Women prove strength and skill in technical theater

School is over and it is a cold, dark, snowy evening in the middle of winter. It is a quiet night and the snow is falling slowly but inside the auditorium of the high school it is abuzz. The music is turned up, power tools are running, and there is a crew of about 25 students working hard.

The beginning structures of the set for the winter musical are being formed as angles are measured, pieces of wood are cut, and screws are drilled in.  People work at a quick but careful pace, making sure it is stable and looks nice.

Tech for the musical is the biggest project of its kind at the high school each year, but every show needs some sort of tech work. This can include pulling the needed props, repainting furniture, or building a two story house.

Here at the high school, the tech crew has a gender mix, but in general, technical theater is a male-dominated field. Men are the ones measuring the angles and drilling the screws in, while women often experience some form of sexism. Gender in technical theater is slowly changing but it takes a while.

Sexism in technical theater can come in all forms, from the way men communicate with women to what projects or tasks women are assigned. Sara Levy, an ARHS senior and the high school’s student tech director, and Katie Russavage, an ARHS alum, now a Theater and Public works major at Umass Amherst, have both experienced sexism in their work in technical theater.

Levy, who has been doing tech for five years now, was working on another production outside of the high school. When she was given a screw gun, the male director tried to teach her how to use it. She then watched as another male student received a screw gun without any instruction on how to use it. “I hate having to prove myself,” Levy said. “And I hate being spoken to condescendingly by men.”

Levy was also once in a class with other techies when the teacher directly addressed the male techie to compliment the tech work and set rather than the other women and herself. “It makes me feel like no matter how hard I work and how long I work [in tech], I won’t be recognized like my male peers,” said Levy.

At the beginning of her high school experience, Russavage had a tech director that wasn’t supportive of women and was often very demeaning and patronizing towards them. Women on the crew were consistently given “lesser” jobs that didn’t require as much critical thinking and they weren’t taken as seriously.

Even as Russavage became a co-student tech director with another guy, he would often get the more technical jobs. “It was really bad to start,” she said. “But it changed [after talking to the director] and eventually became a great place to be.”

At UMass, Russavage notices lots of first year or sophomore guys who come into the shop and act like they know everything. “They try to tell me I’m wrong and explain things step-by-step that I’ve done a dozen times,” she said.

Women have to prove themselves and work harder to gain people’s respect in this area. “Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like I can’t goof around as much as the guys around me,” said Russavage.

Mr. Bechtold, theater director and performing arts head, has witnessed sexism mostly around tools and tool use. Men will often try to teach women how to use power tools, like Levy’s experience, or even just offer to do it for female techies. “The, ‘Here, I’ll take care of that for you’ phrase,” Mr. Bechtold said, is one example.

He has also sometimes needed to help female tech leaders deal with males that do something obnoxious. “I do think overall we’re doing pretty well [at preventing sexism] in this building, though,” Mr. Bechtold said.

Theater in general has always been male-dominated. In the Greek and Roman times men played all the characters on stage, male and female. Once Opera started, women were given more of a chance to perform and today, almost all theater productions call for women.

Over time, women have also been breaking glass ceilings backstage and creatively, but men still dominate the field. It was just this past year that the first all-female creative team put a show on Broadway. The show is called Waitress based on the Adrienne Shelly film of the same name and has music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles.

Technical theater has always been and still is male dominated. Part of this is the physical labor. Moving heavy platforms or lifting materials comes more easily to many men. “I’ve been scared away from applying to many summerstock jobs because most list ‘must be able to lift 30/40/50+ pounds’ as part of the job description,” said Russavage.

Physical labor is one factor but the main reason there are more men than women is because the theater industry is based on relationships. Many people have gotten jobs in technical theater just based on family and friend connections.

People will ask their friends, who will reach out to other friends in the industry, who might ask someone else who will eventually get the job. If it is male-dominated to begin with, this cycle of reaching out will likely continue that domination.

Societal sexism and old stereotypes can also play a role because it is so deeply ingrained in many people. The idea that men are the ones interested in power tools and the like can make it harder for women to gain personal credibility or experience.

The only way to prevent sexism and to make gender in technical theater more equal is to have more women in the field. Women need female role models, teachers, tech directors and supervisors. “Helping younger students see females in these positions, and to feel that as a norm, is huge,” Mr. Bechtold said.

Women and girls should have good examples of women in leadership positions with responsibility. Many men are naturally drawn to technical theater because of stereotypes. “I think girls would be too [drawn to technical theater] if they had role models, and understood that you don’t need physical strength to be a leader,” Levy said.

Men and male workers can help too by setting good examples for future male techies and calling out sexist behavior or comments. If older male techies set model behavior backstage and in the workplace, younger men will hopefully follow suit.

“Having female techies actively teach, mentor, and instruct male techies regularly helps too,” Mr. Bechtold said. Having women in leadership positions helps break the male dominated problem and shows men that they won’t always be the “know-it-alls.” Men also might respect women in the field more if they have to trust and take instructions from more females.

Actively reaching out and inviting more women into trying tech will also help. “Inviting females in with a ‘this could be your new thing’ attitude is important,” said Mr. Bechtold. Many women probably have no idea how much they’d love tech just because they haven’t had any exposure to it.

Here at ARHS, more and more women have become interested in tech and have taken on bigger roles. “When I started, there were more men doing tech than women, but now there are more women,” Levy said.  “It has been really cool to see that shift.”

Women are really supported and are given more responsibility and more complicated projects. Each year, the program brings in new female techies who are excited to learn and are ready to get down to work.

Female techies have consistently been taking over leadership positions and helping younger students (especially women) feel very welcome. “That’s one thing I love about the ARHS [tech] program,” Mr. Bechtold said. “Is that, in the past 15 years, we’ve had a female tech director almost twice as often as we’ve had a male in the role.”