These days, the first (and sometimes the only) question I get asked is if it’s harder being a woman scenic designer. Harder than what? Being a designer is hard. Let’s talk about being a designer. But the questioners persist, and in their persistence is their answer. By setting women apart to press that question, they prove that the answer must inevitably be yes.
Despite what people seem to want to think, I am not a crusader. Crusading is a full-time job, and I already have one more-than-full-time job to attend to. (Besides, this is the ’80s. Issues are on the “out” list.) As it happens, however, over a year ago I co-chaired a committee of theatre women who decided to do some nosing around about why there are so few women directors and scenic designers. In putting together a questionnaire for the field, we found that there were more of us than we’d thought. We refined our query. Though the survey’s title was straightforward—”Is there sexual discrimination in the theatre?”—the core of our effort was to discover why there are not more successful women in directing and scenic design.
We sent out our questionnaire to a target population of 25 women. We limited our survey to established working professionals, especially those who might have already come up against that intangible “Broadway Barrier.” We received 17 responses, a very high rate of return. Evidently, the women were concerned about this issue. The committee charted and collated and graphed, but as we began to analyze, an odd thing occurred. We found ourselves victims of our shared promise to remain objective. Here we had results that seemed to confirm what each of us had quietly suspected, but being women, we immediately doubted ourselves and the validity of our survey: Was the population too narrow, were the questions properly phrased? Was personal bias skewing the figures? In the end, we decided to set aside analysis and simply make the results available whenever and wherever it seemed appropriate.
For those of us on the committee, the process had a value which we hope to pass on to those women who did not participate. We learned that many of the problems we face in our lives and careers are shared problems. They are not always due to an individual shortcoming, or unique to a given situation. Knowing this doesn’t solve those problems, but it can be an effective weapon against despair. With that in mind, a selection of the results is offered here. (As the directors’ figures have been published elsewhere, I will report on the designers only.)
We began by asking the respondents to list their last five jobs. Although most had been working steadily in resident theatres or Off Broadway, only one had worked on Broadway within the previous year. Out of a total of 75 reported jobs, 2 were on Broadway, as opposed to 4 out of 15 reported by our small control group of costume and lighting designers. Seventeen percent of those 75 jobs were Off Broadway and 27 percent were in regional theatres.
Next we asked if the respondents had felt discriminated against during their training. Fifty-three percent said “yes,” another 15 percent said “maybe,” and that the discrimination was both conscious and unconscious. Women students were taken less seriously, or not given shows to design while in school.
“Are there,” we asked, “old-boy networks from which you feel excluded?” “Yes,” said 93 percent.
“Are there networks in which you feel included?” Fifty-three percent said “ves.” Here it turned out that 53 percent were graduates of the same training program.
“How have you been able to obtain work?” The answers indicated the usual ways—through directors and producers they had worked with before, through recommendations from other designers—but also turned up the interesting statistic that only 3 of the 75 reported jobs were obtained through portfolio interviews.
“Have you experienced discrimination in hiring?” Thirty-three percent said “yes,” 40 percent said “no,” the rest said “maybe.” Some women reported being asked if they would be interested in designing costumes instead.
“Have you experienced on-the-job discrimination?” Twenty-seven percent said “yes,” 40 percent said “no,” the rest weren’t sure. Once the job is procured, few serious problems of this sort seem to arise. On the money side, though complaints about low pay were universal, most of the women thought that they were receiving fees comparable to those of their male colleagues and that all designers are victims of economic discrimination.
“Does being a woman affect your ability to present yourself in the marketplace?” Eighty-seven percent said “yes,” and this question occasioned the longest and most deeply personal replies. One-third felt the effect was positive, naming social skills and emotional sensitivity as assets. The rest found it negative, but mostly blamed this on themselves and their upbringing, though a few cited men’s negative response to aggression in women.
Summing up, we asked if the respondents thought women were under-represented in their field. The answer here from costume and lighting designers was a resounding “no.” Of the scenic designers, 90 percent said “yes,” 10 percent were not sure.
Finally, we probed the respondents’ satisfaction with their own careers, and here some real bitterness began to surface, together with a certain amount of resignation. Their own words prove more eloquent than statistics:
“When a lot of money is at stake, not a set budget of $3000 or $20,000, but several hundred thousand dollars, producers and shops feel more comfortable with a male designer. It may be so far that only male designers have had experience on that level, so that producers [will] not bet on a dark horse
“When women get to design on Broadway, not many people believe that it is talent, but [think] that it is a fluke.”
“A woman has to be brilliant, where a man may be merely competent and get away with it. Women fall through the cracks more quickly. They filter to the bottom of the list.”
Despite the above, there was an occasional note of optimism:
“We [women designers] have just started making our presence felt. We’re trying to figure out the ropes. There are no role models. We have a lot to learn about wheeling and dealing and business.”
“Things are] changing and so are the statistics. In 10 years, if women keep entering the field, it’ll be even.”
I hope it won’t take 10 years, but when people stop asking me, with that curious mixture of pity and condescension, if it’s harder being a woman scenic designer, I’ll know the day has come at last.
Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, a contributing editor of American Theatre, has designed sets on and Off Broadway and for resident theatres across the country.
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