Theater department sees efforts to involve women

by Sophia Siu | 5/19/16 8:47pm

chicago by Paula Mendoza

The world of theater, both at Dartmouth and in the professional field, can be polarizing for those looking to get into it. Oftentimes, certain genders dominate roles within the field. Dartmouth’s theater department fights against that pattern as it tries to encourage more plays written by women and for women.

Theater majors Carene Mekertichyan ‘16, Robert Leverett ‘16, Sam Van Wetter ‘16 and set designer for several Dartmouth productions Julie Solomon ‘17, all mentioned that the vast majority of theater majors and students involved in the theater department are women. Solomon added that the design teams she has been a part of at Dartmouth have been female heavy, as opposed to the general industry’s male-dominated teams, and Leverett said most student directors have been women.

Leverett said that he was not surprised by the gender imbalance within the department, as non-professional theater is often seen as being feminine.

Van Wetter said that the participants in most productions are mostly females, with there being more women than men in the theater department in general.

“But more classical plays and even contemporary playwrights write more male characters, and so I think to address that disparity, there has to be a more concerted effort to have plays with lots of roles for women and deep interesting nuanced characters,” Van Wetter said.

Solomon spent her winter term in New York City and noticed the male-dominated nature of leadership positions in the theater industry, saying that most of the design teams were very “male-heavy.”

Leverett commented on gender trends within Dartmouth’s own theater department when he talked about distinct specialty fields for male and female faculty members.

Specifically, Leverett noted the tendency for female faculty members within the department to be involved in theater studies and theater history, while male faculty members are more likely to be acting coaches and designers, differences similar to those Solomon talked about.

However, gender imbalances among faculty can be found in many departments at Dartmouth, and is a nation-wide phenomenon in academia, multiple sources said.

“To say that the theater department isn’t gendered in some way is silly. There absolutely are places that are gendered,” Leverett said, “But I do think the department is also doing a better job of recognizing that [than in the past] and of trying to address that issue.”

Mekertichyan said the theater department actually has more women in faculty and guest faculty positions than many other departments at Dartmouth position.

Because the number of women who audition for roles in productions tend to be greater than the number of men, in recent years the theater department has deliberately chosen plays with a larger number of female roles, Mekertichyan said.

Leverett pointed to plays chosen for the mainstage production, such as “Chicago,” “In the Next Room” and “Don Juan,” were chosen to cast more women.

However, this did not mean that these plays did not present other issues. For example, Don Juan is from a strongly masculine perspective. The vibrator play has an issue with race. It necessitates that most of the women in it are white. So, I think that there are a lot of obstacles to the ways in which this problem is trying to be addressed, but I think the department has been made aware of this obstacle and the missteps and are trying to include all women in the department,” Leverett said.

Van Wetter said that student productions tend to address gender parity more so than the faculty-produced shows because students tend to be more aware of the criticisms and the needs of other students.

One example of a student production that attempts to showcase rarely featured experiences in theater is Mekertichyan’s honors thesis project, Natozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” a choreopoem — a combination of poetry, dance and music.

When seleccting a play Mekertichyan looked for one that focused on women of color.

The cast consists of only self-identifying women of color. Deena Selenow was hired to direct the show. As “For Colored Girls” is a play centered around the experiences of black women, Mekertichyan felt that it was important for a person with that lived-experience to direct it.

“It is very important to me to have someone who shares my vision, my world-view and experience to work with and just to bring in a new perspective and dynamic into the theater department as a director,” Mekertichyan said.

As part of the department’s efforts to support plays by women with roles for women, the theater department has also chosen “Intimate Apparel” as the mainstage production for this fall. The play, written by playwright Lynn Nottage and features three black leads, two of whom are women.

Mekertichyan, who pushed for the play to be chosen, noted, “I wanted something where I could see myself in that show. I wanted to be like, yes, a show where I could be a lead.”

Leverett acknowledged that masculine-presenting white men traditionally get the most roles in plays. However, issues of race, gender expression and sexuality that can not be solved by expanding roles to only include white women, he said.

“As a department, we have the unique situation in that we’re not just a department about classes. We’re producing the entertainent that people sometimes see when they choose to come, so we have to think about the Dartmouth community as a whole and what the Dartmouth community wants to see and the Dartmouth community and people that can maybe come out to audition that we wouldn’t expect [...] so it’s like reaching out through the performances we do,” Mekertichyan said.