By Jordan Oakley
Jordan Oakley is a 19-year-old actor and playwright currently living in Seattle, Washington. She has been working professionally in theater for 10 years.
It’s a standard scene. It’s mid-morning, you’re downing your second Red Bull of the day to shake off the fact that you only slept five hours last night and slumping your way into the latest room your director has managed to reserve as a rehearsal space. It’s cold and you’re tired as you half-heartedly slip on your rehearsal shoes and you are met with the same sight you’ve been met with every morning for the past few weeks: a room full of men.
This may come as a shock to those unfamiliar with the theater business. While theater is viewed as an overtly feminine industry—a stereotype enforced by male actors constantly trying to prove their masculinity by doing insane stunts and spitting at interviewers that they don’t simply sit around and wear makeup—the industry is strongly controlled by men. Most directors are men. Most plays that get published or produced are written by men. By extension, these plays tend to revolve around male characters. With nearly every facet of theater being controlled by men, it’s no surprise to anyone working within the industry to see a room full of them on any given project.
However, this was not the case with my latest job.
As a theater student, I was required to work crew for one of my school’s productions. I’d been assigned to a play called Men On Boats. To be completely honest, I knew very little about the play. I didn’t read the script despite knowing I should have before beginning production. All I knew was that the cast was majority girls and that there would be some sort of choreography going into the production. What I later learned was that the play itself was meant to be all female, an exploration of masculinity and what happens when men compete with each other in order to gain control of a mission. Rather fitting, don’t you think?
When I showed up for my first rehearsal call, I was mildly surprised to see a female director sitting behind the table. Shrugging it off, I went to go sit with my fellow crew members, one boy and one girl. As the actors poured in, I noticed that the room was filled with women. Every actor was female, everyone behind the director's table was either a woman or female presenting. As I mentioned before, this is not standard.
The tone of the process was different as well. As a crew member, it’s pretty standard to be secluded in the back corners of the rehearsal space with our phones. But the production team was insistent we join every warm-up and interact with every person in production. The warm-ups were personalized, consisting of every member of the production dedicating strange quotes and movements to memory and associating them with individual members of the cast. The actors learned our names by the second day. Every aspect of the production and interactions between everyone working on it felt naturally inclusive. Actors and crew members could have creative input and would be taken seriously by the director. There was no sense of competition, like you had to come up with the most perfect idea in order to be heard. Instead, it was open and empathetic, with the production team ready to help you in any way they could.
That’s not to say productions that include men cannot feel like this. I’ve worked with men who were absolutely wonderful and thoughtful and took great pains to make sure everyone felt valued. But the difference was that this was not necessarily an overt choice. Everyone simply went along with it easily. No one felt nervous to speak up, offer an idea. The environment was open and allowed for interesting interpretations of the play to come to life.
The show itself expanded into something more than what the crew had been told it would be. More props were added, quick changes were sped up, and at one point there was a mashup of “Cotton Eye Joe” and “Shots” playing over the speakers during a transition scene. The backstage crew was even integrated into the show itself. We interacted with the audience, danced on stage and I even got to play a snake for a small bit in act two. It was one of the most fun backstage jobs I’d ever had. And I genuinely believe it was because I was surrounded by such intelligent and open women.
This production of Men On Boats was a singular experience. It was different in a way that, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be. Women can call the shots from any part of a show, be it on stage or off. To be in a room full of women is what theater could be, and I for one cannot wait to work on my next majority female production.
(Photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis at Cornish College of the Arts. )