Mara Jill Herman
On March 12th, 2018 I attended Women's Day On Broadway at the St. James Theater in midtown Manhattan. The four-hour event featured panel discussions on women’s greatest obstacles and accomplishment in the theater. Whether advocating for childcare, work life balance or representation on and off stage, the segments were moderated by Gayle King, Whoopi Goldberg, Juju Chang, and Meredith Vieira. The umbrella topics included "Spotlighting Marquee Women," "Creating Leading Ladies," "Emerging From The Wings," and "Pioneering A New Broadway." Women of all roles (moderators, journalists, actors, designers, composers, directors, producers and more) shared intimate struggles, their great sacrifices, inspiring pearls of wisdom, and incredible triumphs. While the path to success varied from speaker to speaker, to quote the comedian Tina Fey, "Dignity is not negotiable."
Of the 323 creative leadership positions in the 2017-2018 season, only 17% were held by women. This statistic is staggering considering that Broadway is the epicenter of American theatre and that women comprise 66% of Broadway audiences overall. Director Tina Landau imparted wisdom about being humble. She made the point that you don’t have to have the loudest voice in the room or know all the answers. Instead, just listen and show some empathy. It’s time to change the stage and prioritize a level playing field.
Childcare and Flexibility
It takes a village to raise a family. Producer Sonia Friedman relayed that British Equity on the West End has discussed the option of a job-share policy where two actors in a starring role could split the eight-show week and do four performances each. This possibility is tremendous for young mothers who want to put their children to bed and stay visible in the theatrical community.
Visibility For Writers
Whoopi Goldberg asked, “where’s the Emily’s List for writers?” Now more than ever we need diverse storytelling to keep our country unified. There is a certain safety in acting because the performer is the vessel for the author’s words but the writer is the ultimate driving force. Without them there would be no audience, no production, and let’s face it—no jobs. We need more examples of female playwrights, composers, and lyricists who have produced work at the commercial level so stories continue to resonate on a visceral level.
Military Men Relate To Elsa
Kristin Anderson-Lopez, co-writer of the smash hit Frozen, spoke about surprising reactions to her protagonist Elsa. It was fascinating to learn that in such a female-centric story about sisterhood, military men in fact relate to princess Elsa’s struggle with power. We must hold ourselves accountable and be open to various theater-going experiences. No matter your race, religion, sexual orientation or belief system, you never know when a Disney princess will touch your heart.
Lighting designer Natasha Katz, spoke about the history of her discipline and how she had incredible mentors carve a path of inspiration. She found it odd that fewer women are in the lighting world now than in decades prior. Today she is the main female presence in lightning design on Broadway, but can’t quite explain the shift. Natasha understands far too well that if you don’t see yourself in a role, you will not believe it is possible.
Nancy Coyne of Serino Coyne stated “there are no glass ceilings when you open your own business.” She blazed a trail for the advertising sector of Broadway and found power in delegating roles to up and coming women. And she loves not having to answer to others.
“Scars give you strength”
Director Julie Taymor encouraged the audience to think about perspective. In her early twenties, Taymor received a fellowship to study in Indonesia where her living quarters had no running water, electricity or telephone. Upon returning to the states four years later, Taymor’s view of humanity was forever changed. It was the “discomfort zone” that led a seminal idea grow into The Lion King. “Scars give you strength,” she advised. She went on the express that a physical deformity prompts dialogue and ultimately uncovers a vulnerability that could lead to your greatest triumph. The triumph I witnessed on Women’s Day helped me realize an ever-widening, embraceable circle of life.
In a season that anticipates 28 new productions only one Broadway musical and one Broadway play have female directors while merely two musicals and no plays were penned by women. Other theatrical pieces remain in the works and at the mercy of developmental workshops, solidifying investors, and securing available theaters. One can only hope that when the next Women’s Day arrives statistics will improve with more female representation in leadership roles. Our future depends on it.
Mara Jill Herman is an Astoria-based performer, teaching artist, and writer who most recently wrote for OSB about touring tips for actors on the road. She is a Backstage Expert and co-authored So You Wanna Be A Superstar? The Ultimate Audition Guide (Running Press Kids). Mara frequently appears with America's Sweethearts, the all-female vintage trio. She directed and produced Stronger Than Hate: A Benefit for Tree of Life Synagogue to raise money for the Pittsburgh congregation and victims' families. She is an adjudicator for the National YoungArts Foundation and received the Young Alumni Service Award from her alma mater, University Of The Arts. Follow her on Twitter @marajillherman and Instagram @marajillherman. www.marajillherman.com