Find Events Find People Find Jobs Find Sites Find Help Index


March 5, 2001

Searching for artistic equity


Leslie Taylor is associate professor of theater studies


I first learned of Women’s 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 isn’t easy being a woman in the arts. Historically, women’s 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 women’s work disappearing is disheartening.

Women in theater are challenged by a multitude of difficulties. The dearth of women’s 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 hasn’t changed enough. Opportunities for women in the arts are still inequitable. Women—particularly young women—need 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 men—wonderful 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 wouldn’t be able to do the job, because I had no experience with motorcycles (the focus of one of the plays) and I couldn’t 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 women’s 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 I’ve taught, both at Emory and at Brandeis, will find a field that is less rife with “old-boy” politics and sexism—but I’m sure it will be their struggle as well.

So as acting artistic director of Theater Emory, I am delighted to present during this year’s Women’s 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 Shakespeare’s 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 Desdemona’s 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 women’s history is barely enough time, it is a time to present the array of women’s 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.


Back to Emory Report March 5, 2001