"Statera Voices" is a series dedicated to reclaiming dominant culture narratives as a means towards gender balance in the theater and beyond. "Statera Voices" is where we tell our stories, expand our histories and celebrate each other. It is here that we join in a circle of mutual trust and support to share our thoughts and self-reveal on our own terms and in our own voices.
Today's offering comes from actress singer, musician and writer, Maggie Hollinbeck. Hollinbeck has worked all over North America and most recently with the first national tour of Once. She holds a B.A. in Theatre Arts and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology with a special interest in archetypal mythology and the return of the Divine Feminine. Maggie also coaches fellow theatre artists on the art of sustaining joy and positivity in the biz. Her professional website is www.maggiehollinbeck.com and she has recently birthed www.deepsouldive.com, an online home for creative soulwork.
Even though I’ve been an actress for 20+ years, it took me a long time to start pulling back the veil on the dominant culture in our industry. For years it didn’t even occur to me to question why only four women were hired in a regional theatre's season, while eighteen men commanded the rest of the cast list. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why The Sisters Rosensweig is considered a women’s play while Death of a Salesman is just considered a play. It didn’t occur to me to ask if the men who strolled the boards alongside me were getting the same or better pay.
It took time for me to realize that I was seeing my profession through a set of spectacles given to me by a culture that hadn’t had its eyes checked in a while; one mark of a dominant culture is that it doesn’t expect to be seen or questioned.
When I did start to see clearly, I must admit it was a bit depressing. Okay, more than a bit. I went internal: How will I make a living? What if there isn’t enough work? There are so many talented women out there, how will I compete? I’m sure this sounds familiar.
But I love my craft more than I can express. Nothing fills me with more joy. Nothing sets my inner light into prism like embodying a soul and telling her story. No, I’m here to stay. So then I faced a choice: resign myself to the way things are, or imagine the way things could be and set my sights there.
But I’m just one person! And I don’t want to rock the boat - I have to make a living, you know! Relationships are everything in this business, so how can I question the status quo without offending the decision makers? Here are some ideas that I’ve found helpful as I make my way.
Assume we’re all on the same side. It’s been my experience that when issues of professional equality are brought to men’s attention, in every case so far the men have been just as interested in how to level the playing field, once they realize they are wearing the same spectacles I was wearing. This is not a case of women vs. men; it’s a case of the culture being so large that we don’t know it’s there. It’s like being in the ocean and trying to identify water.
Once in a while there’s someone (man or woman) who doesn’t want to deal with issues of equality in the arts. My primary goal is to establish good working relationships with everyone who crosses my path, and as my develop those relationships I get a sense of who is open and who is not. From there I can choose who to engage in a conversation.
Ask the question. A friend once told me a story that made quite an impact:
A woman was in the kitchen, fixing a roast for Sunday dinner while her husband entertained their extended family in the living room. She pulled out the roast and cut both ends off, seasoned it, places the vegetables around it in the pan, and set it in the oven.
“Why did you cut the ends off, Mommy?” her young daughter asked, peeping her eyes just over the kitchen counter.
The mother thought for a moment. “Well, it’s how my mother always did it, so I guess that’s why. I’m not sure though, now that you ask. Mom!”
The girl’s grandmother came into the kitchen and the mother asked her why she always cut the ends off the roast.
“Well, that’s how my mother always did it, so I always did it, too.”
The girl’s great-grandmother lived in another state, so the mother called her up. “Nana, my little girl was asking me why I cut the ends off the roast and I learned it from Grandma, but Grandma says she learned it from you. Why did you always cut the ends off your roast?”
“Because that was the only way it fit in my pan."
So often hints are done they way they're done, because it's how they've always been done. But now that I'm seeing clearly, I can ask why. Pay attention to that little voice inside that says, hmmm. Give it voice. Ask the question out loud. Wow, are there really only two Equity actresses in this whole season? I wonder if any of those Shakespearean roles could be played by a woman? How often does this theatre hire female directors and designers? I wonder how things would be different if women had a stronger voice at this theatre?
Examine the size of my dreams. Last year the women in the artistic company at the Utah Shakespeare Festival gathered together to talk about women in the arts, and my eyes were opened to out-of-the-box ideas and possibilities for myself as a performer. Why not work up one of Hamlet’s monologues? Why not try some clowning, which is generally men’s work in the Shakespeare canon? Why not consider trying a lesbian relationship in Much Ado About Nothing? Not just a woman playing a man, but playing a woman in love with a woman, not as a gag but for real? What would it be like if I could be considered for Benedick, Feste, Hamlet? How might that change the entire conversation in a production?
Surround myself with other change-makers. The patriarchal culture we live in champions masculine qualities such as competition, isolation, and dominating the top of the mountain as earmarks of success, but recently much is being written about feminine qualities of collaboration and community and “a rising tide lifts all boats” attitude. All of us have both masculine and feminine qualities, and we succeed best when we find the healthiest expression of both. Women especially thrive in circle with other women, so I love to find others who are speaking the language of change, and gather up on a regular basis. Statera’s upcoming conference is a perfect way to get connected with community.
Expand on what’s working. It’s easy to get bogged down in what’s not going right, and those issues do need to be addressed - I have a strong activist side and sometimes I just have to howl when the world isn’t evolving as quickly as I would like! But I keep my sanity and joy by looking out for what’s working, and calling that out for expansion. When I see a theatre company like Berkeley’s Shotgun Players create an entire season of plays directed by women, I love to shout about it! When I see a director create a little more room for women in his play, as Brian Vaughn inched a third woman into his cast of the male-dominated Henry IV Part II at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this season, I want to celebrate that progress, and every increment of progress I see. Two of my favorite sayings go hand in hand: what you resist persists, and what you focus on expands. So in general I like to focus on where strides are being made, and call attention to those successes. Who knows, maybe another theatre company will make a change just so they can be noticed and celebrated, too. A rising tide lifts all boats.