CMU School of Drama

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Call for Equal Support in Theatrical Design

HowlRound: Technical theatre is comprised of designing and constructing. In some areas of design, those roles are separated, and separately compensated. Set and lighting designers overwhelmingly have a technical director and master electrician hired by the company to execute a designer’s plan, even at smaller, non-equity, and storefront theatres. In contrast, costume designers are left to their own devices at all but the largest institutions. Without the support of a technician, costume designers have their hands in each step of bringing the design to the stage—measuring actors, drafting patterns, building costumes, shopping, coordinating rentals, fittings, completing alterations, writing up laundry instructions, coordinating understudy costumes, returns, budgets, the occasional mid-run maintenance, and strike.

5 comments:

Mark Ivachtchenko said...

Whenever I read or learn more about this issue I'm always bummed because it's going to be so difficult and it'll take so many years until it's remedied. Gender inequality is found in practically every job out there and it's a shame that in such a progressive, liberal industry it's still prevalent. Personally, I'm rooting for both sides. I cheer for all the female TDs, lighting, and set designers and all the male costume designers. I find that I'm typically pretty blind to this gender difference, especially since costume design is one of my top three choices for declaration. In a negative sense, I'm also blind to this because I'm male & white and it does feel shitty whenever I hear about things other people have to deal with that don't even come across over me. One of my best friends, for example, is a female TD and it sucks hearing about sexist, old-fashioned carpenters that you're forced to work with or under. All I can really hope for is that we see a shift in the gender statistics that lean closer to 50-50. And I hope not for just a statistical shift, but for a shift in attitudes towards the opposite gender as well. There's no way in hell anyone is too girly to be a carpenter or too masculine to do such a girly job such as sew clothing--those remarks are just straight bullshit.

Katherine Sharpless said...

I feel a bit ashamed that I didn't realize the full weight on a costume designer to be both designer and technician until reading through this article. It's just one example of the many results of gender gaps within the industry which I've noticed ever since I started doing tech theatre. Honestly, going back to beginning of high school I can think of dozens of examples were I was treated differently in the shop, and I hope over the years I learn how to combat the inequality without becoming bitter toward the field I love. The theatre community is pretty liberal and I've found that we easily talk up social change, but reflect the gaps and sexism which pervade most industries. One other thing I noticed, which is also disappointing, is that a good handful of people in the comments on the article's website were upset that the gaps and issues in their industry (sound, management) weren't mentioned. It made it seem like people didn't care as much about suggesting improvements for the industry and instead wanted the issues in their concentration to be recognized. Hopefully we can work together instead of becoming jaded and seclusive.

Helena Hewitt said...

I started out doing technical theatre interning as an assistant in a local theatre’s costume shop, and there were many times that the woman I was working for felt that her hard work was seen as disposable. Despite pursuing a career in technical direction I still pride myself on having some decent sewing skills, but I really don’t want to be the girl who can sew in any shop I’m working in. Even if it makes sense given our skillsets to have me sewing and the guys I’m working with building scenery, like it did last summer, it sets a gendered precedent that I am uncomfortable with. And I don’t think the solution is necessarily to bring more men into the costuming field and more women into the lighting and scenic field, although I do believe in allowing people to chase their dreams regardless of their gender. But the gender demographics should not have to be equal between these fields for there to be equal respect. I do think, however, something that CMU does right is having their young technical theatre professionals learn a bit about every field at the beginning of their education. It is much harder to devalue the work of someone else when you’ve tried to learn the basics and you know firsthand how hard just getting those right were for you. There are certainly still problematic gaps in our industry’s practices but I believe that fostering an environment in which everyone’s work is valued and respected is essential for successful theatre and I hope we see more of that moving forward.

Julian Goldman said...

I wasn’t aware of this issue since in my limited experience in theatre so far, I’m used to seeing a costume shop run by someone other than the costume designer. That being said, I do think it is odd to not have production staff for the costume designer, though I see how that could make sense for a show that is mostly buying/pulling and altering. As soon as a show gets build heavy though, that is basically having one person do two jobs. I think a lot of that likely does stem from sexism, as this article discusses, specifically devaluing the amount of skill and expertise it takes to be able to build costumes because it is seen as a feminine skill, and our culture devalues anything associated with femininity. Honestly, I feel like this article devalues costume production a bit, as it often feels like it is referring to artisans as less than designers, with designers being the “pure artists”, though I’m sure that wasn’t the intent. As this article discusses, this problem is a hard problem to break. It is near impossible for costume designers to insist they don’t build their own work, but it is also likely just as impossible for a production manager at a small theatre to justify paying another employee, especially if the budget is already tight. I suppose we have to start by making sure to acknowledge the amount of skill and time that goes into costume construction, and understand that right now many costume designers are really being expected to do two jobs.

Tahirah K. Agbamuche said...

It is a terrible thing that enlightenment is often coupled with sad facts. Until I started school at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, I did not realize just how important technicians were to Scenic and Lighting designers and how valuable their roles are within the theatre community. Just recently in Basic PTM we learned about the structure of different departments we were taught about the ideal structure, often referred to as the magical unicorn: It does not exist, but it would be nice to believe it did. In that structure, each department had an equal amount of aid in carrying out the design all the way to a finished product. The costume design department seems to be suffering most greatly from this structure. I had an idea of the inequality between sexes in costume design, but had no clue just how badly it affected designers throughout the run of the show. Sexism is a large problem in our society, and that is something that needs to be fixed at a global scale before it can even begin to trickle down to the arts and theatre. The work a woman does should not be considered less difficult purely because she is female, thus it should not require as much skill as a male-dominant job. I agree with the author, in order for the situation to get better the value of skill must increase, but the problem is that it can not be afforded in many cases. For example, in developing countries, they have little to no choice to work for low wages because refusal means their children and families will suffer. Fast Fashion stores like H&M are able to get away with this and sell their products for dirt cheap prices because they labor is not valued. This is the exact same situation here. Companies are allowed to scrimp and scrape in their costume departments because Women are unable to make a stand to demand equality without damaging their reputation, so instead they are forced to succumb. This article also touches on a really important point that a female designer who does not participate in build is seen as demanding or a sign of incompetence, yet a male who does the same is simply looked over. I also nod at the authors note on diversity. It is simple: the fewer the people, the fewer the brains, the less perspectives available thus touching a limited audience. We live in diverse America. Men, Women, and beautiful rainbow of races. All viewed as one, All equally supported.

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