You know when you see something over and over again, and you just want to ask if other people see it too? That’s where I am today.
During These Challenging Times, one of the things I have appreciated the most, in terms of content provided by theaters, is the honest, direct, behind-the-magic conversations that they’ve put out there. They’ll have an artistic director describe how they pick a season or a lighting designer explain how they achieved a certain effect. These are lovely and informative, and I feel better about them than I do about a staged reading, which mostly serves to remind me of what I’m missing.
One sub-genre of these sessions is where a pair of established directors talk about their career path, the intent being to offer advice to people who are at an earlier point in their careers. I’ve now been to four or five of these, so I feel like I can talk about a pattern I see in them without calling anybody out.
So, let’s introduce two characters. They’re composites of the people who I’ve seen present this kind of discussion. Yvonne (who for the sake of this exercise is female, but whose role I’ve seen filled by men and women) and Annabelle (always a woman) are both directors. Yvonne works in theaters you’ve heard of, even if you don’t live anywhere near them. The Goodman, maybe, or Arena Stage. The Guthrie. She’s collected her share of Jeffs and Suzies. She hasn’t been nominated for a Tony, but there’s a (yet) appended unironically to that statement. Annabelle works in small regional theaters or at a small-to-mid-sized university. You haven’t heard her name unless you live within a hundred miles of her theater, but locally, she’s understood to be an excellent director, teacher, and mentor.
Annabelle and Yvonne met in grad school. It was a good school, let’s say they did their MFA work at Yale. They tell some cute stories about their time in grad school, and then Yvonne describes her career path. She met a well-known director (someone who you have definitely heard of) and landed a gig assisting for her (the gender of this director almost always matches the assistant). That was a rough 5 years or so, living on practically nothing, working like crazy to help this director fulfill her vision. It was tough, but through that work, she made the right connections, yadayadayada, and now she’s directing at some hella prominent theaters.
And then it’s Annabelle’s turn. Sometimes it begins with the heartbreaking decision to turn down an opportunity like the one that put Yvonne on her track—once, this story included the name of a director that made my jaw drop. She says, sometimes with a self-deprecating chuckle, that she had wanted to start a family, so that whole working 80 hours a week assisting somebody famous for poverty wages just wasn’t an option. She decided to do something more stable instead, landing a university job or moving to a town with a low cost of living to start a little theater company she could run after she got off work at her day job.
These directors are clearly friends. They respect each other immensely. Yvonne doesn’t look down on Annabelle’s work. Often, the two of them will agree that Annabelle is actually a better director. Annabelle doesn’t have any bitterness about the difference between her path and Yvonne’s. They’re presenting this thing together, after all, to show the possibilities.
The first time I heard this story, I didn’t think anything of it. Nor the second time. The third time, which was the one that included Annabelle turning down an offer from a holy-shit-did-I-hear-that-name-correctly director, I started to feel troubled. And by the fourth and fifth time, I was writing this blog post in my head.
Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I think that Annabelle’s work is important. I believe in the importance of theater education. I believe in the importance of working in underserved markets. That’s not my problem with this story. Katherine Mayberry, the executive director of my favorite small professional theater, often says, “When people see our shows, they say, ‘Why don’t you go to Chicago or New York? You’re good enough to be working in any major city.’ We tell them, ‘We’re here because we believe that you shouldn’t have to live in New York or Chicago to see excellent theater.'” If Annabelle had expressed her choice this way—as a calling, and a principle—I would feel admiration and respect for that choice. Instead, when it’s described as an inevitability for a woman who wants to be a mother, my gut fills with a confusing mixture of sadness and rage.
I don’t know of many other professions where the upper echelons are so completely closed to mothers. I have friends who had babies during medical school. It was difficult, but they did it. They faced misogyny, accusations of a lack of commitment, and one hell of a logistical nightmare, but what they didn’t face was a big industry-wide shrug of impossibility. If literal brain surgeons can do their training and access the highest levels of their profession while being mothers, why can’t directors? Our work is difficult and important and requires incredible focus and commitment, but…it’s not brain surgery, as the saying goes.
It is true that some (very few, but some) established directors working at LORT A/B theaters and at the bigger theaters in New York and Chicago are mothers. Very nearly all of them postponed having their babies until their careers were solidly established. A number of them have talked quite publicly about how that delay caused them to miss the window where getting pregnant might have been easier. They had to go through the physical, emotional, and financial trauma of IVF because they knew that having a baby in their twenties would close the career path they dreamed of.
The system is broken. Every conversation about how to break through as a director eventually gets to, “The best way to do it is to assist someone well-known, ride those connections.” I’ve been seeking out interviews where well-established directors describe how they select their assistants, or where people talk about how they ended up assisting. The phrase I have now read dozens of times? “S/he reminds me of myself when I was younger.” About 80% of prominent directors, by whatever measure you want to use to decide who counts as prominent, are men. 90% of them are white. So who do these white men look at and think, “Ah, this young person is just like young me?” White men.
One truly excellent thing to come out of this pandemic is that we’re finally stepping back from the daily focus on churning out the work and getting the butts in the seats, to reflect on who we are. There’s the powerful “We See You WAT” list of demands for a more just and equitable theater. We’re seeing lists of phrases we use in theaters that are unintentionally racist. We’re starting to see changes at a few major theaters and rumblings at more of them.
I want to throw this director-career-path problem into the mix. We have a narrative that causes people to take themselves out of the running, before they even have a shot at being rejected. It’s not just parents whose voices we’re missing. The current system excludes people who have physical disabilities or whose parents can’t help them pay for their health insurance or who don’t, for whatever reason, remind a white, cis male, able-bodied, established director of his younger self. Diversity and inclusion goes way beyond race.
I hate to present a problem without also presenting some kind of solution. But the truth is, I don’t have a good one yet. I’m still thinking about it, and I’d like to hear from people who have thoughts on this.
One thing I can say, is that it’s not the people who are broken, it’s the process. The process needs to change. We’re going through a time of reimagining how we do theater, challenging assumptions that have been baked into the industry since the 1920s or earlier. I’ve been watching with fascination as Baltimore Center Stage, under the leadership of Stephanie Ybarra, has rolled out their proposed changes. They’ve billed them as a move toward inclusion, but to me, they just look like a move toward sanity.
What does a move toward sanity in the director career path look like?