Phenomenal Women: Artistic Directors - Closing the Gender Gap

On Monday, March 15, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee presented "Phenomenal Women: Artistic Directors - Closing the Gender Gap," a panel discussion in celebration of Women's History Month led by Western Regional Principal Councilor Barbara Roberts.

The two-hour event presented a panel of artistic directors who are women of color in various parts of the country. The panelists discussed their visions of a more equitable theatre industry and shared the strategies they employ to create gender parity in the creative workplaces they lead. 

Roberts began the panel by sharing that a 2016 study revealed that only 16% of artistic director positions in the United States are held by women, and presented the panelists: Maria Manuela Goyales of Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Nataki Garrett of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Hana S. Sharif of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Rhiana Yazzie of New Native Theatre, Mei Ann Teo of Musical Theatre Factory and Lily Tung Crystal of Theatre Mu. Each panelist introduced themself and shared a bit about what steps they took to get to their present careers. Roberts followed up by asking what steps they have all taken in addressing lack of diversity and inclusion in their communities. 

Sharif spoke about operating a theatre in a diverse community where her audiences were overwhelmingly white instead of reflecting the community. To expand the art and the audience, she looked at what she could do structurally and holistically. She hired people of color to leadership positions, for example, and produced work by new playwrights. 

“If you actually break down barriers to access for the art, that's a fundamental value for me: No matter where you are in the spectrum, if you come to the theatre for 40 years, or you've never shown up as a theatre ever, you still deserve access to the highest quality of art, and access to the theatrical tools that allow you to tell your own story.” 

Goyanes spoke about the importance of engagement with other theatres or arts programs in her community, rather than seeing herself in competition with them. 

“If we can as a theatre essentially be in community and real collaboration and partnership, not in a paternalistic way, not in a way where we're coming in and being like, ‘We know you need some theatre,’ but actually, in a way where we're saying, ‘We're here, you're here. What can we do together? What do you want to do? How can we be of use? How can we be of service? And how can we actually find ways to collaborate?” 

“If you come to the theatre for 40 years, or you've never shown up as a theatre ever, you still deserve access to the highest quality of art, and access to the theatrical tools that allow you to tell your own story.”

Crystal spoke about how running a theatre inherently oriented towards people of color means not becoming complacent, and working to include women, LGBTQ groups, people with disabilities and more. 

“Yes, of course we are fighting for equity in our Asian American community and fighting against the increase of rate of violence against Asian Americans during the time of COVID — which is really concerning,” she offered, “but also looking at how we can be in community with other communities in the Twin Cities in terms of fighting anti-Blackness in our own community.” 

Equity’s National Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator Ariel Estrada then shared questions from the audience, beginning with the breakdown of the work an artistic director does to fulfill their various responsibilities. 

Teo spoke about how their day-to day work fluctuates, but that their framing is “RIRI: Radical, Intentional, Rigorous, Inclusive.” 

“Can every space that we hold, can every decision that we make, follow?,’ they asked. "Let's test it against this framework: What does this look like?” 

Garrett spoke about how her job means massive amounts of time fundraising, as well as a lot of energy on developing sustainability practices and implementing ways to improve equity for marginalized groups. 

Estrada asked Yazzie about finding diversity within an indigenous community when a theatre has capacity for a limited number of productions in a given season, and she spoke to working with artists who haven’t experienced a theatre professional pipeline. 

“A lot of our community already has a life and career in something else," she replied. “So we try to make the theatre a space where if you have children, you can bring them. If you care for your elders, the elders are always welcome into the space." 

Roberts asked the group how they navigate gender biases and discrimination in a male-dominated field. 

“It's just so hard for me to separate gender from all the other intersecting identities that folks have," said Goyanes. "How those identities really make up a full human lived experience." 

“I feel like people perceive me to be a surrogate for a white male,” added Garrett. “And therefore, I have all of the privileges and all of the ability to move all of the expectations in my own heart for how things should move within my organization, that somehow it shrouds me and sort of removes me from my own lived experience as a Black woman... But the taking on the role of artistic director doesn't give me a kind of magic veil, that turns me into a white man with all the privileges that are afforded to white men.” 

Sharif agreed: 

“Many folks got to learn on the job and make mistakes and got the benefit of the doubt that they're just learning, or they're going to get it and, and were given a lot of grace because of their charisma and their artistic prowess. We're expected to have all of those same things, but we get none of the benefit of that.” 

“Where's your true north?,” added Teo. “What are you operating from? How are you actually going to wake up in the morning and know what your integrity asks of you, and your integrity being inherited by all of your ancestors, by all of the people that have been your mentors have taught you? Where are you aligned there? And that's from where you move.” 

“Taking on the role of artistic director doesn't give me a kind of magic veil, that turns me into a white man with all the privileges that are afforded to white men.”

Roberts asked the group for closing thoughts. 

“I feel like my time running a native theatre company is about creating a safe space— as safe a space as possible,” said Yazzie. "And I think that safety is about creating a space where there aren't overpowering power dynamics, where we can talk about the hegemony in the room. And we can all feel like we're seen and were heard and that our contributions are something that we can all personally realize.” 

“Leading as a woman of color, sometimes we have to be all the things, right?,” offered Crystal. “We had to be nurturers, we have to be leaders and if there's something that falls away, then we get blamed for that thing. ...How do you find the middle line so that you're taking care of people, but also, I'm also leading in a way that people can trust and like follow you?” 

Goyanes shared: 

“Look at all these amazing women look at the nuance and the detail and the depth around our lived experiences. And that's how I am attempting to approach our artists, our audiences. Someone asked: ‘How do you actually create these community relationships and fine artists so that they don't feel tokenized.?’ You create a deep relationship with someone you get to know them." 

Teo expressed their thoughts by quoting Clarissa Pinkola Estes: "When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for." 

Members who wish to access the full video or transcript of the event can do so through the member portal.