Sisters Under the Scrim

Talking With The Women Who Make Theatre Magic Backstage

Karen Maness
Karen Maness (Photo By Todd V. Wolfson)

I'm sitting in the atrial calm of Mother's Cafe, studying the hands of the six women seated at my table. There are no long nails in this group -- no perfect manicures, trimmed cuticles, or gleaming nail polish. The hands that surround me are strong and callused. They do not pick insecurely at napkins and menu edges; they gesture with confident grace. And at least three of these hands sport black bruises under the nails, each in a different stage of healing.

No, I'm not hosting a dinner for the Association of Obsessive Hammerers (although several folks here might fit that bill). These women are some of the finest theatrical artists in Austin, shaping audiences' emotional responses to performance events without ever stepping on a stage. They work behind the scenes, designing lighting, mixing sound, and creating award-winning sets and costumes for performing arts productions here and across the nation.

At the table are Lisa Byrd, production director for Ballet Austin; Ann Marie Gordon, set designer known for her work with the Vortex and other avant-garde theatre houses; Karen Maness, UT Performing Arts Center resident scenic artist and adjunct professor; Jennifer Rogers, co-owner of Light Bastard Amber, a freelance Austin lighting design company; Leilah Stewart, who designs sets for St. Edward's University as well as virtually every small theatre company in Austin; and Susan Tsu, nationally known costume designer and, until recently, longtime head of the Costume Design program in the UT Department of Theatre & Dance. Although these women work in a variety of environments and performance spaces, they are all resourceful, intensely creative, and strikingly accomplished in their careers.

Yet despite the weight of their contribution to the performing arts, most are minorities in their fields: A stout majority of set, lighting, and sound designers and technicians are of the masculine Anglo-American persuasion. (Byrd is African-American and Tsu is Asian-American.) What, then, has their journey to success been like? On balance, has being a female creator in a man's world been a blessing or a blockade?

In Mother's pristine air, they share answers that are sometimes surprising, sometimes moving, always thoughtful. And although gender issues have created some tricky, sticky, and painful situations for these artists, many of the hardest issues they face can be attributed simply to the nature of theatre work itself.

Austin Chronicle: When you first entered the theatre as young professionals, did it feel like a man's world?

Lisa Byrd: Definitely. White men ...

Lisa Byrd
Lisa Byrd (Photo By Todd V. Wolfson)

Susan Tsu: ... who owned everything ...

Byrd: Right. Sound was a white male industry. It wasn't hard learning how to do sound, but it was hard getting work and having to deal with that environment because of my gender. I believe it was even harder because of my race. In 25 years, I think I've only seen five other black women doing sound and only one in a theatrical environment. I'd go to bands to try to get hired, and they would say, "My wife wouldn't want me traveling with a woman." [Laughter] Or there'd be a man there doing his second sound gig, and although you've been doing it for 10 years, he'd think you couldn't possibly know what you're doing. On the other hand, I met incredible people who were able to help me and who didn't hold that, because I was a woman and I was black, I was anything other than a person on the job. It's been a good profession, and obviously [the gender issues] weren't bad enough to affect my desire to do it.

Karen Maness: I started working in the scene shops at 18, so I looked like a baby, and I had a really difficult time being given opportunities. That was the hardest thing. But the most beautiful thing happened once. I had a male charge artist who would never give me a chance; he always gave me menial tasks. Once that job was over, we all got laid off. The charge artist and I got hired back on at Knotts Berry Farm, of all places, and this was where my life changed. I walked in, and the new designers had never seen any of us. We all stood next to each other, and they handed out projects, and I said, "I could do that." And I was given something challenging to do. Suddenly [my old boss] could see me painting. And my boss was suddenly my co-worker, which was glorious, and then later my employee. [Laughter]

When you're a young girl, when you're female and an object, sometimes it's a problem. A couple times, I'd get pinched or something, and I'd take the man outside immediately. I'd say, "OK, this has to stop now, or I'll have to go further with this. And it might affect your job and your family, and I don't want that." I've never had it go further than that.

Jennifer Rogers: Going and buying lighting supplies has been very interesting for me. The more often I go, the better I am received. But my first visit in, they look at me like I can't possibly know what a gobo is. And why in the world would I need one? But as I go back to get more stuff, I'm finding I get a whole different response. Now they see me as somebody to sell to.

Ann Marie Gordon: I remember being particularly offended by that attitude when I was younger. I felt powerless, also because I'm physically small. I once worked with a woman who was 6 foot 1 and saw a contractor try to give her trouble. She leaned over him, and he was just cringing, I tell you. I thought, gosh, it would be so marvelous to be that tall. [Laughter]

Tsu: I think in costume design, we have a reverse issue, which is that it's still regarded as women's work, right? The domain of women: "Oh, those girls in the costume shop will make that for us, no problem." And for the longest time, the costume shops weren't unionized, and the other technical crews were putting in the same hours but making so much more in overtime, which the costume shop never got. So as I've taught more and become older, I've become a bit more militant about making it a better world for my students. I don't want them to be abused. I want the people around them to have the authority to make things better, but those people need to be educated along the way, too. So when I'm working with the students, mostly young women, it's hopefully to empower them to be strong. It's still a struggle, but it's better. There are more older women with families running costume shops now, and I think that makes a difference. We are beginning to realize that we are better human beings if we have a rounded life, not just being bitter and lonely and single ... [Laughter] ... stitching in the costume shop, never meeting anybody.

AC: Are there ways in which your gender has directly informed or shaped the way you work?

Light Bastard Amber partners Natalie George (l) and Jennifer Rogers
Light Bastard Amber partners Natalie George (l) and Jennifer Rogers (Photo By Todd V. Wolfson)

Byrd: I was working at an outdoor festival, where there were a lot of bands lined up. The next group was setting up, and one of the players came up and he said, "I'm so glad there's a woman mixing. I just love the way women mix; women mix so much better." I said, "Why?" He said, "Because women listen." I said, "Yeah!" [Laughter] You could've taken that in a sexist way, you know, and said, "Oh, I want to be one of the guys! Don't treat me differently!" But it was right. I think women do mix differently than men, that there is a different sensibility.

I went to grad school for audio engineering, and one class was a physics course that talked about the mechanism of hearing, how we hear. I'll never forget seeing the graphs showing how women hear versus how men hear. Men start to lose their hearing of certain high frequencies at age 30 to 35. On the other hand -- not because of environmental reasons, but because of maybe genetic reasons -- women hear certain frequencies better than men. And one of them is the frequency of children's voices. So when your husbands say they don't hear the kids crying, they really can't. ...

Tsu: Oh, now, wait a minute. [Laughter]

Byrd: It doesn't have that same impact on them because those frequencies are more accented for women. When you go to a concert or buy a CD, you can hear those differences in the mix, depending on who's doing the mixing.

Rogers: I started out as a stage manager in college, and I had a memorable experience with the technical director of the university I went to. He told me to be careful that I didn't listen to one of my female professors too much, because she was considered a bitch and I wouldn't want to get the same label. Of course, I'm still in touch with her because she was a wonderful professor. But it was really powerful for me to ask myself, is it OK for me to have the same level of frustration as a male stage manager would? Because this technical director was basically saying, "You have to be careful because cast members think you're a bitch when you yell at them." And I thought, "Jim, you yell at people, and nobody thinks you're a bitch." [Laughter] So I had to learn a new tactic, a new way of speaking to people so that I could communicate to them that I wasn't happy, that things weren't happening the way they were supposed to and that I expected better, but to say it in a way so they wouldn't perceive me as this angry, bitchy woman. And it took a long time. It's one of the most difficult things for me; I want to just communicate. I don't want to have to think first about how to communicate with you depending upon your sex so that you don't get the wrong opinion about me. But I do think it's getting better.

I have also noticed as a stage manager that performers have a tendency to come to me more for comforting [than they would if I were male]. They come to me to talk about their problems. They want to tell me about their day and why they don't feel good, and they want me to make them feel better. What they really want to hear from me is, "Wow, I understand. That's really sad. Can we move on now?" Then they can.

Byrd: I've seen how people will respond differently to a male stage manager. With women, they expect more emotional responses; I see that all the time.

Tsu: It's not true of all the male collaborators I have had, because I've had the luck to work with some really sensitive men, but I can say that through my career, the times that I've gotten to work with women have been so productive. There's nothing in the way somehow.

Leilah Stewart
Leilah Stewart (Photo By Todd V. Wolfson)

Rogers: You don't have to prove anything.

Tsu: Yeah. There's something that changes a little in the dynamic, whether it's the machismo-gotta-assert-my-ego aspect or the fact that women aren't afraid to say, "I don't know," and then work together to find out. I've really enjoyed that along the way, the women directors and other collaborators.

AC: Susan, you spoke about the fact that now more women who run costume shops have families. How do you deal with the "career vs. family" question? Do you have families? How do you manage both?

Leilah Stewart: I would just like to say that I have been breast-feeding in a production meeting, knowing that those people would never hire me again. [Laughter] On the other hand, right after Celeste, my youngest, was born, I got a job doing the summer season at Southwestern [University] and [former Austin actor] Joe York was the director. And we would come to these production meetings, and I would come with my baby, breast-feeding, and here's Joe who's, like, super bulked out, and I always felt like we were some sort of primeval couple. [Laughter] It was such a riot. They hired a student so my baby could be in the green room while I was working. But I've had big jobs in big theatres where all the men in the room were thinking, "This person will never get the work done" -- which I did, but they never hired me again. I thought, my husband would never take a baby to a production meeting, you know?

Rogers: Well, he doesn't have boobs.

Tsu: Exactly.

Rogers: The insta-food thing, you know? This is your baby's nutrition. This is the way the world functions. And if we want to have more men running around, maybe we should let women take their babies to the production meetings.

Tsu: I used to breast-feed secretly while walking down 42nd Street in New York. I had a very clever hide-it-away method, you know, while shopping for a show. I was continuing to work because I needed to. If I didn't work, we didn't eat. I was lucky that the Theater of Virginia hired me for a year when Christian was just a baby, and they made a special place for him. We had to walk through the scene shop, and the guys made him little baby goggles. It was really fortunate that that group of people were open to it. But I know what you're saying, Leilah, is absolutely true in the world as well.

Ann Marie Gordon
Ann Marie Gordon (Photo By Todd V. Wolfson)

Maness: Working at the university, this is the first time in my life I've ever thought I could have a family and not lose my job.

AC: Because of the atmosphere at the university?

Maness: Sure. And also, the limited hours are protected; I'm not working 18-hour days anymore. It's stable, so I'm not getting laid off, and I'm not having to worry about my insurance.

AC: Robert Schmidt, the assistant chair of the UT Department of Theatre & Dance whose background is in scenic design, told me that there are more women involved in technical and design fields today, but that they don't stay in those fields very long. Do you think the fact that they may be juggling families contributes to that?

Tsu: I've seen it among my students who've been designers. It's really hard to want to do it all. And it's particularly difficult if your career is not well secured and you don't have all those contacts by the time you have a baby. Speaking from my own experience, being a mother and teacher and designer, I never feel that I'm doing anything quite as well as I could be. Work work work, you know? Some people think that's just the way I am, but it's the way I need to be. And if you don't have an understanding mate, that makes it doubly hard.

Byrd: Theatre is such an imposed lifestyle. Because it's not a nine-to-five job, there's no consistency of hours, so there's not an easy solution to day care. You have to rely on a partner more than a single mom does or more than two working parents might, if they were working regular nine-to-fives. But maybe a lot of the difficulty has to do with money, too. This is not a field where you're making a lot of money. In the theatre you're often fighting to get $10 an hour, which makes it hard to support a family.

Gordon: I have no children and my boyfriend and I are not married, but I've still just had to divorce my theatre work from money. I do love it, I think I'm fair at it, but I've always thought about art as separate from money, which is unfortunate. Because I'm driven to do it, I'm going to suffer financially. And I have, even though I have more money than a lot of artists I know. I have just tried to make my money elsewhere.

Maness: I definitely do this for love, but I've come to a point, now that I've done it for 12 years professionally, that I'm not working for free anymore. I have way too much training. I'm certainly learning all the time, and I value the ability to grow and learn, but you better give me what I'm worth, or I won't work. So I haven't been working a lot. [Laughter] Quite honestly, I don't work in Austin anymore. Now people are hiring my students, which makes sense; the students cost less, and they're hungry. They want and need these opportunities to grow their careers. So I'm taking the time while I'm in Austin to work on other avenues of my art, to do it just for love. I'm doing fine artwork, painting people I've met in Texas. I'm trying to work some scenic techniques into fine art and change the perception of what a scenic artist is, that bias between fine art and scenic design. I'm really working on growing myself in other ways; Austin has allowed me that. But I have to make a living at this. I've been doing it professionally for too long, and I'm worth it.

Susan Tsu
Susan Tsu

Gordon: I love to hear that. Even though I don't approach it that way, I like to hear that drive from a person younger than me. I like to see somebody stand up and say, I'm not going to do it for nothing.

Maness: I come from a really different perspective, though. I was working in Los Angeles, and it's a different world out there. Everyone's demanding decent pay, because it's an industry, a skill. They recognize it as not just, "You're so lucky, you get to paint, you should just be happy you get to do that," you know?

Rogers: So many people in theatre are spending their days working day jobs to pay for the opportunity to do what they love to do at night. And then what happens? I even feel like my pet suffers. [Laughter] Because I get home at midnight from a tech rehearsal. I don't even get enough time to deal with a pet, much less have a family. And if I decided that it was more important to have a family, I would absolutely have to give up theatre, because I simply don't have enough hours in the day.

Stewart: This is this week's thought: I don't really mind the sacrifice, I don't really mind the hard, hard work, but I just feel like I should save the world. I feel like if I'm going to do this for free, for endless hours, with so much passion and intention and care, with my family suffering and sacrificing, I should teach someone to read. I mean, is it enough to make theatre, is it enough in the face of what is happening in our world, to make average theatre? I make a lot of just average theatre. I spend my life doing it, and my family pitches in, and I just don't know that it's enough in the face of what today is real. [Nods of understanding, silence]

Tsu: I'm on the board of Theatre Communications Group, which is a service organization to the field, and we had a meeting shortly after 9/11, and we all had to admit that we felt helpless. We wanted to do something that could contribute directly, and we felt that what we do is sort of off to the side. It was an interesting journey we all took, because then we all came around to feeling that now we need theatre even more. Certainly everything is changed. Certainly the way we do theatre is different, the world is different, and we will interpret every single thing we see differently.

We had the Fresh Terrain performing arts festival at UT in January, and Ann Carlson had a piece called Flag in which she had worked with students to start with choreography she had developed herself, but to further it in the students' own gestures and stories. And this flag takes up the entire space of the stage. Ann had originally wanted to put double-stick tape on it and have the stage crew bring it out and put it down, but we would have had to buy the double-sided tape, which we didn't have. But what we did have a lot of was duct tape. And somewhere in the course of rehearsal, the dancers began laying down the duct tape. And because the dancers were incredibly invested in that flag being very, very flat, so they wouldn't slide around, they did it very carefully and they took their time. And every night, I started crying when they were doing it, because somehow the imagery of duct taping the flag down, which you can take into so many different interpretations, was so powerful. And I think that, depending upon the kind of work that we do and the kind of work we accept, we can make a difference.

Stewart: She cries at production meetings. She really does. [Laughter]

Byrd: Also, in any performing art, you're bringing your humanity to the world. You talk about doing the work because you like to collaborate with other people. So you are building community, and helping people feel safe in that community. Whether it's a play or concert or dance, it communicates something from a beautiful place, or from a hard place, or from a place of love. And that's what will go out in the costumes, it will go out in the sets, it will go out in the person standing on the stage singing.

Maness: We're here for love.

Rogers: And in a way, that makes it enough. end story

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