According to Wellesley Centers for Women study, women hold only 20% of the artistic leadership positions in America’s regional theaters.
By Susan B. Apel
Vermont’s Northern Stage has just announced the winners of a new grant created to support women artistic directors in regional theaters across the United States. The BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle, funded by the Pussycat Foundation and led by Carol Dunne, Northern Stage’s Producing Artistic Director, will provide $1.25 million to support five women-led theaters for the next year. Each theater will receive a grant of $250,000. The recipients are:
Susan V. Booth and The Alliance Theater, Atlanta, GA, founded in 1968-69, a leading theater in the American Southeast whose productions reach more than 165,000 patrons annually.
Eileen Morris and The Ensemble Theater, Houston, TX, founded in 1976, the oldest and largest professional African-American theater in the Southwest.
Sarah Rasmussen and The Jungle Theater, Minneapolis, MN, founded in 1991 and located in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood of Minneapolis, the company is committed to community involvement and to producing new works.
Lisa McNulty and WP Theater, New York, NY, formerly known as Women’s Project Theater, this is the country’s oldest and largest theater company committed to developing and producing the work of female-identified artists.
Carol Dunne and Northern Stage, White River Junction, VT, a nonprofit regional LORT-D professional theater company currently in its 21st season with a new home at the Barrette Center for the Arts. In recent years, Northern Stage has developed and launched several original works that the company went on to produce off-Broadway.
Having just been awarded the Helen Gurley Brown Pussycat Foundation Genius Award in 2017, Dunne appealed to the same organization for help in addressing the paucity of women leaders in theater. Her experience and observations about gender imbalance in the world of the stage were confirmed in a recent study by the Wellesley Centers for Women. It revealed that women hold only 20% of the artistic leadership positions in America’s regional theaters. After receiving the BOLD grant, Northern Stage oversaw the selection process for choosing four other recipients from more than forty applicants.
The Wellesley study identified several barriers to women’s participation in leadership roles: theater boards of directors were wary when interviewing women, a lack of mentorship that would help ease women into top administrative positions, work-life balance issues, and a lack of fundraising and producing experience. When asked how money might address these formidable problems, Dunne replied that each theater will use the funds to meet its particular needs — but within certain parameters:
–Each theater must hire a female associate director or artistic director to begin the process of “growing” a new crop of women leaders.
–Four women designers (for example, set designers or sound engineers) must be hired each season. (Women are already well-represented in certain areas, such as costuming.)
–Each theater must nurture new work by women. Giving a nod to Helen Gurley Brown’s love of musicals, there’s a request to produce a new musical by a woman in the upcoming year.
–Leadership training and networking opportunities will be provided in workshops two times per year for the group of 5 directors and the newly-hired associate directors.
Northern Stage, as the originator of the program, received its grant in September 2017 and is ahead of schedule in terms of its implementation. Amanda Rafuse is the company’s new associate director; the troupe is already workshopping a new musical by a woman playwright.
Current funding is for a year-long pilot program. The recipients and the Pussycat Foundation hope that funding will be continued for a total of three years, after which a new group of theaters would be selected. Dunne anticipates the program will demonstrate its effectiveness and enlarge its scope, including even more theaters, adding that “five is great; ten would be glorious.”
Susan B. Apel is a writer and law professor whose creative nonfiction and poetry has appeared in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Best of Vine Leaves 2015, Rhizomes, The Vignette Review, Woven Tale Press, Bloodroot, and the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review. Her blog, ArtfulEdge, in which she writes about arts in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, appears regularly on the dailyUV.com. She is also a contributor to the newspaper, Vermont Woman. She lives in Lebanon, NH.