Making Space, Making Work, Making People: Alumnae Brianna Sloane and Elizabeth Pangburn consider the place of women in theater
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Wednesday, December 20, 2017
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Wednesday, December 20, 2017
In 2016, the Wellesley Centers for Women released the findings of a study that illustrated a disappointingly low percentage of women in leadership at non-profit regional (LORT) theaters and an even lower percentage of women of color in leadership at those same theaters. The need for change inspired WAM Theatre in the Berkshires to organize the first-ever Berkshire Leadership Summit this October 28 and 29. Among the 80 women (cis-, trans- and gender non-conforming) whose application to attend the summit were accepted were two alumni of UMass Theater’s graduate program, Brianna Sloane '14G and Elizabeth Pangburn '15G.
Collaborators in their artistic lives as the co-founders of the Pioneer Valley’s TheatreTruck, which performs devised work in found spaces, they found the summit both motivating and validating. Even now, they are still mulling over how to act on the ideas that came to them during the conversations, calls to action, and workshops they experienced.
“One of the biggest themes I heard from the participants was this idea of making space,” said Pangburn, whose MFA is in Costume Design. “Making space for marginalized groups in the conversation, literally making space, and making space in the institution for more voices and more faces and more ideas.”
With a large number of artistic and management positions open in LORT theaters right now, the conversation was not just theoretical. Sloane, who has her graduate degree in Directing, said the group spoke about “specifically, not just hiring women in these upper positions where they’re seriously missing right now, but also preparing the institutions to make space for their leadership and to support their leadership so they can be successful. It isn’t just about hiring, but it’s about making a space and creating a support within the entire culture.”
Both women make a living as educators and artists. In addition to running TheatreTruck, Sloane teaches acting at Mount Holyoke College and at American International College. Meanwhile, Pangburn is a fulltime faculty member at Mount Holyoke teaching costume design and costume history, is involved with the makerspace at the college, and designs for Chester Theatre Company. Both are also outspoken about how their creativity in theater spaces is firmly enmeshed with their family lives, and specifically motherhood.
Neither is an employee of a regional theater, however — and they wondered, at some points, how they fit in at a summit organized in response to the leadership picture in the LORT theaters.
“It’s not that I’m not positioned to go that way, or that I don’t have the resume to go that way,” said Sloane, “but it isn’t the work that I’m doing.” Ultimately, however, getting a better understanding of how the system works, the idealistic underpinnings behind the founding of the LORT system, and where these theaters are currently struggling led her to a mantra: “Decentralizing and recentering.”
Originally, she explained, regional theater were created “to decentralize the focus from Broadway, but now they’ve become the center. Meanwhile, the majority of American theater isn’t there — the majority of American theater is these scrappy little companies like TheatreTruck.” In additional to wanting to acknowledge that reality, she thinks it’s time to “recenter on value, as opposed to money.”
To Sloane and Pangburn, that means making theater by and about people not always represented in the canon. It means putting those same people into positions of leadership, and supporting them. It means rethinking theater boards of directors so that these bodies are less driven by financial concerns and more effectively collaborating with the artistic side of the theater.
Pangburn, who also initially questioned her place in the conference, noted that as with many in the room, her work as an educator puts her in a position to teach these newly recentered values to the up-and-comers. “We want to focus on them (women in assistant and associate director positions), we also want to focus on the women slightly below them who are coming up the ranks, and then also our students, who will be the next generation of leaders. …They’re going to create — and benefit — from the system. I think that’s huge.”
Both women also found that some of the workshops and conversations were an “affirmation” for some of the things they do as co-founders of TheatreTruck.
“We started the company partly as a response to wanting to work differently, wanting to work in a less wasteful way, wanting to work in a more lateral, less hierarchical way. (We wanted) to work in a way that saw our families as assets and not as liabilities, or our motherhood as a creative asset and not as a liability,” Sloane said.
“A sustainable approach,” Pangburn chimed in, noting that they mean that in all senses of the word — not just environmentally, but in terms of being able to sustain the work. Many women get out of theater by 30, she said, overwhelmed by the challenges of trying to build a career, crack a glass ceiling, and be the primary caretaker for children or aging relatives.
Participating in a workshop about budgeting at the Summit, Sloane talked about “politicizing” her budget: “How I can assign monetary value to things I have ethical value for.” For example, she pointed out that TheatreTruck has included child care as a line item in the budget on two of its projects because it’s important to them to support artists’ family needs.
The company also actively engages in community-building. Its members create work about the community — to wit, a piece about Emily Dickinson set at the Dickinson House, as well as its recent devised piece, The Mill Project, a piece of physical theater that uses primary text, dance, music, and song to tell the story of the women who worked in mills and began one of the early labor movements in this country. They also hold meet-and-greet events to which they invite local artists, and they’re interested in fostering a cultural arts scene together in the area because having a scene creates a sort of momentum that benefits all the organizations involved.
“We’re really trained in jealousy and envy as part of our craft, and I wanted artists to meet each other with this idea that we were all in it together and we were all going to come together to create work,” Sloane said.
The ideas the attendees brought home from the summit are only just starting to shape themselves into action. They were encouraged to write manifestos. There was talk of writing a letter that would put LORT theater on notice that their newest round of hires would be scrutinized to see if the women and people of color working just below leadership were given chances to move up.
Pangburn and Sloane are still thinking and talking over what’s next in terms of putting the summit’s ideas into action, although Sloane did note that the workshops she took prompted ideas for the next evolution of The Mill Project. She noted that the particulars are different, but the story has obvious resonances with where we are, and what she and her collaborators are dealing with.
“It’s amazing how linked our experiences are over the century,” Pangburn said.