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COVID-19 and the Opportunity for a Gender Parity Reset and More

gender parity
By Bonnie Comley

The Metropolitan Opera, one of the largest performing arts institutions in the United States, just announced that it will remain closed until September 2021. They also announced that they will reopen with a new opera by a Black composer, the first Black composer in the organization’s 140-year history. Opera, Broadway, dance, and theater-makers are taking the long overdue and necessary steps for the changes needed in the industry in terms of the LGBTQ community, sexism, and racism both behind and in front of and the curtain. I don’t want to be insensitive to those theater-makers experiencing hardships, but the COVID-19 shutdown has given us an opportunity for a global reset.

People, organizations, and industries are often resistant to change. Psychologists and sociologists will tell you that people like the familiar. Even if something is flawed, consistency is predictable and therefore can be comforting. But the 2020 pandemic has leveled everything and is forcing change upon us, let’s not miss the opportunity to change for the better.

I have long been an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) but these days after lockdowns and isolation, I find that more people are willing to listen. Last year I received the WP Theater’s Women of Achievement Award for my work toward gender equality. Below is an excerpt from my acceptance speech that focuses on gender but many of the points apply to DEI.

My parents taught me to challenge gender norms at an early age and they dared me to enter into all-boy arenas, I was handed power tools as a young girl and told, “some people will tell you that you can’t but you can do anything that the boys can do.” Born in 1959, I was warned of resistance but pushed forward with encouragement.

In my overalls and work boots with sawdust in my hair, I built treehouses and I made furniture. I could change the tires, the oil, and the muffler on the family car. I could drive a snowmobile, dirt bike, and a manual transmission pickup truck at 55 mph in reverse. I could also cook, sew, clean a fish, and milk a cow. I mastered all these things before I graduated from high school – so with that skill set and a business degree, it was no surprise that I ended up working in the theater.

The theater has always been a battleground for social justice which is what it attracted so many of us in this industry. Because even if you fall into the privileged category, you recognize the imbalance and you want to be part of the solution.

We are trying to reach gender parity in the theater. But what is the “gender-parity ratio?” It‘s a metric, a system to standardize and compare statistics. When you take all these statistics and analyze them you get a clear picture of the imbalance. So when we say that certain groups are underrepresented, we have the numbers to back it up.

With statistics in hand, we are heading in the right direction and the groundwork is there to build on. Here are some examples of what the statistics and studies show us. Women leaders are more likely to hire other women, they are more likely to mentor other women, and they are more likely to create an inclusive environment, which results in more women entering that workplace.

There has been a tremendous advancement of women in the top levels of theater in recent years. Charlotte St Martin, the President of The Broadway League, has been at the head of the most powerful trade association in live entertainment for the past fifteen years. Charlotte is probably the inspiration for the many executive directors and producing artistic directors that are finding their way to the top of the regional and non-profit theaters around the country. These women running the regional theaters will hire more women executives, who will hire female designers, who will look for scripts by and about women.

Women at the top of theater companies, make way for other women to enter, and ensure that the scripts are written by women and all these factors inch us closer to gender parity.

So what am I doing to support gender parity? I founded a company called BroadwayHD. We currently have over 300 full-length stageplays and musicals available for streaming. Since our launch in 2015, BroadwayHD has won eight Telly Awards, been nominated for a Webby, and made the Guinness World Records. BroadwayHD engages with subscribers in over 120 countries and has partnered with live theater producing organizations around the world to promote and extend the reach of their brands by streaming their shows on-line. Some of these partnerships include The Public Theater, Lincoln Center, The Roundabout Theater Company, Manhattan Theater Club, Cirque du Soleil, Royal Shakespeare Company, and The Geffen Playhouse.

BroadwayHD is amplifying stories and voices from a single theatrical production and making them heard around the world. We can extend the life of shows by women playwrights, like Paula Vogel and Dominique Morriseau, composers like Shauna Taub, and Val Vigoda, and directors like Rebecca Teischman, Sally Cookson, and Lisa Petersen and share them with a global audience long after the curtain comes down on their final performance. These beautiful shows at the height of their production values, will be seen around the world and inspire others to use their voices. Authentic theater can only happen when we let people tell their own stories.

BroadwayHD is streaming Shakespeare, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim in high definition video but we are always looking for inspirational and aspirational women’s stories to share on our global platform.

The theater can be a sanctuary but as women and female identified artists blaze the trail to gender parity, remember what my parents told me – “some people will tell you that you can’t but you can do anything that the boys can do.” Expect resistance but keep moving forward.

Also by Bonnie Comley:

The Reopening of Broadway – What is at Stake?

How Many Producers Does it Take to Make a Broadway Musical?

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