The theatre industry advocates for political, environmental, and social reform in renowned ways. Actors often speak out against injustices in the United States, representing a diverse and ethical group of people. For example, The Tony Award-winning revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic Oklahoma is the first Broadway show in history to join Gun Neutral, a non-partisan initiative working to eradicate gun violence. For every visible gun in Oklahoma!, the production has made a minimum donation of $100 to the foundation. This is a common occurrence for many professional shows, using their power and platform to give back to those in need.
While the community is filled with wonderful people who foster belonging for its participants and audience members, there is injustice happening behind closed doors for the actors, directors, and production teams that keep this industry alive. What we see on stage with all the bright lights and colorful costumes does not portray the sexism woven into the tapestry that is theatre.
As a woman in theatre, I understand this to be a multi-faceted issue. The first side is the actors themselves. Women are much more likely to become an actor, making the competition much more fierce. I have waited in line with hundreds of girls for hours, all waiting for the chance to sing fifteen seconds of a song to a more-than-likely old, white male who cares more about your appearance in the role than anything else. The men standing in line are 1 to 10, all being taken seriously and often getting respectable spots with agents that give them appointment times rather than having to wait in line (which starts at 5 in the morning by the way!)
The costumes that they make us wear are trouble. Once you are cast, the shows mean to show you off. This means forcing you to wear costumes you arent comfortable in, with the threat of replacement constantly looming over your head. There’s always at least four people in line for the role who can take your place at any time. Even among women we feel competition to make it to the top. How can we support each other while constantly being in competition with each other?
The agents who are in charge of casting us are trouble. You hear horror stories of women being called into the office and offered the role in exchange for sexual relations. This actually happens even to this day. There aren’t people being held responsible for their actions despite accusations. These men hold the power to ruin your career if you say no, or ruin your self-respect if you agree. One time leads to many as word gets around fast in the business of theatre.
The directors who tell us how to play the role are trouble. Consent is a constant problem in the world of theatre. There are often intimate scenes in shows that require rehearsal. There isn’t an industry standard for how to go about these scenes. How are you to distinguish reality and acting without that? Women are often expected to go along with things no matter how difficult they may be.
What can we do about sexism in theatre? I wish there were specific steps we could all take to make this industry safer for women. The reality is, all of us have to stand together or the women who refuse to fight will get the roles. It can be an issue that doesn’t only involve the theatre industry, YOU can help. Read up and have opinions. Make conversation with people who don’t know any actors. The theatre industry can be isolating from the outside world even without the sexism we experience.