Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Women in Tech(nical Theater)

Marissa Skudlarek gets technical. 

When I was in college, all theater majors had to take a half-credit course introducing them to the fundamentals of stagecraft. The course covered such items as terminology, safety, and rigging; and culminated in everyone in the group having to construct a flat.

Our instructor for this course was a gruff old technician and lighting designer a few years from retirement. He had a reputation for being tough as nails, all the more so because he had recently survived falling seven feet into our concrete-floored orchestra pit and breaking half the bones in his body. He proudly told us that he was a member of Local 1 of IATSE, the premiere branch of the international stagehands’ union, though he also told us stories suggesting that IATSE is a nepotistic old boys’ club.

The class was mostly freshmen (though I took it as a sophomore) and, as drama classes at liberal-arts schools are wont to be, mostly female. And our instructor seemed at times to resent that this was where his life had taken him: here he was, a member of IATSE Local 1, teaching the rudiments of stagecraft to a lot of teenage girls who were only taking the course because it was required.

Many of us in the class had never done tech before – so it would’ve been the perfect opportunity for an enthusiastic instructor to show us what we were missing, to get us excited about everything that goes on backstage. But instead of encouraging us, our instructor seemed to judge and dismiss us out of hand. He never said or did anything overtly sexist (you can’t get away with that at a former women’s college), but his actions and attitudes suggested that technical theater is the domain of men, not of women.

I left the course feeling, more than ever, that if I wanted to learn more about scenery or lighting, I’d have to become “one of the boys.” I’d have to be tougher than the average woman. I’d have to work twice as hard to get half as much recognition. None of these things come naturally to me.

Maybe my instructor was giving me a good dose of Realpolitik. It probably isn’t easy to be a woman in technical theater, so perhaps he was right not to coddle us. But one of the reasons to go to a former women’s college in a bucolic setting is to learn new things in a forgiving, supportive environment. And as I produce a play of my own this summer and work closely with designers for the first time in my theater career, my dearest wish is that I knew more about the craft of design.

And I wish I hadn’t been so intimidated, back in college. I wish that I hadn’t let antiquated ideas about masculinity and femininity hold me back from learning and exploring. I wish I’d understood that femininity is not an all-or-nothing proposition: I should be able to wear steel-toed boots and grubby jeans to build sets during the day, and change into a minidress and heels to go to a party at night, and no one should think less of me for either outfit, either activity.

I still feel insecure when dealing with designers, aware that they have specialized knowledge that I lack – and one of the most difficult elements of producing has been surmounting these insecurities. My stagecraft instructor might have treated me like a naïve young girl; I wish I hadn’t let that treatment convince me that I really was a naïve young girl.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright, producer, and arts writer. Find more about her play Pleiades, opening this August, at pleiadessf.wordpress.com, and follow her on Twitter @MarissaSkud.

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