fbpx More Cultivation, Less Crane Machine: Who Gets to Design in LORT Theatres | HowlRound Theatre Commons

More Cultivation, Less Crane Machine: Who Gets to Design in LORT Theatres

Sherrice Mojgani: Porsche, your study “Who Designs and Directs in LORT Theatres by Pronoun”—the latest and final installment of which will be published tomorrow!—has been a clear-eyed look at the gender equity issue in theatre in the United States. With eight seasons of data to analyze now, what new questions have you been trying to answer? Is the question in your mind still who gets to design and direct in League of Resident Theatres (LORT) member theatres?

Porsche McGovern: It's the same fundamental question: who gets to design and direct at LORT theatres, and who gets to continue doing so? I've added new charts this year that isolate designers and directors who worked on one or less productions over eight seasons. Some of these artists perhaps worked on their first show in the 2019-2020 season, so they might be new to LORT, and some might have retired after the 2012-2013 season. But there's a whole bunch of people that doesn’t apply to, who did one show in one season and never did another LORT show again. For example, that’s happened with 5.2 percent of all scenic positions.

Sherrice: That refers to positions. How many people?

Porsche: That's 37.1 percent of scenic designers, which is 221 out of 596 scenic designers who have worked at a LORT theatre in the past eight seasons.

Sherrice: Wow, 37 percent of scenic designers got one shot at a LORT production in eight seasons!

Porsche: Right? It's not a big chunk of positions, but it's a big chunk of people.

Sherrice: Right. That's a huge chunk of people.

Porsche: That number is not out of line with the other disciplines. It's 37.8 percent for costume designers (275 out of 727 designers), 33 percent for lighting designers (183 out of 555 designers), 34.8 percent for sound designers (184 of 529 designers). It's 52 percent for video designers (116 out of 223 designers)—which sort of makes sense.

Sherrice: That makes a lot of sense. Video is such a new discipline, and those artists can move very easily to other industries.

Porsche: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And then for directors, it's 41.2 percent (418 out of 1,015 directors).

Sherrice: Those are LORT theatre retention numbers according to your study.

Porsche: Now I'm sad again.

I hope theatre leaders use this study to talk about which artists they cultivate. Who doesn't just show up for one show of the season?

Sherrice: What do you hope LORT theatres and other theatre leaders will do with this information that 30-40 percent of freelance artists they hire might only work in any LORT theatre once?

Porsche: I hope they ask themselves, “Who do we hire?” I think the study gives theatre leaders a starting point and data to compare their own hiring statistics to. I hope that the study sparks conversations that are not only about gender equity but also other demographics like race and disability. I want them to ask themselves: who have I supported in the past? Which designers feel like they have an artistic home at our theatre? Then they should examine who those people are. Are they all people that share the same or similar identities? Theatres should be looking at that—and not just overall but by discipline, also.

I hope theatre leaders use this study to talk about which artists they cultivate. Who doesn't just show up for one show of the season? Who are theatres making a commitment to and saying, “We're going to try to hire this person three times in the next five years”? Does your theatre have systems advancing artists from your D—lower minimum rate—space to your B—higher minimum rate—space? Is there a system so that artists can be making closer to a living wage? I hope theatre leaders are hiring people for the right reasons. When hiring somebody with a traditionally excluded identity, is your theatre making a commitment to them and their trajectory as an artist or just hiring them to say to the board or diversity committee that the institution has met its “diversity goals” for the year?

Two people stand onstage in front of a large projection.

Sherrice focusing backlights for The Mountaintop by Katori Hall at Round House Theatre. Photo by Paige Hathaway.

Sherrice: What would you say if a theatre leader asked you how they could better cultivate and support artists?

Porsche: I’d ask them: who do you invite into your theatre, and who gets to talk to you about real things? Maybe that freelance props person who they’ve brought in for every show for the last three years has something leaders could learn from, and leaders might want to talk to artists about it if they're willing. Hint: maybe leaders should pay them for that conversation. Maybe leaders should pay to learn from artists. Theatres do this thing where they’re like, “What do you invest in?” And they'll be like, “We invest in the art.” Which, okay, the art is what sells. The art is the product. That makes sense. However, when the budget for a production is four times the amount of all the salaries of the people working on it, of all the fees on it, I go, "God, I wish they invested in the artists a little bit more."

Artists need investment, both with living wages and other forms of support. Theatre leaders: do you ask the artist what support they need? Do you ask them what things make them feel supported in a space? Or do you just assume everyone's good?

Sherrice: And that everyone will feel supported if they have the things that—

Porsche: —that the last person had.

Sherrice: Right. I'm always telling my students that there is a huge problem in theatre where everyone thinks the way that they do things is normal, but that there is no “normal” way of doing things. We see it a lot as freelancers when we bounce from space to space, how wildly different preferences are. Just having a conversation with artists about what they need, thinking about and naming those needs even if they seem obvious, could save a lot of trouble. I know that I've been in a theatre before and been like, “How does this place even function? I do not understand how this place works because I didn't ask and because nobody told me. So it's on me now, it's my problem to figure out and solve. It's my fault now that I didn't say what I needed explicitly, and nobody asked me.”

Porsche: Yeah, and there's the power relationship in there too. Nobody wants to be a difficult designer to work with. But for me, I know when I go to a theatre, I want a space with a kitchen—not a hotel room that has a coffee maker. But at least at the beginning of my career, I was too worried about keeping my job to say, “You need to put me up somewhere with a kitchen.” I didn’t want that to be the reason I never worked there again. It's hard to know how to ask for what you need when you could be punished for it and you'll never know why. When someone treats me badly at a theatre, I question: are they sexist? Are they racist? Is this a toxic culture? Do they just hate lighting designers in general? I don't know why I'm treated badly often. It could be a myriad of factors. But that's why for freelancers, we usually don't want anything we do to possibly be affected by one of those factors because we'd like to work again.

Sherrice: Right, especially with no clarity around how freelancers get hired or not and how the hiring process works at all.

Porsche McGovern sits at a tech table taking notes.

Porsche working on her study during a break in tech. Photo by Nicole M. Brewer.

Porsche: Freelance artists are not disposable. If a staff member is massively unhappy, organizations would likely talk to them first rather than just firing them. Whereas freelancers, it's like, “Oh, that person was grumpy at load-in. We just won't ever have them again.” I'm like, “You ever think maybe there's a reason they're grumpy? Could the work environment need some adjustment on the institution's end?” If institutions are not going to be prepared to support people who are unlike the people they’ve always supported, they should leave them alone. Stop breaking people for one production during Black History Month with a Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) cast and then being confused why they left the industry.

Sherrice: Because as we can see people are leaving.

Porsche: Or giving up. And that's how the study really started. After I had my daughter, I suddenly wasn't getting offers or even inquiries—I didn't know if I was going to have a career in lighting design anymore. I didn’t know if anyone would ever hire me again. I started the study to do something to stay connected to theatre in the United States while my child was napping for three hours a day.

Sherrice: I vividly remember seeing these charts for the first time in 2015. I opened this email from HowlRound, and I was so freaked out about it and what it said and what it meant for how difficult it was going to be for me to make my way in this profession. But I also think that there was something so affirming in the fact that somebody else cared about me as a lighting designer, woman, and person of color to bother counting at all.
What has this work meant to other humans who feel seen by it?

Porsche: The reason why I continued the study is that women designers reached out and were like, “Thank you for proving I'm not crazy. Thank you for proving that my experience has been valid.” It has led me to many, many nice people. I got to do the artEquity facilitator training because of it, which has led me to a lovely community. It has led me down different paths towards more activism.

I feel some responsibility to the younger generation. Thinking about students coming up now or even looking at my younger self being one of very few people of color in fellowship, internship, and training programs and being like, “How is my path different? Why is my path different?” Because people will tell me it's just the choices I made, to which I call bullshit. It's not always just the choices we make—especially in theatre where it's the choices that are made for us. We’re chosen to design shows. We’re chosen to get an offer. It's the theatre crane machine.

I vividly remember seeing these charts for the first time in 2015. I was so freaked out about it and what it said and what it meant for how difficult it was going to be for me to make my way in this profession. But I also think that there was something so affirming in the fact that somebody else cared about me as a lighting designer, woman, and person of color to bother counting at all.

Sherrice: And the crane machine picked you up, brought you over, and dropped you off in LORT.

Porsche: But I had to survive its shaking along the way. Freelance artists might fall out at any time, no matter how close they get to the “promised land” of whatever a successful designer is. Obviously, that looks different for everyone.

Sherrice: Absolutely, and it changes with age. I remember being just out of graduate school and being like, “Okay, great, when I get my first LORT show, that's going to be a goal met. Then once I get three of them, I'm going to join the union, and that's going to be another goal met, and then I'm going to be set.” But it didn’t feel that way once I get there.

Porsche: Oh yeah.

Sherrice: So Porsche, what would you tell theatre leaders who ask when they get to be done with this work?

Porsche: Have the uncomfortable conversations. Figure out who you are hiring and how you can do better. Once you have that plan, give your institution five seasons… then do this exercise again. For as long as your organization is alive, you never get to be done. That is the work.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First