Women’s Voices in Storefront Theater

Women’s Voices in Storefront Theater

Hypocrites executive director and PerformInk contributor Kelli Strickland’s musings on performing arts management. 

This past weekend, Chicago hosted the Lake FX Summit + Expo, the second annual conference for artists and creative entrepreneurs. Among the panels was one on Women in Chicago Theater moderated by Goodman’s Director of New Play Development, Tanya Palmer. In preparation, Tanya asked the panelists if we had any thoughts as to why Chicago fared better than other cities in production of plays by women, as reported in the Dramatists Guild findings in The Count. Chicago came in at 36% female writers v. the national average of 22%. The theaters included in that Chicago number were Chicago Shakespeare, Goodman, Steppenwolf, Court, Drury Lane, Lookingglass, Marriott, Northlight, and Victory Gardens. This got me wondering how storefronts compare to this number. In anticipation of the next reporting from The Count on the 2014/2015 season, I plan to do some counting on that count, and I will share those findings.

In the meantime, I started counting some other things. I had the thought that Chicago’s storefront ecosystem very likely resulted in more theaters being run by women. (As a baseline, let’s say more as compared to the 20% of LORT theaters with women in leadership positions.) More theater artists taking control of their own art making careers would almost certainly result in more storefronts helmed by women. As it turns out, the ratio of male artistic director’s to female artistic directors in Chicago’s storefront theaters is about 5:1. That’s about on par with the percentage of artistic leadership in LORT theaters as reported in 2013. Leadership positions held by women on the executive/managerial side are much higher – almost equal. On the face of it, that’s pretty good news, but I have some concerns about the story those numbers tell.

In summary, my concern is this. Are we creating a culture where men working in the arts are encouraged to dream and build things and women working in the arts are encouraged to straighten up the house and make sure the electric bill is paid on time? A similar gender breakdown is found in the number of female directors and stage managers. There are a dearth of female directors and a very high percentage of female stage managers. Do we replicate this dynamic in the rehearsal room? Or perhaps it’s the other way around. We are organizationally replicating the dynamic that we have created in the rehearsal room.

Are we creating a culture where men working in the arts are encouraged to dream and build things and women working in the arts are encouraged to straighten up the house and make sure the electric bill is paid on time?

I have had the opportunity to talk to many board members, founders, and artistic directors of small arts organizations as they go through the process of hiring managerial leadership – sometimes for the first time in the history of the company. Often I find myself telling them that what they seem to be describing is an office manager, not organizational leadership. This sentiment has been echoed from others involved in those same conversations. For a first full-time hire, a general manager or an office manager might be the right choice for a company, to share the administrative load with an Artistic Director and bring some stability to a company. But if the company intends to hire a managing or executive director, it must determine if this position is expected to steward the company through a period of growth and vision building, or in contrast, strictly perform the administrative functions of the company. Is this position actually going to be treated and respected as a full partner to the AD? Will this position be imbued with the authority, agency and confidence of the company to communicate a vision to the outside world? Will this position have an equally respected voice in crafting the strategy for achieving this vision? It is possible that these partnerships are created with those principles in mind, and then we lose sight of them in the daily grind of running a company.

At the TCG conference in June, Wellesley Centers for Women will share findings from its two-year study of women working as theater professionals. Those findings will be focused on LORT theaters. It would not surprise me if that research mirrors the research shared by the League of Professional Theatre Women released last fall on the hiring of women Off-Broadway. But surely, in the storefront community—celebrated for nimbleness, agility, and artistic risk—we should be doing better than that, right?

We are having a moment in Chicago theater that I hope lasts far beyond this moment of taking ourselves to task for lack of progress on the issues of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Theater professionals are having significant conversations about ways to bring a broader spectrum of voices into our rooms. What has become evident to me is that how we define success in this regard goes far beyond numbers. It is about changing cultures. It is about not doing things the way we do them merely because that’s the way we have always done them. It is about admitting things to ourselves that are hard to admit, or sometimes even recognize. But numbers are important too. They tell a story.

The numbers reflected in the gender parity of managerial leadership—especially in relationship to the large gap of parity in artistic leadership—are telling us some kind of story. Inside our companies, we need to be honest with ourselves about what that story is. So I’m going to start counting some more things. For instance, am I right in my hunch that women are overwhelmingly represented in our education and development functions and less so in production, artistic and marketing? I’ll let you know. What is not a hunch, but a belief, is that storefront theater should be at the vanguard of change, not catching up, and our size should make us more responsive not less.

About author

Kelli Strickland

Kelli Strickland is the Executive Director of The Hypocrites. She completed the Devos Arts Management Fellowship at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in 2013 and returned to Raven Theatre as Executive Director where she had previously served as Director of Education. Kelli has twenty years experience as an arts educator and consultant in program development, program evaluation, and arts learning assessment. Kelli is an instructor at Loyola University in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts.