Trying to Find Gender Equity in Youth Theatre

Trying to Find Gender Equity in Youth Theatre

“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.

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Journal of a Reluctant Stage Mother: The Crazy Feminist on the Board Who Believes in the Bechdel Test

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  • Margaret Sanford

The Crazy Feminist on the Board Who Believes in the Bechdel Test

I didn’t set out to become a stage mother. I quit theater when I was 19, and it was quite liberating. I did not have a thick enough skin to be an actor, and I never would. Once I learned that about myself, I walked away and focused on other things like horses. But much to my surprise almost 30 years later, here I am on the board of a local repertory theater.

Three summers ago, I enrolled my then 11-year-old daughter in the Wakefield Repertory Theater’s production of Shrek. She was ambivalent. She was downright furious when she was cast in the ensemble. But the program was less than a mile from my house, reputable, and really, really affordable. Within a week she was hooked. She made friends, and she found her passion. Great! I thought. There are our next few summers. All set. Done.

Then in November of the same year, I learned that the theater’s nonprofit board had morphed and they didn’t have enough folks on the board to run the program. This is the way of nonprofit boards. They are all volunteer. People bicker, they burn out, their kids age out and they change over time. I don’t know what made me raise my hand. It was probably though the thought of telling my daughter that her beloved summer program was no more.

Suddenly I was in a position to help pick the show. Due to the timing of the new board coming on, we had to choose a show and secure the rights before we hired a director. Suddenly my priorities were front and center. What were they?

1.       No princesses.

2.       Gender neutral casting opportunities

3.       More good parts for girls than boys

4.       No princesses

Why this passionate bias against princesses? To put a group of middle school kids in a show that glorifies cis/het relationships seems quaint and outdated. These kids ask each other, “What are your pronouns?” like they are asking what kind of coffee they want for their Starbucks order. They have a much more evolved and practical view of gender than I did at their age. So to put on a misogynist Disney princess ode to heterosexual romance musical is antithetical to everything I believe in as both a mother and a board member. What is the underlying message of these shows? Beauty and the Beast: You can change him if you love him enough! The Little Mermaid: If you are pretty, you can just bat your eyes, and the prince will fall in love! Don’t get me started on Cinderella. Women are evil except you, Cinderella! Most of those shows require that certain parts must be played by a girl or a boy. We have ten times as many girls as boys in our productions, and I want our casting opportunities to reflect that.

I know I irritate the crap out of my fellow board members with my No Princesses! stance. But they are a tolerant lot, and we tend to back down when someone feels really strongly about something. So, for now, we choose shows where almost every lead can be played by a kid of any gender. Last summer we did Alice in Wonderland. This summer we are doing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the first time in the history of our 20 year existence. We are very excited. And I sure as heck don’t see why Caractus Potts can’t be played by the best actor for the job regardless of their gender. But now it is time for me to step back and let our director do her thing.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own.