Just days after International Women’s Day, members of the theatre community gathered March 12 for the first-ever “Women’s Day on Broadway: Celebrating Stories By, For & About Women.”
The afternoon, presented by Disney and The Actors Fund at Broadway’s St. James Theatre, featured four panels spotlighting accomplished Broadway creatives and performers to discuss the state of women in the industry. With a focus on notable names on Broadway this season, panelists included Mean Girls Tina Fey and Nell Benjamin, Frozen’s Kristen Anderson-Lopez, SpongeBob’s Tina Landau, The Band’s Visit’s Katrina Lenk, Once On This Island’s Lea Salonga, as well as show business icons like Chita Rivera and Baayork Lee, and game-changers like advertising mogul Nancy Coyne, producer Daryl Roth, and Tony-winning writer Jeanine Tesori. Leading the discussions were CBS This Morning’s Gayle King, The View’s Whoopi Goldberg, ABC’s Juju Chang, and former Today Show host Meredith Vieira.
Of all the discussion about representation and the positing of how the community and the business can be more inclusive, here are five insights that caught our attention:
1. Lighting design used to be a female-dominated profession.
Tony winner Natasha Katz is one of the few women working as a lighting designer on Broadway. But she doesn’t see herself as a trailblazer because the profession was, historically, female-driven. When women were not allowed on the stage they could still design. Now the pendulum has swung, but she hopes for a day of more balance. Still, Katz noted names like Jean Rosenthal as a lighting designer upon whose shoulders she stands.
2. Mentorship is important, but women must be wary of being stuck in apprenticeships.
Before she became a Tony-winning composer, Jeanine Tesori was a conductor and a composer’s assistant. While she values that experience, she recalls the orchestra musicians telling her to “get out of the pit.” Mentorship in this industry is crucial but, Tesori warns don't get stuck being anyone’s assistant. Recognize when you have learned what you can and then continue to grow.
3. Where is the Emily’s List for art-makers?
Whoopi Goldberg wants to know where the Emily’s List is for female creators of theatre, referring to the organization that recruits women to run for office at every level in America and supports them with strategies and funds. Paying women (and all creators) is a big barrier to entry. As Tesori pointed out, in the eight years she and Lisa Kron wrote Fun Home they made approximately $5,000. Health insurance was a mystery to her. The industry does not have financial systems or government support to pay artists to live while they make art. In terms of lists and increasing the amount of work for writers, Pulitzer Prize winner Marsha Norman (’night, Mother) encouraged people to look at the annual list put out by The Kilroys that highlights underproduced work by marginalized writers, so that they can be more widely presented.
4. Childcare is a real (and solvable) problem.
The practical issue of childcare arose during multiple panels. Kristen Anderson-Lopez mentioned that many actors have to choose between tucking their child in at night and not working or missing six out of seven bedtimes a week. Producer Sonia Friedman brought up the idea of job-share, a solution currently being discussed in her native London, where two actors might share a leading role and each do four performances a week in order to obtain work/life balance. Norman spoke of her efforts with the Lilly Awards to get theatres across the country to help provide childcare to emerging writers or to actors in their companies.
5. Think of changing the chemistry in the room.
Tina Fey, who makes her Broadway debut this season as the book writer for Mean Girls, has carved a path for herself from television to film and now to theatre. She voiced her concerted effort to “throw the rope down” to other women and help them find opportunities, but she also spoke about the importance of multiple perspectives “in the room.” Be it the writers’ room for Saturday Night Live or the rehearsal room for Mean Girls, Fey wants more women and more overall diversity for obvious reasons: What’s funny to one person isn’t funny to another. It helps to have different voices to understand if a joke hits the spot or goes too far. “Keep doing anything you can do to change the chemistry in that room.”