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Howard Sherman: Issues raised during Women’s Day on Broadway need to be heard every day

Women's Day on Broadway 2019. Photo: Howard Sherman
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“I never thought of myself as a changemaker,” said Rosdely Ciprian as part of the opening remarks at Tuesday’s Women’s Day on Broadway. “I’m just a girl who can do impressive things.”

Ciprian is indeed impressive, a teenager making her Broadway debut this spring in Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me. And her comment spoke directly to the event’s theme of change-making.

The second annual event, put together by Anne Quart of Disney Theatricals, filled the St James Theatre with women eager to hear from other women working in the theatre.

There were four panel discussions, as well as brief presentations by organisations dedicated to bringing about change for women, including Maestra, Girl Be Heard, Bold, the Kilroys and She NYC Arts.

Playwright Julia Jordan, one of the founders of the Lillys which, along with the Dramatists Guild, carries out the ‘Count’, presented statistics from that periodic study of representation of women and people of colour among authors of works on and Off-Broadway.

Noting that there were increases in every category between the first and second Count, except white men, it was still evident that white men dominate the field. As an advocacy tool, Jordan declared: “Statistics attract attention and do create change.”

Later in the afternoon Theresa Rebeck, another of the Lillys’ founders (the third is Marsha Norman) told an anecdote about a man who once told her: “I don’t like quotas.” Rebeck’s response? “I don’t like discrimination.”

During the panel Spotlighting Marquee Women, playwrights Young Jean Lee and Dominique Morisseau both spoke of their roles as going beyond that of simply playwright to change who makes up the audiences. “Marketing strategy was the conversation on day one,” said Lee of her Broadway debut with Straight White Men, noting that the producer, Second Stage Theater, was “on the same page”.

Asked by moderator Maria Manuela Goyanes, new artistic director of Washington DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, about the roles played by not-for-profit theatres in their careers, Lee, the first Asian American woman to have a play on Broadway, said: “I benefited from downtown theatre’s affirmative action and, step by step, that led to Broadway.”

Director Leigh Silverman, while giving credit for her Broadway debut to producer Elizabeth McCann, said that in general, however: “The core values of Broadway have been about money and about keeping white men in power.”

She went on to say: “As soon as Broadway’s core values match up with what people say their core values are, things are going to get better.” She asked rhetorically: “Who is accountable on Broadway the way artistic directors Off-Broadway and at regional theatres are held accountable?”

Composer Anais Mitchell, whose Hadestown begins previews on Broadway later this month, counselled the audience that they should “be who we are, in public”. Actor Mandy Gonzalez echoed the sentiment, saying, “Change starts with honesty,” and “Empathy has allowed me to create so many platforms in my life.”

Men were decidedly in the minority in the audience throughout the afternoon, and while the event was planned and intended for women, there’s a great deal that men could have learned as well, provided they were willing to sit and listen.

As video clips and press coverage from Women’s Day circulate online, all genders would do well to pay attention to the topics and in some cases specific solutions under discussion. This can’t just happen one day a year for four hours, but every day at every level of theatrical production, if the theatre is ever to be truly equal for all.

Timberlake Wertenbaker and Jude Kelly join symposium exploring gender equality

This week in US theatre

Opening on Monday, John Guare’s newest play, Nantucket Sleigh Ride, at Lincoln Center Theater, follows the surreal journey of a playwright from New York to the eponymous island off the eastern seaboard, during which he encounters, among others, Roman Polanski, Walt Disney, and Jorge Luis Borges, John Larroquette leads the cast under Jerry Zaks’ direction

Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis directs White Noise, the new play from Suzan-Lori Parks, opening on Wednesday at the Off-Broadway venue. Focusing on a group of friends and how they respond in the wake of a racially motivated police incident, the show marks the return to the Off-Broadway venue by Daveed Diggs, last seen there in a little show called Hamilton.

Can director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo do for the Temptations what they did for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons? The answer will be known on Thursday when the new musical Ain’t Too Proud reaches Broadway, having first been seen at California’s Berkeley Rep. Dominique Morisseau makes her Broadway debut as the show’s book writer, with music from, the Legendary Motown Catalogue, according to the show’s billing.

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