After lighting designer Porsche McGovern gave birth to her daughter Lucy, her phone stopped ringing. She’d known for a long time that there weren’t many women in her chosen profession, and she was starting to see why. When she called some of her theatre contacts to ask why they weren’t hiring her anymore, many said they assumed that motherhood had made her unavailable.
McGovern, who is a woman of color, has worked as a lighting designer at many prestigious institutions, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, PlayMakers Repertory Company, and People’s Light, and was assistant to the lighting designer on Broadway’s Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. The idea that she would be incapable of doing her job because she had a baby was jarring for her. And she found that even when she did return to work, the environment most designers work in is not ideal for new moms.
“Breastfeeding in theatres was always an adventure,” McGovern recalls. “I was literally pumping at the tech table and making cues or doing assistant work. It made people around me uncomfortable.”
This discomfort planted a seed in her mind: that there must be others in a similar boat, and not just new moms. So McGovern decided to conduct research into just how many women were getting design contracts at LORT companies. She’s been conducting this research since 2012, scouring TCG member profile data and theatre websites for hiring info, then emailing as many theatres as possible to confirm the data. She’s published the results periodically on HowlRound, based on at least 70 percent theatres confirming.
The data are abysmal, if hardly surprising. In summary, women receive less than 20 percent of all LORT lighting design contracts—a trend that carries across almost every area of design except costumes. McGovern’s research also shows that when the artistic director of a theatre identifies as male (i.e., uses he/him/his pronouns), and when the director of a show identifies similarly, women are less likely to be hired.
Recently she started a Patreon campaign to garner funding to continue the research; she is also now tracking the gender breakdown of directors and artistic directors. Though her daughter is now six years old, McGovern continues her work because she knows that the industry has a long way to go. “I have an obligation to make the world a better place for the youth of the world,” she says. “I think this is a good beginning.”
It’s not just female designers who are underrepresented in theatre. Designers of color are even more poorly represented in backstage jobs. And this is a problem that’s not just about political optics but actual optics as well. Two years ago, Mic published an interview with Ava Berkofsky, the cinematographer on HBO’s “Insecure,” in which she talked about how she lights Black actors, and the blog -PetaPixel created a “how to” video on techniques for lighting actors of color. This led to conversations in other industries, including theatre, about going beyond the misguided use of blue, purple, and amber lights to illuminate non-white skin. Last year the British newspaper The Telegraph published an article about Shakespeare’s Globe in London, detailing how traditional theatrical design, especially in the area of costuming and lighting, effectively discriminates against Black and Asian actors.
The current sense of urgency around this decades-long conversation has motivated some trade organizations to make changes. The United Scenic Artists Diversity Committee released a mission statement this year that outlines its commitment to “creating and facilitating space for community building and to empowering and encouraging marginalized and underrepresented union members to bring their voices to the conversation.” This is the first time the organization has undertaken such a deliberate endeavor toward diversity.
The United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) has had a network of people of color for a while, and in 2014 they extended their reach by creating the Gateway Program. This diversity initiative pairs 12 early-career designers from underrepresented communities with mentors and an opportunity to attend the USITT conference at no expense.
David Stewart, a production manager with more than 15 years in the field, chairs the diversity network. Stewart is currently a production manager at Disney World, a gig he took after spending three years as director of production at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. His motivation for doing this work comes from his own experience of not seeing himself represented at USITT conferences and in the field more broadly.
“Most production managers hire people who look like them, and they’re a part of the problem,” Stewart says. “Most production managers are former technical directors and most TDs are white men. Most stage managers are white women. So we face an uphill challenge when it comes to people of color being in a leadership position and being able to hire more diverse candidates.”
Finding diverse candidates starts at the pre-professional level, which is why USITT has partnered with the Theatrical Sound Designers & Composers Association (TSDCA) and Live Design International (LDI) on the Pat MacKay Scholarship. MacKay is the former publisher of Theatre Crafts and Lighting Dimensions magazines and founder of the LDI trade show and conference. The $5,000 scholarship, announced in March, will be awarded to high school seniors and college undergraduates who are enrolled or accepted in design programs and identify as people of color and/or female, trans, or non-binary.
TSDCA was founded two years ago to encourage interest in sound design as a viable profession. Lindsay Jones, a sound designer and co-chair of TSDCA’s executive board, says that for much of his career he didn’t know many other sound designers, and that he did not have mentors in his field. He wants to help up-and-coming designers have a different experience.
“It’s not that there are not women, people of color, trans or non-binary people in the field—there are,” Jones says. “But in many ways they weren’t seeing the opportunities that white male counterparts are. This seems like an opportunity to encourage new blood in the field, which we feel very strongly about. All voices must be represented in the theatre landscape.”
Some may ask, why does this matter? We never see the designers, so what difference does it make? As the “Insecure” and Globe examples illustrate, design isn’t an abstraction. Designers have an intimate relationship with the director and the actors, and this means that cultural competency—a commitment to understanding the way the actors relate to the story as much as the characters—is key. The urgent need to diversify the field is also about equality of opportunity, and therefore economic independence, for theatre workers who are women and people of color.
Extending equity is important to director Megan Sandberg-Zakian, which is why four years ago she created a Google document listing designers of color in every discipline around the country. Others in the industry have adopted a similar model to aggregate names of diverse playwrights, directors, and theatre critics. The designer document has been widely shared throughout the theatre community, and Sandberg-Zakian says that people contact her all the time to tell her that they got job inquiries, interviews, and offers thanks to the list.
Sandberg-Zakian believes that having varied perspectives around the table is essential to making good theatre. When a designer’s personal experiences are more closely aligned with the work, it can prove invaluable, not least for the cast.
“It means that actors don’t have to spend time educating or explaining things to the designer,” says Sandberg-Zakian. “They can just do their job. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had actors come up to me and tell me how relieved they are to work with a costume designer who is a woman or a person of color.”
Valiant efforts from the design community are certainly noted, but some thea-tres are taking charge of the change as well. Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage has an internship and fellowship program for designers, technicians, and administrators named after Allen Lee Hughes, a Black lighting designer who has worked at the company since 1969. Founding artistic director Zelda Fichandler started the program after receiving criticism at a TCG conference from members of the theatre community about a lack of diversity at Arena Stage. In response she raised funds to create and support the Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship for people of color interested in working in theatre administration and production. Sean-Maurice Lynch, the training program’s coordinator at Arena, said in an email that since the program’s establishment in 1990, there have been 302 fellows, 70 percent of whom have been people of color.
In 2015, Roundabout Theatre Company in Manhattan partnered with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) to create the Theatrical Workforce Development Program (TWDP), a work-readiness program designed to give New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 24 opportunities to work backstage. As a part of the program, students work in different technical areas, learn cultural competence, and network with professionals at the annual USITT Conference. Director of education Jennifer DiBella says that the program was designed as an alternative to college and that 93 percent of participants are working in the industry or decided to go to college.
“Our fellows have endless talent and important perspectives to offer our industry,” DiBella says. “We know the industry has a long way to go in terms of providing equitable opportunities and truly inclusive work environments for all people. But we also know that our fellows are paving the way for future generations of technicians who represent the rich diversity of our city. We couldn’t be prouder of how they are transforming the face of technical theatre.”
Meanwhile in Atlanta, Rachel May, producing artistic director of Synchronicity Theatre, is creating her own pipeline of designers of color—and she’s starting with high schoolers. May’s theatre almost exclusively produces work by women and people of color, but she has often struggled to assemble diverse design teams. The goal of the program is to train more designers of color, so that the theatre’s design pool can be as diverse as the acting pool has become.
“All of our work is based on the notion that having more voices in the room from more divergent backgrounds strengthens the work and builds nuance and empathy,” says May. “This diversity is on all fronts, and is person to person. Having designers in the room who have specific, personal connections to the cultural storytelling and relationships ensures that our work is as authentic, true, and powerful as it can be.”
In her early research, May recognized that there was an education gap and that many students didn’t even know design was a career option for them. Synchronicity’s initiative has three phases:
1. Galvanize a pool of artistic directors, professional designers, and college professors to organize a career workshop at several diverse high schools, and inspire an interest in design as a field of study.
2. Seek funding in connection with colleges to help develop scholarships in design within the theatre departments.
3. Connect college students of color with paid professional design internships to help bridge them into the professional community.
This is a complicated wall to scale, because in many communities of color, work in the arts is discouraged. Due to systemic injustices, many people of color either leave everything behind to migrate to this country and/or are struggling to pull multiple generations out of poverty at once. This means that wealth-building is a priority, and the uncertain path to finding success in artistic careers makes them seem less appealing. May says that even though the initiative is very new and has no grant support, Synchronicity has already placed five college students of color in design internships this year.
Whether it involves creating scholarships for students or facilitating mentorship opportunities for professionals, all of the efforts to diversify design are in service of making better art.
“Good plays are also not homogeneous,” says Sandberg-Zakian. “They have conflict between characters with different points of view; they ask complex questions. When we make a strong effort to gather a creative team that represents multiple perspectives, we make better art that better reflects our communities.”
Kelundra Smith, an arts journalist in Atlanta, is a frequent contributor to this magazine.