March 5, 2001
|Searching for artistic equity|
Leslie Taylor is associate professor of theater studies
I first learned of Womens History Month at Emory when I was asked to join the planning committee in 1994. Our focus that year was women in the arts. We brought to campus two women playwrights, a dancer and a filmmaker. They presented their work, conducted workshops and gave a panel discussion about being a woman in the arts. That panel was funny, wry and alternately encouraging and discouraging.
Bringing all these women to campus and hearing them speak to the joys
and the difficulties of their craft, as well as discuss their mentors
and inspirations, was one of the most valuable experiences of the month.
I was further gladdened by the thought that they could become a bit of
history for the audience who saw their work or heard their stories.
It isnt easy being a woman in the arts. Historically, womens
artistic contributions have been dismissed and ignored. Women who have
sought careers in the fine arts often have found themselves in the shadows
of the male artists they married.
Women composers had an equally difficult time being taken seriously.
Even if they were successful in their time, history often overlooked their
contributions. While it is true that many artists fade into obscurity
after their era passes, the pattern of womens work disappearing
Women in theater are challenged by a multitude of difficulties. The dearth
of womens roles in general, and the paucity of roles that show women
with the same complexity and age range as men, is of particular concern
to actors. The lack of role models for designers, directors and playwrights
has hindered our growth in these fields as well.
While this is changing (some), it hasnt changed enough. Opportunities
for women in the arts are still inequitable. Womenparticularly young
womenneed to see that role models are out there, both in the past
and the present. We need to share this work so younger artists know women
have been successful in the past and can be in the future.
When I was in graduate school, the grand old masters held up as models
were all men. While I never felt from my faculty at New York University
School of the Arts anything but unwavering support, I recall participating
in the League of Theater Training Programs Portfolio Review and being
told by one juror that I should consider leaving the profession and moving
to the Midwest to raise children.
That comment was misplaced and irrelevant. Worse, as the only female
set designer in my class, there were no other women peers or mentors who
could place that remark in context. Fortunately, the majority of the reviews
did not express that sentiment about my work, and I was offered a postgraduate
internship to work with several established designers in New York. Again,
all menwonderful men and terrific mentors, but still. . .
Shortly after the internship I had one of my first interviews for a design
job: to design a summer rep season. But the artistic director was convinced
I wouldnt be able to do the job, because I had no experience with
motorcycles (the focus of one of the plays) and I couldnt possibly
know anything about "that stuff."
I became righteously indignant and argued that my lack of intimate experience of the world of motorcycles was no more an impediment to designing a show about them than his lack of intimate experience of the dustbowl economy inherent in Of Mice and Men was an impediment to his directing the show.
Fortunately, he saw my point, and I got the job, but I still find shadows
of that attitude. Women are still assumed to be right for
some things and wrong for others, while time and time again
womens history proves this notion false.
When I taught in the graduate program at Brandeis University, the majority of my students were women. In fact, we often joked about the token males. These women were dedicated, determined and creative. As they have gone out into the field, their sheer numbers began to tip the balance. The less unusual it is to see a woman designing sets, the less difficult it is for the next woman to get work.
My hope is that the students Ive taught, both at Emory and at Brandeis,
will find a field that is less rife with old-boy politics
and sexismbut Im sure it will be their struggle as well.
So as acting artistic director of Theater Emory, I am delighted to present
during this years Womens History Month, themed "A Month
of Women Embodying Reconciliation," a music/theater event that showcases
women in roles still dominated by men those of composer and conductor.
The piece, Telaio/Desdemona, is composed and performed by Susan Botti and conducted by Kimberly Grigsby. Botti has taken all of the words spoken by men about Desdemona in Shakespeares Othello and interwoven them as recitative with the poems of the 15th century poet Gaspara Stampa, who died at the age of 23.
The poems, sung as arias, follow the arc of Desdemonas tragic love
of Othello. The interweaving of the male voice and the female song is
tragic and lovely. It is about the reconciliation of pain and love, embodied
by the juxtaposition of the harsh recitative and the melodic aria. The
show will presented March 23 and 24 in the Mary Gray Munroe Theater.
While a month of recognition for womens history is barely enough time, it is a time to present the array of womens diversity and ability that is beginning to take its rightful place in cultural and social history. By acknowledging our past achievements we are reminded of the legacy of the women we have come from, and by presenting our current creations we leave a legacy for the future.