By Vickie Nidweski
Vickie is a second year in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College and has been working in theatre production professionally for almost a decade.
This past June marked the 73rd annual Tony Awards. Known as the highest honor in United States theatre, it recognizes excellence on the Broadway stage. As I sat in my own theatre, mere blocks away from the ceremony commencing at Radio City Music Hall, tears of pure joy started to run down my face. Holy Shit, Jessica Paz just won a Tony for Sound Design. Not only did Jessica win, but she became the first woman to be nominated in the category. Jessica, along with Director Rachel Chavkin and Scenic Designer Rachel Hauck, all took home Tony’s for their work on the production of Hadestown. While this is certainly a significant moment to recognize, I am dismayed that many in the community know very little of the rich history of women directors, designers, and other women in theatre production who contributed to the rise and success of modern commercial theatre.
In 2010, American Theatre Historian, Helen Krich Chinoy stated that, “While accepted, even encouraged, as performers and occasionally, playwrights, women have largely been excluded from most aspects of show business.” She further states that this exclusion, specifically in the creative and technical aspects of production, is due in part to the labeling of these occupations and trades as “for men only.” Chinoy defines this reasoning as the hierarchical power structure of theatre; if the organization is experimental or community-oriented, or the artistic skill is new, women are more likely situated in a lower tier. Once skills and trades become more formalized into legitimate professions, women’s participation becomes diminished, ignored, and forgotten.
Many Theatre Historians have explored women’s earliest contributions to theatre production. Specifically, during the rise of American Theatre in New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century, production and design quickly developed as legitimate vocations. Like Chinoy, historians often cite individual women in their achievements in backstage work as an example of how “women’s talent and skills have challenged the barriers erected by the male domination of the professional production process.” In addition, Theatre Historians sometimes cite small networks of women working with women. No offense to Chinoy, but by stating that there were networks, and to simply make note of achievements of specific women in behind-the-scenes theatrical production, without illustrating how incredibly vast and influential these networks were and still are, is problematic. It does not pay favor towards the exploration of the gendered division of theatrical labor.
Yes, Chinoy is correct that women’s participation in these skills and trades have been diminished, ignored, and often forgotten. But if one dives deep enough, there is actually a treasure trove of women that helped formalize the trades and skills in technical production. Let us look at the Lighting Designer, Jean Rosenthal. From 1930-1969, Jean Rosenthal was indeed a pioneer in the field of light design for theatre and dance, lighting over one hundred productions in her thirty-nine-year career. Yet, she never received any awards while she was alive, despite her work on notable productions such as West Side Story, Cabaret, and Orson Welles The Cradle Will Rock, or with such dance companies like Martha Graham and City Ballet. She did posthumously receive a special Outer Critics award in 1969.
Rosenthal was instrumental in developing the standards of drafting light plots that are still implemented today. She created a methodical and unified approach to lighting. Rosenthal, while involved with United Scenic Artists of America Local 829 – an autonomous local of the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators and PaperHangers of America – she also worked with her peers (including Peggy Lee Clark and Tharon Musser) on creating the standards of how the union must treat Lighting Designers. Born in 1912 in New York City to Russian immigrants, she studied acting and dance in 1929 at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre, founded by Irene and Alice Lewisohn. The Neighborhood Playhouse, was part of the Henry Street Settlement, created by Lillian Wald. The Henry Street Settlement continues to serve its original intent as a nonprofit social service agency to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It is important to note that this playhouse was the first theatre in New York “to design and make all its own scenery, costume and properties-thus launching the concept that stagecraft could itself be a significant art form.”
But Rosenthal is just one of many. Also deriving from the Neighborhood Playhouse is Scenic and Costume Designer, Aline Bernstein. Aline became the first woman to join USA829 in November of 1926 with fellow Scenic/Costume designer Gladys Calthrop and Carolyn Hancock. (I am saddened to say, I have yet to find more information on Hancock but I hope further research will open up her story.) Without Aline’s tenacity in joining USA829, Jean Rosenthal would never have been able to advocate for the equal rights of Light Designers. We can still see Aline Bernstein’s influence today in founding the Costume Collection along with Irene Lewisohn, now housed at the MET Museum. It is important to note how important the Neighborhood Playhouse was in cultivating such revolutionary women. Biographer Carol Klein in her book on Aline notes that during her time at the Neighborhood Playhouse “These women (Bernstein and the Lewisohn sisters) believed that what they were doing for the neighborhood had cultural implications that extended far beyond it.” With newspapers citing the Neighborhood Playhouse as a “women’s theatre”, it is a site of origin to explore the vast network of women working with women to help contribute to the rise and success of Theatre in New York City.
Rachel Chavkin stated in her acceptance speech for her Direction on Hadestown (the only woman nominated), “There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment too. This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.” And there have been Rachel. There have been women in this field that have been silenced. Their work has been diminished and forgotten. Jean and Aline are just two, and there are so much more. It is a failure on theatre history to not acknowledge the incredibly vast network of women and I hope that by continuing research of this vast and incredible network of women working in production, will to drive and inspire the theatre community and recognize their equal contribution to Theatre. We are equal players, it’s time to recognize it.
Chinoy, Helen Krich, and Linda Walsh Jenkins. 2006. Women in American Theatre. Rev. and expanded 3rd. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 179.
Klein, Carole. 1979. Aline. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 173.