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.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Chestnut Tea with the Other Me

Marissa Skudlarek rebuts Peter Hsieh in a move we shall call, from this moment on, “The Double Skudlarek.”

The Palm Court of the Palace Hotel, downtown San Francisco. Marissa and Other Marissa sit at a table drinking tea. They are wearing beautiful floral-print sundresses and really fantastic hats.

MARISSA: So, Other Marissa. Thanks for joining me.

OTHER MARISSA: My pleasure!

MARISSA: It’s nice to be able to argue with myself out in the open.

OTHER MARISSA: Indeed, because as Tom Stoppard once said—

MARISSA & OTHER MARISSA (simultaneously): “I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself.”

MARISSA: Of course we would both know that quote.

OTHER MARISSA: Of course. After all, I’m you.

MARISSA: But, like, the other me.

OTHER MARISSA: Yeah. So, whatcha drinkin’?

MARISSA: Earl Grey – my usual. And yourself?

OTHER MARISSA: Chestnut tea!

MARISSA: Chestnut tea?

OTHER MARISSA: No really you have to try it, it’s amazing.

Marissa takes a sip of Other Marissa’s tea.

MARISSA: It’s good!

OTHER MARISSA: I know, right?

MARISSA: So this means that this is a scene with “two women having tea and talking.”

OTHER MARISSA: OH NO SOMEONE ALERT PETER HSIEH.

MARISSA: But that’s why I invited you here today, Other Marissa. If Peter can have drinks with his doppelganger, why can’t I?

OTHER MARISSA: Why not, indeed?

The_two_Marissas copy

MARISSA: I read Peter’s article on Monday and I thought he made some good points, but they got buried under a lot of, um, how to put this—

OTHER MARISSA: Macho posturing?

MARISSA: You don’t mince words, Other Marissa; I like that about you.

OTHER MARISSA: I do my best.

MARISSA: But, anyway, I liked what Peter had to say about producibility and how much we should – or shouldn’t – take it into account when writing.

OTHER MARISSA: Yeah, I feel like if you and I sat down with Peter and Other Peter, we’d all pretty much agree about that. It’s deadly to theater, as an art form, if every newbie playwright feels like the only thing she can write is short plays with small cast sizes and simple sets. Where’s the fun in that?

MARISSA: Although I’d probably interject that some constraints and limits can actually spur creativity. A blank page can be daunting, and you don’t always have to color outside the lines to make great art.

OTHER MARISSA: Also, Marissa, I’ve noticed that you strive for balance in your craftsmanship – a play of yours might contain one “unproducible” element, but not four or five.

MARISSA: You know me so well. Yes, I did that on purpose in my play Pleiades. I realized that it required a large cast, nine actors – and I wasn’t going to compromise on that. But I could make sure that the technical aspects of it were as simple as possible. There are only two sets, the costumes and lights don’t need to be complicated, there aren’t any crazy special effects… and I still told the story I wanted to tell.

OTHER MARISSA: That’s the play you’re producing this summer, right?

MARISSA: You are such a shill. But yes, I’m producing it this summer. It doesn’t have two women drinking tea, it has eight women drinking tea! And it’s fucking awesome.

OTHER MARISSA: And then a tennis ball bounces onstage and smashes into the tea service.

MARISSA: Yeah – I still don’t know how we’re going to stage that, night after night.

OTHER MARISSA: But didn’t you say that you “kept the technical aspects as simple as possible”…?

MARISSA: Anyway, the reason I keep harping on the “women drinking tea” phrase from Peter’s article is that, when I read it, it felt like a subtly gendered insult. Why women drinking tea? Why couldn’t he have said “people drinking tea”?

OTHER MARISSA: Or “bros drinking brews”! Those kinds of plays can be just as boring.

MARISSA: Right! But they never come in for the same criticism. Guys with beers are “cool”; women with tea are “boring.”

OTHER MARISSA: And that wasn’t the only weird gender issue at play in Peter’s article. For instance, he tried to start a dick-measuring contest with himself—

MARISSA: Which is not something I would ever do with you, Other Marissa—

OTHER MARISSA: —and not just because we don’t have dicks—

MARISSA: Or, how he has the “hot twins” walk into the cafe at the end of the scene – that is such a male fantasy…

OTHER MARISSA: Oh come on, everyone likes hot twins!

MARISSA: Do they?

OTHER MARISSA: Admit it, you wouldn’t mind if the Winklevoss twins walked in here right now.

MARISSA: Yes I would. The Winklevosses are doofuses.

OTHER MARISSA: Don’t you mean “the Winklevii are doofii”?

MARISSA: And then I worry that complaining about Peter’s article makes me seem like a humorless feminist scold.

OTHER MARISSA: I think that we are being rather humorous scolds.

MARISSA: I worry sometimes that I’m uptight and no fun. I worry that Other Peter’s drink of choice, the “Pink Panty Dropper,” is a date-rape reference, and then I worry that I’m being silly and overanalyzing things. I worry that my drinking Earl Grey tea is racist, colonialist, patriarchal, classist, and Anglophilic; and that I ought to be drinking fair-trade shade-grown coffee. I worry that the setting I’ve chosen for this imaginary conversation, the Palace Hotel, marks me as an inveterate elitist. I worry that at this very moment, buildings are burning and people are dying in the streets of Kiev and Caracas, while you and I drink tea and chat about art. I worry—

OTHER MARISSA: Marissa. Marissa. Calm down.

MARISSA: I’m sorry.

OTHER MARISSA: It’s OK.

MARISSA: I can get into these moods of spiraling anxiety—

OTHER MARISSA: I know. I know.

Pause. Marissa takes some deep breaths. Sips her tea.

MARISSA: If I prefer to write from a female perspective, or discuss women’s lives, or whatever—

OTHER MARISSA: —and maybe you do, and that’s fine—

MARISSA: –then why am I annoyed when Peter prefers to write from a masculine perspective? I mean, he’s entitled to write what he wants to write. He said it himself, and I agree.

OTHER MARISSA: Because there has never been an era in Western history that privileged female perspectives over male ones? Because you’re worried that other people, dudes particularly, will find Peter’s style more attractive than yours? Because you know how important it is, in this culture, to be perceived as cool, and you feel like you’ve never been cool?

MARISSA: Yeah, I feel like, if you’re a dude who says that plays about female things turn you off, people say “Oh, that’s fine, that’s understandable,” but if you’re a woman who admits that plays about dudely things turn you off, people are like “You should try to be more open-minded, flamethrowers are awesome!”

OTHER MARISSA: Aren’t they kind of awesome?

MARISSA: See? Proves my point.

OTHER MARISSA: Marissa, I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone. I’m going to tell you the real reason I drink chestnut tea.

MARISSA: OK. Why are you drinking chestnut tea?

OTHER MARISSA: Because great writing requires you to write both from your chest and from your nuts. OK, so the stereotype is that female writers are tender-hearted, compassionate, their pillowy breasts overflowing with the milk of human kindness. And male writers are bold, ballsy, Bukowskian bad boys. But truly great writing will combine those two modes. It will be compassionate but not cloying; courageous but not callous. It will speak truth to power, but it will do so from a place of empathy.

MARISSA: That was… really beautiful, Other Marissa. But I think you forgot something. A good writer doesn’t just need a big chest and big nuts. She also needs a gimlet eye.

OTHER MARISSA: I think I know what that means.

MARISSA: You’re damn right you do.

Marissa and Other Marissa get up and walk from the Palm Court to the Pied Piper Bar. Marissa catches the bartender’s eye.

MARISSA: A gin gimlet, please.

OTHER MARISSA: Make that two.

End of play.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. There aren’t actually two of her, but if there were, she could get a lot more stuff done. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.