be just fine. And she always said, “You know, they get it.” And I have to say, of all the things I have great self-doubt about in my life, about my career, I have no feelings except joy about my children.

I love this movement called “good-enough parenting.” Another thing that’s very peculiar about our culture today, which I think is a real issue for women, is that we are supposed to be perfect, perfect parents and leaders. And there is no such thing.

Now, I made my own rules for my family. I thought we should all eat dinner together every night, like that was the most important thing. I always left here at six. I was always home for dinner, even if I had to go back to the theatre to tech. At dinner, we all sat there, and asked, “How was your day?” And everybody talked about their day.

We read a lot. We did homework. We did baths. Then I went back to work. They also came to work, so they saw what it was. They’re great fundraisers; they always have to come to big events. They were very much part of this organization growing up and were around. But I had to relieve myself of this feeling of failure that I didn’t go to every event, and that I wasn’t going to volunteer at the school library. I finally went in at University High School, where my kids went, and I said, “Listen. I run a nonprofit. That’s my volunteerism. I cannot do ten hours at the school library. I will invite them all to the theatre. I will talk to them after the play. I will mentor kids, if you want to send me some kids. But I can’t bring snacks at two in the afternoon. I just can’t do it.”

One of my huge goals in my life right now is to help myself and other women stop beating up on ourselves for the things that we feel we have not accomplished. We are unbelievably hard on ourselves.

The front of a building
American Conservatory Theater. Photo by  Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. 

Brad: What about women mentoring women?

CareyYou know, somebody has to take the leap and say, “I believe you can do it.” Whether it’s more likely that a woman would take that chance on another woman, I don’t know. I would hope so.

My generation was the generation that assumed that women who got into the top did it by pulling the ladder up behind them. Although I didn’t always find that, and I’ve been incredibly blessed by the women who helped me. I hope that isn’t true, that women are not good to other women. I think it’s less true now than it was.

Brad: How conscious are you of hiring women when you’re putting together a season? What can happen differently in the institution, whether it’s a woman in power or whether it’s a man in power, to make a difference?

Carey: Well, I certainly believe that any time you are interviewing within an institution for any high-level job, you have to make sure that there are women on the list. It isn’t good enough to say, “Well, there just don’t seem to be any candidates.” This is said about people of color; it’s also said about women all the time: “Well, of course, we would have loved to hire somebody who wasn’t a white man, but nobody applied.”

Of course, we all work so incredibly hard that to go the extra mile is even harder. So if you’re advertising for a job, and you get a bunch of great resumes, and they all happen to be white men, it’s much easier. You’re going to get a great candidate. Why wouldn’t you hire that person, right? But you have to be conscious of what you’re doing. You do have to stop and ask, “Are we balancing gay/straight, male/female, old/young, people of color versus not?” It’s really hard to do all that. It’s much easier not to.

That’s one thing that I think makes a difference. When Joanna Pfaelzer, who was my associate producer for five years, told me she was pregnant, I burst into tears. I was so happy. It was going to be really hard for her. Her husband’s a lighting designer. He’s never in town. I knew she was going to have to do a lot of it on her own. When she came in here in the morning, I could tell when I looked at her whether she had had a bad night or not. I knew because I’d been up all night with my kids. I knew what it looked like.

When Bea [Basso] got pregnant, there was never an issue. It wasn’t like, “And are you going to come back to work?” Because she saw how it worked with Joanna. So now, Dan is pregnant. Dan Rubin, our publication manager, his wife’s pregnant. That’s interesting, because now it’s a young man, but he should have the same support that a woman would get in terms of being able to go away and be a father and come back.

I do think once you create an atmosphere where there are children in the mix, and it’s visible, you have to see that the organization embraces it.

And I don’t feel we’ve succeeded in embracing it because we don’t have in-house child care. I feel like we’ve really failed there. I spent five years working on this, and I was told we couldn’t do it in this building because, in this country, where we don’t regulate guns, we regulate how far apart the cribs can be, how wide the crib bars can be, how many sinks there are for every crib, how many egresses...it is a very regulated industry, and our building didn’t comply. We just couldn’t figure out how to make it work. We finally gave it up. It’s one of my biggest regrets.

One reason this gender conversation has been incredibly valuable is that I’ve never done things like bean counting. I never actually sat down and made a list of the twenty women directors I wanted to hire. When all this conversation came up, I thought, “I should do this, because who is out there that I don’t know? Tons!” I looked at the Goodman season, and half the plays were being directed by women I didn’t know. I thought, “All right, so one of the things is to keep the running list in front of me, so it’s right there. I should get to know the next generation. I should keep the former generation alive too. Are we forgetting who is out there? Sometimes having the list is good. I really don’t like bean counting because I don’t think it’s the solution to diversity.  On the other hand, it makes you think.

Brad: I really hope that this is where our discussion is going, it’s motivating, and energizing, and moving forward.

Carey: That’s what we want to do—really make people excited about what’s out there, not feel punished.

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Thoughts from the curator

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

Gender Parity

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When I was in college, I was told a story about a woman in a position of leadership for a large theatre who told an intern that if she wanted to be successful in this business, she could never have children. Looking at the leaders of institutions where I've interned or worked - this is the case, with only one exception.

Thank you for doing the hard work and encouraging all of us to look at the ways in which our organizations might perpetuate that story and for giving us an example of an organization at work to shift that paradigm. Thank you for contributing to this conversation and for giving me hope as a young administrative professional. In a field where entry level wages are low and at a time when student loan debts are high, it can be a struggle to stay in this industry and maintain hope of ever being able to afford to have a family. But you've given me hope that there are female leaders who are willing to help us. Thanks.

Thank you, Carey, for your empathy and curiosity. This was a wonderful interview. On the one hand, it makes me want to move to the Bay Area because yall get it! On the other hand, it makes me want to stay here in the Triangle, NC, and keep fighting the good fight. Your work gives me-- a Gen Y, small-theater-manager, mom-of-a-kindergartner, grad student--the hope that it's not all in vain and things will get better. And if you happen to need a research assistant or an East Coast partner for that Duke Study....

Some of the answers to this question are already known. Unfortunately, the answer sometimes is that (we) women are (unknowingly) the problem. There was an article in the New York Times three years ago about Emily Glassberg Sands's study of gender bias towards playwrights.

Men playwrights submit more plays than women.

Women artistic directors and literary managers are more likely to rate a play's quality, economic prospects and audience response as lower if a woman wrote it.

http://theater.nytimes.com/...

Thank you for launching a worthy discussion. One I needed after last night’s load-in; drill in hand with about a half an eye on my seven year old (good-enough-parenting in its most essential).

Yes to coaxing/luring/re-purposing our institutions to look more like us—spaces that cultivate both our artistic and our personal risks.

It would be really useful and important this week if Howlround were to also engage women leaders in the field , a generation after Carey as well to also adress some of these questions- has anyone engaged Wendy Goldberg or Diane Paulus-?

Hilary, Brad Erickson from Theatre Bay Area curated this week on Gender Parity, as Theatre Bay Area will host their annual conference next week with a focus on this issue. HowlRound regularly hires guest curators to curate weeks on issues they are passionate about, and Brad and his team made decisions about who to include in this conversation. He was limited in who he asked by how many posts HowlRound can manage to edit and publish in a week's time. But I have no doubt we'll continue to talk about this issue!

Thanks, Brad, for all your work on this front! As Carey’spartner at A.C.T., and as one of her partners in this proposed research projectabout gender disparity, I’m excited to see this topic discussed in a nationalforum.

Because the statistics on racial diversity in theater are soegregious, I applaud TCG for taking on this issue and look forward to theresults and recommendations they produce for the field. At thesame time equitable representation involves a myriad of components beyondrace—including gender, sexuality, and class. We saw an opportunity with theDoris Duke Charitable Foundation’s call for projects to strengthen the nationalinfrastructure of our field to broaden the exploration of diversity by bringingthe question of gender inequity into the equation. As women fortunate enough tohold positions of leadership in theater, we want to work with partners toidentify bottlenecks specifically keeping women from top positions and developan action plan.

Though we have some thoughts about the challenges that womenface in this profession, we want to conduct an unbiased, academically rigorousstudy; and we are fortunate enough to partner with the Wellesley Centers forWomen, one of the largest gender-focused research-and-action organizations inthe world. I’m excited to see how this data focuses the gender debate andencourages solutions that make our leadership more representative of ourdiverse field.

Stay tuned!

Ellen Richard, Executive Director, AmericanConservatory Theater

Thank you, Carey (and Brad) for this interview. You address, directly and honestly, so many important issues affecting the lives and careers of women in theater (and many other) professions that I found myself saying yes, yes, yes ... to "good enough parenting," to valuing the skills of women over 50, to appreciating our role models--and striving to serve as role models for the next generation.

This, and the book excerpts that have run in American Theatre Magazine, is so inspiring! I've been mulling the idea of a service organization for playwrights that not only supports us as writers but moves us toward running theaters. I think it may be time to do more than just mull.