“Values only count if you put them into actions,” Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus told the audience of Women’s Day on Broadway. Indeed, at Disney’s third annual event, the community values had been made clear and solidified in the inaugural 2018 event and sophomore 2019 event. Now, it was time to put them into action.
Hosted by Tony winner Celia Keenan-Bolger and Hamilton star Mandy Gonzalez, the third annual Women’s Day on Broadway invited an audience of all gender identities to gather at the New Amsterdam Theatre for four panels and two formal addresses about how to make progress for women and female-identifying professionals in theatre.
After Paulus’ opening remarks, Tamsen Fadal led the first panel of the day “Spotlighting Marquee Women.” Costume designer Linda Cho, writer-director Lucy Moss, choreographer Sonya Tayeh, and actor Elizabeth Stanley shared insights from their own careers as examples of how other women can follow suit:
Don’t diminish your own abilities.
Moss, the co-writer and co-director of Six, said that she focuses on a mutual mentorship with the women on her team, recounting a story about editing her associate director Megan E. Farley’s email. “I was staring over her shoulder,” said Moss, and Farley wrote that she was “an aspiring director.” “I told her, ‘Take out aspiring! You’re a director. You’re doing it on Broadway!” This spoke to a tendency by many women to undersell themselves, to couch qualifications, and the need to cultivate a practice of championing our skills and owning titles as they speak to our abilities.
Speak up when you are in a position of power.
Cho confessed that she doesn’t think she has necessarily done enough to advocate for women, because she has been (justifiably) nervous about jeopardizing her position if she did; but she committed to advocating for the employment of other women with teams she gets asked to join and mentoring more women as a way to keep herself accountable, setting an example of the challenge and the necessity for us all to chip in together.
Know your skills, promote them, and insist they be seen.
Also during the panel, Tayeh emphasized the need for women to stick to their guns and not be pigeonholed. Tayeh had been underestimated in her choreographic ability for years because the world recognized her as the person creating 90-second routines on So You Think You Can Dance; they didn’t believe she could create longform work. But she had to insist that she could, find a team of agents to submit her name for longform projects, hold workshops to demonstrate her ability, even (regrettably) having to distance herself in the media from SYTYCD to rebrand her image as a choreographer. “Even though I'm incredibly proud of that show and my work on that show,” Tayeh said, “sometimes in this industry the mind stays closed and keeps putting you in these boxes and we have to just keep aggressively kicking them down.”
“Reshaping Your Story,” the second panel, focused on women who pivoted their theatrical careers. Kristin Caskey, EVP of Content and Creative at Ambassador Theatre Group, welcomed Tracy Geltman, COO of Stacey Mindich Productions; Leslie Papa, press agent and owner of Vivacity Media Group; Beth Williams, owner and lead producer of Grove Entertainment; and Schele Williams, director of the upcoming revival of Aida. These women offered concrete tips to navigate a career shift, which applies equally to make headway on your current path.
Say you are what you want to be.
Schele Williams began in the business as a performer. But after the Broadway production of Aida, she wanted to be in a position of creative power and decided to move to directing. At the closing night party of Aida, music director Stephen Oremus asked a group of company members—including Williams—what they would do next, and Williams said she wanted to direct but didn’t know where to start. “He said to me, ‘You’re at an industry party. Do the Joe Mantello and walk up to every person here and tell them you’re a director,’” Williams recalled. She thought to herself, how could I do that? “He said to me, ‘You’re an actor, sell it.’ And I said, ‘Is this what men do?’” Moral is: “You tell us who you want to be in this space and we will listen to you.”
Network. Network. Network.
Theatre is an industry of connections, and close personal ones at that. Papa told the audience not just to network at events and formal gatherings like Women’s Day, but to ask for meetings. Forming one-on-one relationships is key, and this is an industry full of people willing to meet in this way. Take advantage.
Do the work.
Before she was a producer, Beth Williams began as a pianist and conductor. In fact, she was the first woman in the world ever to conduct a performance of Les Misérables. But she almost wasn’t. Williams told the story of being on the road with Les Miz and hearing that there had allegedly been an edict from “on high” that a woman would never conduct the Schönberg-Boublil musical. She called her music supervisor and he immediately told her not to pay attention and to work hard. Williams perfected her skills and within months, she held the baton.
New this year, Women’s Day offered a Career Coaching Presentation from Elaine Davidson and Dolores Hirschmann about the tips that work to get a job in any industry:
Write a résumé to get you the interview.
Hirschmann emphasized that an applicant has six seconds to make an impression with a résumé (for non audition-based jobs). The top third is the most important; put your most important skills and personal mission there. Remember, your résumé is not a laundry list of every work experience you’ve ever had. Curate it to highlight your accomplishments.
Nail the interview to get you the job.
Do not try to predict the questions you will be asked in an interview, Davidson said. Instead, think about two things about yourself that you want to be sure the interviewer knows. Then, like a politician, no matter the question, pivot to provide that answer.
The final panel, led by Diep Tran, featured Tony winner LaChanze, Ars Nova managing director Renee Blinkwolt, WP Theatre producing artistic director Lisa McNulty, and Tina book writer Katori Hall. Because we are “Far From Finished,” these women offered words of wisdom to maintain hope in the push for progress:
Own your strength.
Of course, the public has increased its awareness about the role of language in perpetuating bias. That men are strong leaders while women are aggressive and bossy. Often, when a woman is strong, she’s considered masculine. LaChanze was recently told that she has a lot of testosterone. “I can be as strong as any man but it is a feminine strength,” she said. We do not have to embrace a masculine version of traits to be accepted.
When women speak up, we can be told we’re too eager, it’s not the time for ideas, that’s too much. But as Blinkwold said, “If they think you’re too much, trust yourself that they’re too little.”
While much of the advice addressed the women and female-identifying professionals in the room, Tran did ask her panelists what they wish men would do to help move towards parity. LaChanze said it best: “What I really wish men would do is listen to women—and not just hear what I’m saying, but receive it.”
The afternoon was capped off with a keynote address from Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, an emblem of many firsts for women in the U.S. (Watch her full address here.) Clinton stood as a reminder that no matter how many obstacles we face, we can move forward. She told us to name the women whose work is on Broadway, “Diane Paulus, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morisette, Sonya Tayeh, Lucy Moss”—that we do a disservice when we generalize. She encouraged us to reevaluate the cultural norm of measuring women by what they have already done and men by what they can do—that we must believe in the potential of women.
In one more year, at the fourth annual Women’s Day on Broadway, we’ll see how we’ve done.