Women designers make it work onstage | Theater Preview | Chicago Reader

Women designers make it work onstage 

Productions this fall in Chicago suggest their numbers are growing, but women in theatrical design still struggle for jobs and recognition.

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click to enlarge Angela Weber Miller's set for Spamalot at Mercury Theater.

Angela Weber Miller's set for Spamalot at Mercury Theater.

Shane Murray Corcoran

Roughly 15 or so years ago, the Jeff Committee called in a trio of cis-male set/light/sound designers to give members an overview of their work. As the presentation wound down, the men took questions. The question I remember (because as a then-member of the committee, I asked it) was whether women were represented to any significant degree among designers and if not, why not. The answer—a slightly awkward and quite vague "Well, not really . . . because there just aren't"—was as dismal as it was memorable.

Scan a thousand or so stage bills going back to 1993 and you'll see that parity is a long time coming, and still not even close to here. There's no Chicago Designer Database officially crunching the numbers. This year's Equity Jeff Award nominations, announced earlier this week, show the discrepancy. The set and lighting design categories each featured ten names (some with more than one nomination), but only two women set designers and two women lighting designers were nominated, and those four were in the "midsize" category. No women were nominated for sound, projection design, or fight choreography.

But non-cis-male designers can thank women like Angela Weber Miller, Denise Karczewski, and Alexis Black for paving the way toward parity. Or rather, hacking a way through the industry's entrenched patriarchy with metaphorical machetes of color, structure, and brawling.

Miller and Karczewski are designing sets and lights (respectively) for Mercury Theater Chicago's Spamalot, one of at least four fall shows with design crews that are exclusively femme, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming. (Miller just earned a Jeff nomination for her set for First Folio Theatre's production of All Childish Things, while Karczewski is nominated for her lighting design for A Chorus Line with Porchlight Music Theatre.) After 25 years in the business, Weber has thoughts.

"I tend to stalk the creative team announcements in Performink, and it's pretty obnoxious," she says. "The creative teams are mostly guys. And it seems like it's almost always the theaters with the biggest budgets that aren't hiring women. It's like they're saying 'we don't trust you with the money.'"

"It's such a loaded topic," says Karczewski, who started working as a designer in 1994. "If I say I'm not getting hired because I'm a woman, I sound like a whiny little bitch even though at this point I don't have a hard time finding gigs. I don't think it's deliberate, but I do think the people who do the hiring get comfortable with a certain pool of designers they stick with. And those designers have historically been white and male."

Budget- and personnel-wise, Spamalot is one of the biggest shows this fall with an all-femme/NB/NGC crew. Victory Gardens' production of Tiny Beautiful Things features four women out of five lead designers as well, and musical-focused Firebrand Theatre has hired women for key design roles since its founding in 2017.

Redtwist and Intrinsic theaters are each mounting Jane Martin's Keely and Du this fall with female design teams. The riveting drama is intensely, physically intimate: Keely is seeking an abortion after being raped; Du kidnaps her to prevent the abortion from happening.

It falls to University of Michigan-based violence and intimacy designer Black to keep Redtwist's cast safe while looking like they're beating the daylights out of each other, sometimes while in chains. Like Weber and Karczewski, Black has been designing for close to a quarter of a century. "There used to be a lot more microaggressions," she says. "For instance, I was always the 'female fight choreographer,' always the title qualified by the fact that I was 'female,'" she says. "For years, when I walked into a room, I had to prove that I was supposed to be there. Now I can walk into a room and it's just like, 'let's get started.'"

Women designers also have had to fight to be heard in the first place. "We used to joke that people couldn't hear you above your vagina," says Karczewski. Weber puts it slightly differently. "When I was first starting, it was like nobody heard my ideas until they were repeated by a man," she recalls.

The design world is mirrored in the larger world, Black adds. "There's more male CEOs than others in part because sometimes we tend to not apply for jobs. Statistically, I've read that women tend to apply for jobs where they have about 90 percent of the qualifications. Men will apply when they have 40 percent."

A member of the Society of American Fight Directors, Black is also a certified intimacy director with Intimacy Directors International. She's designed with sex and blood and bodies from Broadway to South Korea. "It's not like the movement is excluding men," she says. "Women in design aren't waiting for someone else to create space at the table. They're saying, 'Hey, we're making this table bigger.'" Despite femme/enby/nongender-conforming combat companies like Babes With Blades, the SAFD lists only one femme-presenting designer on its roster of certified fight masters.

Local Two of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) doesn't keep an official count of designers by gender. Nor does IATSE's national union, which covers film crews. Still, IATSE's national group recently established a women's committee. Committee board member Christine Taddeo estimates there were five women working as grips or electricians when she joined the union more than 20 years ago. Now there are at least five times that, she said. The union also has several trans members, she added. Film might be slightly ahead of stage when it comes to parity, but that's certainly not because of lack of creativity or drive.

"I've breastfed while running light cues, changed diapers while scene changing," says Weber. "You find a way."  v

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