Women helping women: UMass Theater secures a grant from Women for UMass Amherst to host notable women designers
Wednesday, November 20, 2019
Wednesday, November 20, 2019
Theater design and technical fields are dominated by men — one recent study shows, for example, that in Off-Broadway theaters, more than two-thirds of set, lighting, projection, and sound design hires from 2010-2015 were men; only costume design included a majority of women. These are daunting numbers for young designers looking to enter the field.
To address these inequities, the University of Massachusetts Department of Theater has received a generous grant from Women for UMass Amherst (WFUM). The funds will go toward bringing two female designers to campus in April. In addition to leading classes with students interested in their design fields, they will offer a workshop about the particular challenges associated with seeking success in fields that are so male-dominated. The artists and the exact date of their visits are still to be announced.
Undergraduate Jordan Mitchell, who is studying lighting design and technical theater and co-presented the proposal to the WFUM panel this October, is thrilled about the grant.
“It’s personal for me,” said Mitchell. In her presentation, she noted that in her work as an electrician at the Spoleto Festival last summer, she was usually the only woman out of a total of 20-person crew.
“In our department, we can almost forget about it,” she said, because UMass Theater is exceptional in that all four design faculty are women. “But when we leave here, it’s this huge, unbalanced industry.”
“Our guests will help give our students additional tools and impetus for challenging the sexism and bias out there,” said Theater Chair Harley Erdman. “The message is important for students of all genders who will be working in these male-heavy fields. We are thankful to WFUM for jumpstarting this idea and generously supporting it.”
Work on the grant began this summer. “When we saw the WFUM call for proposals this summer, we immediately thought of the powerhouse women designers in our department – faculty and student – and how this equity is not reflected in the field at large,” Erdman noted. Once the department received word that the proposal was one of the semi-finalists, Erdman invited Mitchell to join the proposal team to add a student’s perspective, and Professors Anya Klepikov (scenic design) and Penny Remsen (lighting) helped mentor Mitchell’s presentation.
On Oct. 29, Mitchell and Erdman spoke to the WFUM Steering Committee, followed by a question and answer period. Mitchell introduced herself and talked about the technical and design work she’s done at UMass, including the student production Queer and Now, as well as the upcoming mainstage production The Water Station. She also noted female designers and theater technicians she’s worked with here.
UMass Theater is unique, she noted, with Professors Amy Altadonna (sound) and Yao Chen (costume), together with Klepikov and Remsen, comprising an all-women design department. All four women work professionally as well as teaching at UMass and mentoring students looking to move into the design and technical theater professions.
Except for Chen, who is on leave this semester, the others joined Erdman and Mitchell at the presentation; Klepikov noted that it was remarkable to present to a room with so many women leaders.
About a week after the presentation, the department received word that the proposal had been approved.
“We greatly enjoyed your presentation," the Steering Committee said in the email about the grant award.
Now that the funds have been secured, the next step is to invite the designers, according to Mitchell. There are a number of women in each of the design areas who have seen their work presented on Broadway. Who will come will depend on their schedules (the women would have to be able to come at the same time), and on the department’s desire to balance the guests across multiple disciplines if possible.
Check back in the spring semester for events related to the designers’ visits that will be open to the public.
Women for UMass Amherst (WFUM) is a network of alumni that promotes the advancement of campus programs that provide access, support, and opportunity for UMass Amherst students, with preference to those projects that positively impact UMass Amherst women and their respective communities.
More information about Women for UMass Amherst: www.umass.edu/wfum