Women In the Arts: Where We Are Now - Back Stage

Women in the arts: where we are now

January 26, 1996
On January 26, leaders of the New York Coalition of Professional Women in the Arts and Media, Inc. met at the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers' offices, where they shared with Back Stage their views about the successes achieved by women and the problems with which they still struggle. Here are the highlights of this lively, frank, nearly four-hour discussion.
Moderator Tish Dace for Back Stage: Does the Coalition focus on career promotion and networking, or does it concern itself also with a political agenda, such as altering the image of women that is communicated by the arts and media?
Eustacia Cutler: [In 1990] when Elsa Rael and Lenore DeKoven conceived the Coalition to bring together all our women's groups, yes, it was to network to help our careers, and, yes, inevitably it turned out political. We felt women needed to come together, to understand each other, to understand each others' disciplines, to learn from one another.
As I have watched the Coalition develop, I find the strain of altruism delights my heart. It's always there.
Elsa Rael: We wanted to network. As a playwright, I wanted to know the good directors, the good performers, the good producers. Quickly we found we had an issue which excited everybody: We all were losing our health insurance. The rates were rising so steeply, we couldn't manage to insure ourselves. What I also wanted out of the Coalition was a power block.
Fortuna Calvo-Roth: I had just been elected president of New York Women in Communications. Although my career is in journalism, for a while I acted and produced some plays with Stella Adler; I was her production manager. So I liked being with creative women. I also taught politics. I thought, "Ah, the iron law of oligarchy is: Organization is power."
Ieslie Shreve: Screen Actors Guild came into the Coalition later. I found a dynamic group of diverse people. I was electrified by the possibilities because, as performers, we get isolated, internal, and often don't think about other disciplines. SAG has been proud of our membership. Ever since we did the event at the Dramatists Guild when we got some local execs here in the 1994 blizzard and it was a sell-out, the support has been strong.
Judith Rice: In the Coalition, the Committee for Women at Actors Equity found strength in numbers. We've been able to remove ourselves from the isolation which a freelance profession imposes, to experience the commonalty women in related professions share, and to exchange ideas and network.
Linda Lopez: AFTRA's Women's Committee was founded to advance employment opportunities for women performers and to improve the image of women in the performing arts and media through ongoing dialogue, by assisting its members in developing skills, and by creating critical viewing habits.
Nancy Ellen Sutherland: AFTRA's Women's Committee wants to improve the work for women, but in the long run, although much work has been put in, nothing really has come out of it. We did studies on voice-over work, and a very tiny percentage of voice-overs were done by women. A couple of years later, we did another survey, and the figures hadn't moved. Yet everyone would say, "Oh, yes, a woman's voice would be good, and women do buy more than men," but that didn't seem to dent anybody. We even had groups where people from advertising--people who did the hiring, people who were the heads of advertising companies--came, and it was all spelled out for them, and they all smiled and went back and hadn't heard us.
Shreve: SAG has a women's voice-over committee which has been working diligently. Ten years ago we did something similar to what the AFTRA women did. We tried two test commercials, and it turned out that women's voices sold a little over a percentage more than men's. Statistically that doesn't count, so we had to say they were equal. And that information went around. We did the stats as actual monies earned, and in the last decade we have seen a continual increase, around 10 percentage points, in women's voices. We're still not at parity, but we've got an exciting program set to target people within the industry, and I think it's going to make a difference.
Breaking Ground as Directors
Mary F. Monroe: The Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers does not have a women's committee, but our women members need opportunities. It is unusual, even today, for women to direct. In this union, 80 percent of our members are male, 20 percent female. That disparity is changing, but slowly.
Back Stage: How many of the 20 percent are choreographers?
Monroe: I would guess about one third. Women in SSDC have not had any true mentors. We have had to break ground consistently as directors, and to a certain extent as choreographers. I'm hoping one of the things the Coalition will provide is mentorship. Then there would be more opportunity for women to [have a female] model, and to start thinking about creative solutions not gender specific.
The problem of advancement of women in the arts resembles the continual struggle for funding in the arts. Women are marginalized, and now the arts are marginalized by Congress' belief that they aren't worthy of funding because they're perceived as not contributing to the bottom line. Ironically, the arts seriously affect America's bottom line, just as women are a vital, necessary voice to enrich the world of artistic expression.
I hope women will use their talents and reawakened ambition to work together to create a springboard for the arts as a vital, inclusive, essential aspect of a healthy, evolving, and culturally rich nation. The Coalition hopes to be an important part of that contribution.
Diane Ponzio: The Coalition is a potential rubric for addressing what I find is the most disturbing aspect women face in the media and arts and probably any career, and that is that we're not taught, historically, how to work in a team. My experience in the Coalition began last year when I was elected president of Women in Music. The Coalition represents a potential power block of over 80,000 women in the arts. Women are more apt to do shared decision-making and to really enroll one another in participatory things. But there are only three women CEOs in the music business. Three. Even though every record company, every publishing company, has a CEO. I would say it's a one-digit percentile, the women.
I've spoken to our professional constituents who represent the corporate part, as well as the creative part, of my organization. They all started from the bottom up--incredible stories where they started as a receptionist, whereas for their male counterparts it was like, "Harry, I got an opening for you"--you know, right into a management job. That's how we can help one another. Looking beyond the recording industry, it's possible my songs could be applicable to film or theatre, and this is the kind of arena in which we can engender true sharing and teamwork.
Expanding the Opportunities for Writers
Anna Marie Barlow: I represent the Writers Guild in the Coalition, and its Women's Forum came about because women are in the minority in getting jobs writing for TV or films, or in selling them original material. Many more men are hired in television and in film than women. I think women represent no more than one fifth of the membership, and on the West Coast it would be an even lower percent.
The Women's Forum needed to share the problems women face in this business. We held roundtables on self-starting, which is harder for women than men; on women's sensibilities, exploring the possibility that women expect different treatment than men and may sometimes play into those expectations; women's strengths, such as the value of bringing women's sensitivity into action drama; and rejection--how to deal with it and get beyond it. We began asking questions about inequities for women in and out of the writing profession.
As Diane said, men have been team players all along, but we didn't come in with a buddy system. We shared for the first time how to use the system. When we came into the Coalition, we wanted to benefit from each others' expertise. Teamwork is particularly important for those working in theatre. Although the playwright holds more control in theatre than in TV and film, it takes only one person in the cockpit of a production pulling the wrong way to create a disaster. So they'd better be of one mind before starting, if they want to make it fly.
And as women we don't have the power, so we don't get paid as much as a man would unless we hit it very big. We can't be paid below Writers Guild scale, but usually men do much better than scale. Pointing out women's scripts that have made a difference, like "The Burning Bed," will help the next woman trying to sell a script.
Ponzio: None of us has trouble being creative, but all of us represent constituents who have trouble making money. I asked Maxine Chrein, who runs the first digital recording studio in New York City and was one of the founding mothers of Women in Music in 1985, why she founded it. She said, "Diane, to make money. We got together because the good ol' boys were making all the dough." It's time for us to get real and make money.
Barlow: We are still fighting resistance to women. [In 1969] I did a play at ACT in San Francisco--a war play, "Glory! Hallejulah." We came down so late, the afternoon paper published the first review. He decimated it. He attacked me personally: "Miss Barlow, mother of two, from Louisiana via New York, has written a Civil War play." He proceeded to call it "Blood and Magnolias." The morning paper's review, when it came out, was very good, but by then the producers who had come from New York and Los Angeles were on planes home.
We couldn't move a play with 27 characters without full backing. When NET filmed it, I decided to sign it "A.M. Barlow" instead of Anna Marie. My producer said that I owed it to women to leave my name on it to let them see that a woman could write this strong play. I got the review for him, and he read it and said, "I see what you mean; it will be A.M. Barlow." "The New York Times" gave it a marvelous review, with the only criticism that Barlow was sometimes too brutal.
I've been sending out a screenplay under A.M. Barlow. I don't like doing that, but in the past year, out of 111 films produced with screenplays written directly for the screen, only 12 were by a woman with sole credit, and only five were by a woman who shared credit with a man.
Of the 94 screenplays written from previously published or produced material, nine were by women with a sole credit, and another five by women with shared credits. One of the reasons for this is because much of the film product is violence oriented. Producers feel women can't do that as well. When they're budgeting a film, they've got to figure in their foreign rights, and the violent films are what bring money in abroad.
Shreve: That's what our research shows, too.
Rael: I have a friend in the Dramatists Guild who sent out a play about 18 times under her own name. When she just used initials, it got produced in Seattle and Toronto.
Nancy Rhodes, a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women, did a study writing to every LORT theatre in the country, asking how many plays by women they had produced in the last five years. The percentage was in the single digits. As for artistic directors of theatres, when women are hired, it's because the men who ran those theatres left because there wasn't enough money. Women got those jobs by default.
"Playing Pretty Good" in Music
Ponzio: At Women in Music, we are keenly aware that male artists and corporate members of the music industry do not confront the same parameters and criteria we do. Club owners never want to have two females on the bill; it's like their cardinal rule. And women artists for the most part are pigeonholed into looking a certain way and being a certain age. I can't tell you the number of times I have been told that were I 23, blonde, with big boobs, my material would have a home in a record company.
If you look at any music trade magazine, if you look at any instrument-makers' magazine, like "Guitar Player"--the only women in the ads wear bikinis, hanging over a speaker. I'm not kidding. You never see a woman in these magazines playing the guitar. The guitar manufacturers say, "Well, our demographic is 15- to 19- year-old boys, and this is what they want to see."
Certain instruments have been so associated with male virility that--well, the thought of a woman being competent on the guitar is a major threat to male musicians. I am one of the few women who's been chosen by a major instrument company to perform as part of their representation. The Martin Guitar Company chose me to be part of their performance about their guitar all over the world. That's to their credit. I often get, "Gee, you play pretty good for a woman." You go into any music store, and you will never see a woman on the floor. In my 20 years of recording in the Northeast Corridor, I have never seen a woman engineer. Never had a woman sound person in any of the clubs I've played, either
There's this aura of male virility. If women come on with any amount of assertiveness, they're portrayed as bitches, whereas if men have that same amount, they're a tower of strength and ambition. In the music industry, women are marketed as sex objects. I think it's going backwards. At least 20 years ago we had Joni Mitchell. And she wasn't voted into the Hall of Fame. Something is wrong with this picture.
Aging in Acting
Sutherland: I'm trying to think of anything positive to say. Well, we got the vote. When was that?
There are quite a few women soap opera performers, but the story line on most soaps is about women 35 and younger.
Lopez: Women performers in AFTRA face discrimination based on sex, age, and race. The 1930s and '40s were the last time women had a strong presence in film and theatre. Today there are actually fewer roles for female performers, and far fewer roles of substance. A woman can look forward to fewer performing opportunities as she grows older, because current writing and casting trends favor younger women. Women are often narrowly cast or inaccurately cast in commercials, thereby perpetuating a false image of who and what women are.
Rice: Women at AEA also face negative perceptions of the "mature" female actor. Even for long-running Broadway ensemble shows heavily populated with character roles, the casting calls will solicit female actors "35 years old and under"--ostensibly because of the multiple roles these actors must play, plus the physical demands of these shows. Regionally, certain of our contracts allow a specific number of non-professionals in the cast. These roles often go to local non-professional women because there seem to be more female "vocational" actors available than male. As we cannot control the casting process, this is a difficult problem to address.
Barlow: Hardly a year goes by that the West Coast journal of the Writers Guild doesn't publish something about the gray line for writers at 40; it's because we're dealing so much of the time with producers in their 20s. A friend of mine said to a producer, "You know, it's time to do `The Call of the Wild' again," and the young producer asked, "Call of the Wild?" My friend said, "Yeah, Jack London." And the producer said, "Oh, yeah, I know. I think he was in here last week."
Cutler: There's an educational slippage here.
Barlow: These producers were educated only on television.
Rael: Women put in their time, put in their dues, reach a certain age, and then good-bye. It's time for them to retrain for another field. About 10 years ago, I did a project for Joe Papp to get work for older playwrights and actresses. In the "Dramatists Guild Newsletter," I asked for plays in which the main character is a woman over 50. I figured I'd get a dozen plays. I got 240. We did readings of 33 at the New York Shakespeare Festival.
Rice: It's refreshing this season to see Broadway stages populated by casts headed by mature actresses--Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett, Carol Channing, Betty Buckley, Zoe Caldwell--and Off-Broadway, as well, with Anne Meara and Uta Hagen. Actresses of this stature assuming such visibility on our stages can only enhance the lot of mature female actors. And since the theatre audience is so heavily populated with women over 40, it is simply good economics to make sure women in this age category are well represented on stage.
Ponzio: Underlying this focus on youth has to be your basic fear of death; male virility gets caught up in that. I am amazed at the plethora of overweight, middle-aged weather-men. Yet I never have seen a woman on a newscast who's not looking vava-voom.
On the positive side, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences--under great duress from women's organizations and women artists--three years ago had to install a Grammy category for women in rock. It's only recently that women have had Grammy categories in other areas, as well. You'll never see a woman portrayed on MTV as a mature instrument of progressive social change.
Cutler: I don't know that men are so afraid of death, but they're terrified of age. They will tough it out and drop rather than face the impotence of age. You're right, Diane. They're afraid of strong women. They're afraid we'll emasculate them. There should be room for both genders, but it's gone backwards.
Ponzio: We applaud the veterans, like Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, but somehow when women in music turn the thirtyish corner, they're dropped from rosters. What's sought is this youthful waif, undernourished looking, with a physique amazingly close to that of a teenaged boy. Every seven seconds someone is turning 50. Are they going to listen to Green Day, or are they going to listen to something with lyrics that speak about what they're going through? Are they going to go to movies and plays and watch TV shows that address their situations, like with aging parents?
Shreve: Yes, this is across the board, not just in the music industry.
Monroe: Theatre companies have their female play and their female director, and they only need one to satisfy. If they can make their staff heavy with women, then they've covered themselves. That's the cynical look. But at SSDC our president and our executive director are extraordinarily talented women.
Calvo-Roth: My organization gives the Matrix Awards. A few years ago we gave it to the then-publisher of "Time" magazine, now president of Time, Inc.: Elizabeth Valk Long. The editor called it the Oscar for women magazine journalists.
When I came to New York in the late 1950s, there were no women magazine writers. I worked for a magazine edited in New York for distribution in Latin America. Women in the other magazines were called researchers.
[Earlier], when I was hired just out of college by the city editor of a newspaper in Peru, the publisher and owner returned from Washington, where he had been ambassador, and found out there was a woman in his newsroom. He called me into his office and said, "Miss Calvo, you can't work here because you're a woman, and no woman steps into my newsroom."
That's how I came to New York. A short time later he was named Prime Minister. When he came to the UN to make a speech, my boss sent me to interview this guy. When I finished the interview, he said, "I'm disappointed in you because a person with your talents and education should be in her own country contributing to the cause of progress. How come you are here?" I told him, "I'm here because of you, sir, because you fired me three years ago. Thank you for my being here." After that we became friends.
In my time, all the women's magazines were edited by men. Now the head of the magazines at Hearst is a woman. There were no women on television news; now you have women anchors. Still the producers, who are the real powers, are men.
Monroe: Women in order to survive need to adapt to circumstances.
The beauty of the Coalition is, I'm sitting across from the Dramatists Guild, or the League, or the Writers Guild. If I've got a problem and I can't negotiate this, I'll go to somebody I think is a good negotiator and ask, "How do I do this?" We are resources for one another, one on one. If I can convince you, and you can convince her and her, I am that much more powerful. I'm not going it alone. Ideally, the Coalition's ultimate aim is to become obsolete.
Toeing The Bottom Line
Shreve: I hope women will realize their buying power. The bottom line is the only way to make these changes in what gets produced, who gets hired, who does the voice-overs, whose play is done. If buses of little old ladies come to see that woman's play, maybe they'll put on a second one. And we've got to enlighten the general population, not just the artistic community. I hope the Coalition will reach out to them.
Cutler: The Coalition has sponsored events to try to make a difference. In 1991, the year after we opened with a meeting addressing the problem of health insurance, we sponsored Dr. David Himmelstein, health coordinator for Physicians for a National Health Program, for all the executives of all our member organizations to hear. In 1992, we honored Rosetta LeNoire, founder of the multiracial AMAS Musical Theatre. We then presented our individual unions to each other. We now have a hotline; every member of any member organization can listen to it and go to those events.
In 1994, we joined St. John's University's international conference on violence and the media and presented a four-hour program titled "How the Arts and Media Can Have a Positive Effect on Violence in the Media." We are presently concerned with the problem of domestic violence. These areas indicate the direction we want to move in. Sometimes you must just stop wringing your hands and do something.
Shreve: I can contribute a little optimism for the future. SAG funded a survey which Girls Incorporated took nationally with the Harris Poll on images of women in television. Do you know that, although there are plenty of grandpas on TV, there are more hags, witches, and scary bag ladies than there are grandmas? We want to see that changed, and so do these little kids. Their eyes were really opened by this Harris Poll survey.
We're now trying to start media literacy in kids, so that just because they see it on TV or in any of the media doesn't mean it's true or right. Also, that they can make a change. Girls Inc. is starting Girls Recast TV; Girls Inc. tells kids in America how to write to stations if the kids don't like what they see. We've tried negotiating. Now we're going to band together, women young and old, to show our power.
Back Stage: Can anybody else contribute good news?
Ponzio: Women in Music has put on great educational forums. We did a seminar for women coping with financial fear, because until women know the difference between a T-bill and a mutual fund, they really are surrendering a great instrument of power.
Calvo-Roth: Even today, brokers have a hard time realizing I'm the one they must deal with, not my husband.
Looking to Mentors
Monroe: I spoke earlier about mentoring. My mentors were male, and I'm grateful to them, because they took risks for me. There was one in particular who stood up to the board of a theatre he founded and said, "Look, I'm leaving, and I want you to make Mary associate artistic director." So he put them in the position of having to find an artistic director who could work with me. I was also given the opportunity to run my own theatre season under a LORT contract at that theatre. And he got me a theatre observership with TCG where I could travel the country and visit the heads of major theatres, and I met with every major literary agent here in New York. He made all that possible. He didn't blink.
Shreve: And he probably didn't expect you to sleep with him either.
Monroe: Oh, no, not at all. The point is, this Coalition, these women, their sensibilities, the diversity of their thought, the things they overcome, inspire me. In the position of co-president with leslie, whenever I'm really down and can't handle one more thing, I think about them, and then it's simply got to happen. It's worth the extra time. We women sitting around this table need to look around for that woman with hunger in her eyes--and encourage her.
Rael: At our first meeting, I had just come off the Professional Older Women's project, and I spoke about mentoring older women. I said, "How about mentoring a mama?" which got the biggest applause that evening. There is a need to work with older women who want some kind of artistic life.
Monroe: Yeah, don't look at the age; look at the eyes.
Ponzio: Conversely, one of my jobs in Women in Music was answering letters from teenagers who wrote from all over the country--13-year-old girls who want to be musicians. But why are we always knee-deep in mud carving out a path?
Monroe: I'd like to pose a question to the group. Do you feel you're progressing?
Rael: It's so difficult in theatre to make a living that I started writing children's books. I sold my first at 65. I have three, and they're asking for more. That feels nice. I've just gotten a commission to do an opera for the Stuttgart Opera, a commission with an advance against royalty, based on something I wrote 27 years ago. It will be done at the end of the year.
Back Stage: Women are supposed to write children's books. It's accepted.
Ponzio: Often, trying to get ahead, to be resilient to rejection, you grow a thick skin and you wear blinders and you keep going with the addictive mythology of "I'm good. If I just keep doing what I'm doing, I'm going to get there." It's not true. If I define myself as merely a singer-songwriter-guitarist, I will come up way short of the full potential of my life. I want to be present, authentically present, because as artists we become addicted to the "if," to the future, and we lose sight of living fully present in the moment.
Monroe: As a director, I try to make the best out of less-than-ideal conditions. I've had maybe one really good theatrical experience. The others have been wonderful for a variety of reasons, but not as a whole. That was the trade-off in order for me, as a woman, to participate. I've gotten really good at dealing with chaos.
Lopez: Progress is slow--two steps forward, one step back--but progress is occurring. Women are being cast more frequently as spokespersons in television commercials and documentaries, dramatic roles for women are taking on more dimension, women are writing and producing in greater numbers and with greater leverage than ever before. In television journalism, the same glass ceiling exists, but it's higher. The thing to do is keep pressing. It's sheer economic reality that women will achieve fiscal and professional parity with men: Our numbers are greater, we're getting smarter, and we have greater buying power than ever before in our history. In today's marketplace, when women talk, men listen.


The New York Coalition of Professional Women in the Arts and Media Inc. has been influential in advancing employment opportunities for women in the arts. The coalition is comprised of women in the television, radio, film, theater and journalism industries. Age and sex discrimination and health care are among the pressing issues facing women who chose to pursue careers in the arts.
Source Citation:
Dace, Tish. "Women in the arts: where we are now." Back Stage 8 Mar. 1996: 26+. Business Insights: Essentials. Web. 8 July 2015.
Document Number:

No comments:

Post a Comment

#ScreenOpps #ScreenOppsJuly24

#ScreenOppsf FILM FESTIVALS Women, Life, Freedom Film Festival  Following the governmental murder of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini and inspired by its...