Trying to Find Gender Equity in Youth Theatre

  • Margaret Sanford

“It’s my fifth year. I just want a line.” Written on audition form by a girl in a musical theater summer program.

There is a glaring achievement gap in children’s theater. Every town seems to have a handful of girls who could go on America’s Got Talent (ATG) and get an impressed nod from Simon Cowell. They are the budding Rachel Berry’s in our lives. These girls, (I call them the ATG girls), through a combination of genetics and opportunity have golden voices and a surfeit of self-confidence. They are amazing. Most of them work hard and show up on time and they get all the leads from the time they are ten years old. And they nail these parts almost every time. They are joyful to watch.

Then there are the boys.  Because of their gender the boys they get parts and solos they are not quite ready for. They sing with their shoulders hunched, eyes closed, swaying from foot to foot. Their voices crack as they belt out their notes. And this is a beautiful thing! This is kids’ theater. It’s supposed to be educational and put you outside your comfort zone. If these boys stick with it and put in the work, by the time they are in high school they have a portfolio of experience and the confidence and skills that come with it. Their hard work pays off the way it never will for a girl with a similar work ethic and talent. Even the ATG girls are double cast. The boys are not. The boys get so many more opportunities to learn and grow in theater than the girls and it makes me nuts.

There are the girls who fall in love with theater that don’t have those natural gifts or opportunities. Acting, dancing and singing are learned skills like anything else. But in children’s theater, the ATG girls keep improving and it the rest of the girls keep dancing and singing in the background and they might never catch up. There is no substitute for getting up in front a live audience and singing that solo or nailing that dramatic or comedic scene. If you are relegated to the background for years and years, how can you improve?

I don’t have a great solution in mind. As someone who had the ability to choose shows for the middle school set, I have eschewed shows with romantic plot lines and gender specific casting as much as I can. For her and the girls that keep coming back year after year, I want to create as many opportunities as possible for all the girls. Because at the end of the day no matter what show we choose, there always seems to be enough parts for the boys to go around.

How do you create gender equity in your theater program?