The Revolution Will Be Systemic
A Response to “Women Directors”
This piece continues a partnership between HowlRound and the League of Professional Theatre Women (
In her HowlRound article, “Women Directors: Language Worth Repeating,” when Jess Smith describes the directors and some of her students, who speak in “a language of fear, a language of accommodation, and a language of insecurity,” it has the ring of truth for me. When she speaks of domineering directors who have built careers on making sure they are the sole authority, I believe her. I have seen those directors at work.
And I should mention, I have seen Jess at work. During graduate school she was a frequent collaborator of mine. What I miss the most about working with her was her ability to create a community out of diverse collaborators. Usually, that community was built around the sharing of food. From potluck rehearsals to a performance with a built-in break where performers shared food with audience, Jess succeeds at communicating without words.
But words are essential to both the creation and reaction to performance. Is language in the theater shaped by gender and does it guide the ways in which we work? Do women naturally want to create community and men naturally want to put their egos forward? I am not convinced of it. But I am convinced that we live in a society built on expectations. A society that makes men view themselves as powerful and women as accommodating.
Jess calls for a “revolution of language” and a revolution is necessary. However, the revolution is not about language; it’s about creating a world built on respect, understanding, and bringing to an end a system of domination and submission. What budding female directors are doing when their words betray their confidence is allowing themselves to be thought of as submissive.
A recent study, profiled in the article "Women, Work, and the Art of Gender Judo", looks at women in the workforce and how they use perceived gender inequalities to their advantage. The author Joan C. Williams notes:
The problem with our rules about how men and women “should” behave is that they separate very human tendencies that are best intertwined… What’s troubling about traditional femininity is that it married warmth with submissiveness. Tying femininity with authority instead is important feminist work.
Williams’ writes about a woman who uses “gender judo,” making use of existing stereotypes, by taking on the role of the “big sister with the big personality” in her effort to portray herself as someone worth listening to without being labeled a bitch. Perhaps, I too use the dynamics of a gendered workplace to my advantage. On more than one occasion I have been referred to as a sister in situations as disparate as an argument and most recently in a toast from a co-worker at my wedding. Each time, I felt flattered and surprised. I see these men as colleagues and friends, but perhaps this perceived familial relationship makes it subconsciously easier for them to be open to my opinions.
When I think about Jess’ suggested revolution of language this is where I want to raise my flag in solidarity: I want my voice to be heard and treated with respect as a woman just as strongly I want to make sure that other voices receive the same treatment. When I speak with audiences I make it clear that I want to hear from them and that their experiences are valid. This scares some artists. There is a fear that hearing from the “masses” will invalidate the artist’s authority over their work. This too is a dynamic of perceived submission and dominance. These artists think audiences are supposed to be passive and receptive. They are afraid that empowering the audience to have a point of view puts the artist in a submissive position where they lose control of their work. In my mind, artists and audiences are partners. They have very different tasks but they are both made of individuals with diverse pasts and experiences.
Maybe it’s idealistic, but I hope that the work we do as artists helps to change the power dynamics at play in our society. Near the end of her piece Jess says that even if you are not a teacher, “You will always be a teacher in the example you set, in the words you choose, in the way you work and the priorities you model.” I hope we model a society that recognizes all people as individuals. The revolution goes further than our language. It goes into what we choose to put on the stage, how we interact with our audiences and how we welcome each other to the table.
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Agreed. I think your idea of us all as individuals with parts to play in the process of art is a hugely powerful one. As directors then our job is to create language with each work that helps shape the kind of experience we want that audience to engage with. Rather than defining a singular style that is adopted across all works, let us allow each piece the opportunity to develop in the way that is most suited.
I've only just now had a chance to read this, and while I love all of it -- and I'm proud to say how much I value your opinion, Hannah, as a friend and colleague -- I'm particularly drawn to the last two paragraphs. I think it's absolutely essential for us, as artists, to start re-thinking our relationship with our audiences. We cannot remain in a dominant position over them; that way is death. Or perhaps it's better to say that if that's the ONLY relationship we try to have with our audiences, they'll keep disappearing. The more we treat them like equals, and connect with them peer-to-peer, the more they'll want to return to us.
Thank you, Hannah.
I don't think that just because the boys won this last round that their way is the best way. Part of feminism's original intent was to help educate and value things considered 'feminine'. Autocratic methods may work for some, but I think do very little in way of creating art that is anything other than strangled, ordered, precise, and puppeted. "Be like men" I always find an insulting solution. The Dalai Lama is a gentle spirited leader that often answers in questions, asks the asker to provide solutions, psychotherapists work in the same way, their authority comes from their knowledge and their position, and we all know that artists who own their contribution work better than people following the orders of some tyrant. There needs to be a more expansive conversation, more creative. Imitate the men just doesn't cut it. Or rather, imitate specific constructs of preconceived ideas of masculinity doesn't cut it. For anyone, in any circumstance. There is great value in checking in and asking for reflection back, for open discussions when appropriate, for letting people scratch their itches. Lead by example, yes, I will. Is that okay? It will have to be, won't it? Great discussion, let's keep going.