No one seems able to provide a valid explanation for the low number of women in the profession of scenic design. A male designer I talked to suggested the possibility that men, because of role models and expectations, are better with tools and technology, but this doesn’t account for the preponderance of women in costume and lighting design.
This observation, made by author and teacher Arnold Aronson, set the tone of a recent panel on Women and Design, sponsored by the Tisch School of the Arts Performance Studies Department at New York University and the Theatre Arts Department of Cornell University. Kate Davy, associate chair of performance studies at NYU, moderated. In addition to Aronson, panelists included Nancy Reinhardt of Harvard University, and four designers: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, Adrianne Lobel, Heidi Landesman and Carrie Robbins.
The panelists and a small but highly engaged audience discussed a range of related issues, sometimes heatedly. Why are there so few women in set design, while 50 percent of costume designers are women? Do women design differently from men? What are the power relationships inherent in working on the collaborative effort of play production, and how do they work against women?
Approaching the subject from a historical perspective, scholar Nancy Reinhardt noted that theatre is a conservative art form, slower to change than other arts, because of its collaborative nature. “Theatre depends on the support of the public, of institutions, of corporations,” she noted. “A woman painter or writer can just go in a room and work. A woman theatre artist must be accepted and allowed to work.” But Reinhardt’s view of the future was guardedly optimistic, as she noted that power in this country is essentially economic, and as women begin to earn more money, they can begin to make more demands about what they want to see in the theatre.
Marge Kellogg discussed the dilemma of becoming known as a “woman designer,” noting that it can be limiting to the work itself. She added that away from Broadway, discrimination against women is not as severe, but where real money is involved, the problem is more pronounced. “It’s a myth that women have trouble working with stage managers and technical people,” she noted, as the other designers nodded vigorously in agreement. “It’s the managers and producers who are afraid to take a risk. When it comes to Broadway, we run into—not cement walls—but glass walls that we can see through but we can’t get through.”
Adrianne Lobel, a younger designer who has so far done most of her work Off Broadway and in resident theatres, noted that it’s particularly important for women to be choosy about the jobs they take, even if there are fewer jobs open to them. “The key is developing meaningful relationships with good people, and developing a career that way,” she stated. Kellogg agreed, adding, “You’ve got to protect your work or they’ll shoot you down. Men may get two chances, but women don’t.”
Expanding on the notion that hiring a woman set designer is viewed as taking a risk, Heidi Landesman stated ironically, “If you were a man, would you choose a woman to guard your back?” She attributed women’s greater success in costume design to her theory of “soft materials versus hard: Sets are made of wood, steel, solid materials that are traditionally thought of as male; costumes—and even lighting—are soft, pliable, traditionally female materials.
Panelists and audience alike murmured their assent when Kellogg noted the double standard of behavior by which the very same actions are viewed as acceptable and even positive in men, but negative in women. “We simply have to monitor our own behavior, because our parameters of what’s allowable are narrower.” But she was quick to add that, “It’s all playing a game. We don’t have to become what the managers are; we just have to understand them.”
When the subject of money came up, the panelists agreed that women in particular aren’t discriminated against in the theatre. “All designers are grossly underpaid,” noted Robbins. Kellogg added that designers are quite hesitant to discuss their salaries with one another, and that until more exchange occurs, it will remain difficult to demand fair wages.
In spite of the multiplicity of difficulties faced by women in the field of design, the panelists stood as practical proof that, armed with awareness, it’s possible for a woman to carve out a successful career in the theatre. Noted Lobel, “It’s the work. The work is the most important thing.”
Movement Theatre International, currently located in Elkins, W.V., is looking for a new home. The organization has produced the last two International Mime Festivals and two National Mime Conferences, and also runs a school of movement theatre which brings together the foremost mime and clown artists with younger performers.
MTI head Mike Pedretti said the group is looking for a location with a population base large enough to support an international festival. He noted that a university, arts center or theatre in such a location would be ideal. Davis & Elkins College has been the site of previous festivals. For further information contact Mike or Julie Pedretti, Movement Theatre International, P.O. Box 2106, Elkins, WV 26241; (304) 636-1900.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!