Theatre folk are often thought to be the cream of the progressive crop, and in many ways that is true. Good theatre challenges norms, questions the status quo, and galvanizes change. Theatre people are in the business of storytelling, and thereby the business of empathy. And yet, even so, the field has primarily been dominated by white men in positions of leadership, whether they be leading the companies, writing the plays, or directing the productions.
Since roughly 2015, the American theatre field at large has seen an impressive turnover of artistic leadership as many founders and long-time leaders are leaving their posts, and while things are improving for women and people of color, we have a long way to go. Data published in a recent American Theatre article reflects that the gender split of artistic leadership has gone from 74% cis men / 23% cis women / 3% transgender or gender non-conforming to 58% cis men / 41% cis women / 1% transgender or gender non-conforming. In terms of race, artistic leadership has gone from 90% white / 10% people of color to 74% white / 26% people of color. These numbers at quick glance look like progress (and they are!), but when you dig a little deeper, you find that the larger the companies get, the less impressive the progress.
Here in Utah, our small (but tasty) piece of the theatrical pie is doing pretty well for itself. Two of our largest professional theatre companies, Pioneer and Salt Lake Acting Company, are run by women; Plan-B Theatre is run by a person of color; Good Company Theatre in Ogden is run by two women of color. (Let’s hear it for Utah!)
Next season at Salt Lake Acting Company (its 49th) brings a line-up of all female directors, of which I am proud to be a part. SLAC has long been known for its progressive programming and overall liberal values, and even so, this particular milestone is a first. Upon its announcement, a male Facebook follower commented something to the effect of, “I guess the men should stay home this season,” which made me ponder the many seasons of many theatres that have had slates of all male directors. I doubt that stopped women from attending.
Having women in the director’s seat matters because the lens through which stories are being told has a profound effect on how the audience receives them. As Rebecca Gilman (playwright and artistic associate at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre) wrote in a recent article for the Chicago Tribune, “…playwrights, directors, designers and actors shape the stories we tell in the theater and the stories we tell become the world we live in. If the stories of one group are hierarchized above those of another, that signals to the world that the rest of us are not nearly as important…”
I am incredibly proud to have spent so much of my career up to this point creating work with Salt Lake Acting Company, where women’s voices and perspectives are integral to every production and the work is all the better for it. Next season’s plays take us on journeys far and wide – from 1890s Norway to present-day East Africa; from a 12-year-old discovering who she is to a pair of middle-aged couples looking to spice up their marriages. The stories are funny and engaging, and while they are each being told by a woman at the helm, make no mistake – men are still invited.
Shannon Musgrave was Associate Artistic Director of Salt Lake Acting Company until April 2019, when she relocated to Pittsburgh. She holds her MA in Arts Management from American University. She loves cooking, plants, yoga, and looks forward to returning to Utah whenever possible to make theatre.