Dispatches from The Awesome Lady Squad: #1

At the start of 2014 I made a resolution to become a superhero.

I made a resolution to seek out and form a superhero-style team of bad-ass ladies who are art makers to help spread our art and bad-assery across the city of Philadelphia. I began forming a group that will henceforth be known as The Awesome Lady Squad.

Oh, excuse me. I meant to say:

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First thing you ought to know: there are a lot of us.

I didn’t need to send out a bat signal. I only had to put up a single facebook post and a note on the blog. Almost as an afterthought. I thought I’d get a handful of people. A dozen if I was really lucky. Instead I found 40 people gathered with me last week for two hours to talk and share and start to plan. Clearly, there’s a need to be filled here.

Because from what I can tell, these awesome ladies are just the tip of the iceberg.

So here’s what we, the Awesome Ladies of the Awesome Lady Squad, did in our first gathering:

1) We put out a whole bunch more chairs (Because there were, you know, a lot of us).

2) I said hello. I said that I was excited (Because I really really was).

3) We went around and said our names and the kind of awesome stuff we make.

4) I shared a vision.  It went something like this:

Hi, I am Adrienne.

And you are all awesome.

You are all awesome ladies.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about what it means to be an awesome female artist and the rewards and challenges that come with that. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, in lots of different ways – through writing, through conversation with friends and colleagues, in the back of my brain as I do my work each day.

I think part of the reason I’ve been thinking about this so often is that one of the most powerful developments in my artistic life of last few years has been finding other women who make work. I’ve found women further along in their careers who have experience that inspires me. I’ve found brand new artists who come to the table with a whole new perspective that invigorates and uplifts me. And in meeting these creators, I’ve been craving a way to take all the interactions and thoughts and excitement generated with them individually, and collectivize that into something more power than any of us singularly might be able to achieve.

I believe in talking about problems and highlighting them. I’ve done a fair share of that over the last year. But even more, I want to assume that there are concrete things we can do, that with effort over time, can shift the problems we see into solutions.  I believe very strongly in Philadelphia’s strength as an artistic community. I think we are different than most places in our support of each other as not only as creators but as human beings.

Which is why I’m inviting you to join me in a lofty goal: To make Philadelphia a model city. A model of the way we believe that female artists should be treated, a model for the kinds of work that’s possible when such awesome artists are allowed to access their full capacity, a model for how an imperfect situation can be shifted through collective effort and a will to do better.

What I want to do today is ask a series of questions that I hope will be useful in the future. I want to use your responses as a kind of divining rod for what work we should be doing.  For what it’s worth, my assumption is that there is no such thing as a singularity of perspective. I think there is no such thing as “a” female creative voice. So it’s great if you share someone else’s experience. But I think it’s interesting and useful to hear a multitude of opinions even if they differ. We begin from a place of respect and support. So feel free to respond to a question however you want to, even if you are a minority voice. That’s the Awesome Lady Squad way.

And for today, you’d prefer to just listen, that’s cool too.

I think we ought to get started.

And then we moved onto the last part of the meeting:

5) We got down into the dirt and started digging.

The two-hour conversation that followed, it flowed, it morphed, and it moved all around. It was, I have to say, pretty damn awesome. These are the three main questions we talked about in the general order we tackled them:

i) What is your work?

Does being female affect you as an artist or creator? Does it change the kind of work you make or the way in which you make it? If applicable, has that shifted in any way over time?

ii) How do you get it made?

How you get your work into being? Does being a female artist differ from being a male one? What are the advantages or disadvantages? Are there things you crave or stuff you wish could be different? If applicable, has that changed in any way since you started your career?

iii) What should the future look like?

If money, time and other people’s attitudes were no barrier and the world could be exactly as you wish, what would be the working theater community look like? Try and answer as often as possible with “It would have –” or “It would be – ” versus “It wouldn’t –”

And these are some excerpts of what people shared, grouped roughly by my own intuitive  categories:

Making it work in the current system or setting off on your own

–       When I started working, I was auditioning in NYC with a million women and 5 men who all got cast. It was a constant feeling of, “God I hope there’s a part for me.” That was the model for a long time. But at some point I decided I wasn’t willing to sit and wait around for theaters to call me. That all changed when I started making my own work.

–       I stay away from classic pieces. I don’t like the kinds of women in those stories. They aren’t familiar. They aren’t modern. They say things I don’t agree with. And yet, a lot of modern drama, I don’t see myself in either. I think this is why there are so many creator-slash-director-slash-performer-slash-I do everything people here. Because it’s an outlet. If I’m always going to be assigned this kind of play through the traditional spaces, I’ll just go make my own.

–       It’s a real privilege to be able to make one’s own work, to self-produce and get space and money, etc. In addition to gender both race and socioeconomic status factor in. It can be shocking how segregated theater is.

–       A few years ago I did this show that required me to bring myself to the work. It was a turning point in my life. Men have had a big voice for a long time. I see the context of this moment in this room, of women finding their voice. We are getting closer. The younger people in this room, I wish I had come out of college like you saying, “Yeah I can do whatever I want.” And it makes me hope this room may not be needed 20 years from now.

Juggling identities, finding one’s place in the artistic world

–       There’s a catch 22 sometimes.  The roles that are available are fewer, and they are more likely written poorly or as a stereotype. But if you protest how women are represented you’re not supporting the director’s vision. It’s actually a very patriarchal system by its nature. I want to work and it feels like I’m choosing between being seen or sticking to principles.

–       I have kids and lots of life in addition to my identity as an artist. I have to juggle so much more compared to men. My sense is that unlike men I see who just say yes when opportunity arises, I have to “check” to see if there’s a conflict with others’ need for me.  I’ve started embracing the doing of everything. And realizing I just need to say yes rather than check.

–       I have been lucky in not getting cast by “regular” theaters. It’s meant I primarily have a resume of projects that are devised rooms full of women that are awesome and not “normal” roles. Go up for things that aren’t me, I always felt really strange at the auditions. That strangeness and otherness that kept me from getting parts became the work I’m now known for.

–       As a young artist, I sign on for projects because I want to be doing. But I think I have to look at it and saying, do I really want to be doing this? Maybe I just can’t be a part of this. Ethically sticking to our guns will matter in the long run.

Strengths and challenges in being a female artist

–       I notice that I’m often asked to be nurturing. I’ve never seen actors ask a male director ask for that.  I’m not looking to be cruel, but I don’t want to be required to have a motherly element.

–       I think it’s important to remind myself sometimes that I believe in listening and being attentive. That’s my strength as a creator. It took a long time not to feel bad about it.

–       All of the working models were very male. Very auteur mindset. I get so tired of that word. But its useful to remember there are things that style can’t do. Collaborating, cooperating, being sensitive, working differently with different people, facilitate for collaboration. Those are artistic strengths. And I think we need a model that celebrates that.

–       Collaboration that is very deep produces different art. It can solve problems in new ways. If you don’t have to worry about the desire to put a stamp on everything as “mine” you have room to find the actual best idea.

–       Creating a warm and collaborative environment has demonstrably powerful effects. Collaborators have told me it’s an easier space to work in.

Habits, situations and problems that need to change

–       I hate saying sorry. I hear sorry a lot. “I’m sorry can I ask this question?”  “I’m sorry but have you noticed this?” I’m sorry but I think that maybe there’s another way to do this.” I hear myself making excuses before even start talking.

–       I also can get mad about the fact that if I were a man I’d be working more. And when I see scripts that say shitty things about women I get mad that I can’t direct them. Because I want more work, but I also can’t do that play.

–       This is the trouble with being a “mercenary” working on other people’s shows. Lately I feel like the representative woman in the room. I become acutely aware if I end up seeing something I disagree with. I only want to put my name on things that represent my ethics but I am young and don’t want to overstep bounds. I don’t want to “not work” because of this.

–       I’ve been told that I didn’t have enough vision as a director. I think what’s actually going on is that I don’t articulate “vision” in this masculine way.

–       I also don’t know why but I get worried if my work feels like a stereotype. If I explore gender in my art it feels like a stereotype. Why do I feel defensive about exploring genuine questions for myself?

–       It’s tricky to try and start these conversations. I don’t want to punish people who don’t realize what they’re doing but it’s tiring. It feels like I’m doing calculus on this issue and they’re doing arithmetic. At a certain point it’s hard to be impressed that they can add simple numbers.

Getting the support to get your work made

–       A huge aspect of this also comes into play with the funding community. Often you’re forced into writing about your work in male language. Can we talk to the funding community about how the way their language is gendered? The most insidious glass ceilings are in the semantics of that language itself.

–       I dealt with a funder who just didn’t think the work I did qualified me as an artist. And I had to realize they don’t hate me, they literally just don’t understand.  That took an enormous amount of energy and engendered a world of anger in my life. I am tired of feeling like all the dudes get opportunities. I am tired of thinking “This is no fucking fair.” I don’t want that rage to take up all that space in me.

–       It’s also important to stop seeing status that doesn’t matter to you. It’s easy to get caught in what other people tell you are important. How can you say no to this thing that other people would kill for? I’ll tell you how, because I don’t value it.

–       The funders, the presenters, they need to change. We also need more women in these roles and need to become aware. Eventually they have to die. But we also have to get into positions where we can make them change the system.

And finally, we ended the conversation by starting a list of things we’d love to see, things  that might be a good place to start if we’re trying to make an awesome future:

–       I wish Philly had a grant for women that was not linked with social change

–       I want to see equal genders represented in directors, actors, plays, etc.

–       I’d like a world where we stand up for each other.

–       I want more resource sharing – of space, info, etc

–       I want more women becoming the new gate keepers of festivals, funding, etc

–       I’ve never seen a woman direct, never assisted, etc. I want to see that.

–       I want funded apprenticeship with younger artists with older female artists.

–       I want to offer and accept opportunities, not just wait for things to come to me, but actively give whatever I can to folks coming down the pike.

So.

What comes next?

First thing: another meeting. This will either be Sunday 1/26 or Monday 1/27 in the evening with the same format as meeting #1 to give 9 – 5ers that couldn’t get to the first one a chance to share their thoughts too.

And then?

Well, I’m going to think long and hard about how to take these awesome thoughts and feelings and translate them into a setting where we can start to take action. This is really where I think the Awesome Lady Squad really will become a superpower. I know that we are capable of changing some of the problems we see and my hope is to come up with a plan for how to do that. If you have ideas, feel free to send them along!

That’s it for now.

Oh, and thanks for being awesome.

– A

3 comments

  1. This is an inspiring beginning. I’m a fan of your blog, a female artist in Philly, and work 9-6– I’d love to come to the meeting if it were on Sunday 1/26. Either way, I really appreciate reading these thoughts. Thank you for hosting this conversation!

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