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"I was yelled at, sworn at, ignored, bullied, undermined ..."

Two of Australia's leading female lighting designers share their impressions and experiences of working in a male-dominated culture.

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Top female lighting designers push for equality

Date: 9 Jan 2018

Gender diversity in theatre is the hot topic right now.

But one area of the industry, the technical arts – lighting and sound, especially – is seldom talked about.

Lighting designer Emma Valente’s frustration reached a peak with the announcement of the 2017 Helpmann Awards for technical categories.

“In 2017, 87 per cent of composers, sound, and lighting designers hired by mainstage companies were men!” Valente says.

In response, Valente created The List, a national directory of Female, Non-Binary and Trans composers, lighting designers, sound artists and technicians.

“It’s a small piece in the larger puzzle of achieving gender parity in technical design for performance,” Valente explains. “I want us to celebrate the achievements of the artists on the list, create strategies to reduce the drop out rate of young Female, Non-Binary, and Trans artists early in their careers, and connect artists so they can share skills, develop creative connections, find mentors, and ask for support.”

Valente, who is Melbourne-based, and Sydney lighting designer Sian James-Holland share their experiences of what it is to work in an industry dominated by men.

Emma Valente

My career trajectory as a lighting designer is unusual, because my focus has never solely been on lighting design and I didn’t attend one of the major drama schools. Most of my training was on the job. I have never had an official or unofficial mentor, though I’ve had plenty of people who have been supportive and kind during my career. All of this adds up to me never quite knowing how the industry was supposed to work.

A student of mine recently recounted to me an experience where she was the only female crew member on an event. Instead of being asked to run cables or put up lights, she was asked to get drinks for people. She said some of the crew stopped talking to her because they thought she didn’t know what she was doing.

She was telling me this because she didn’t know if she wanted to be a lighting designer any more. She wasn’t sure she could stand it. These are stories I was telling at the beginning of my career 20 years ago.

Most designers, when they begin, are doing a bit of designing (probably for independent shows or profit-share) and working as a technician, crew member or engineer somewhere. Being a tech is a way to learn your craft, meet great people, work with other lighting designers and pay the rent.

When I began working as a tech in the late ’90s, the sexism was overt and almost unbearable.

I was yelled at, sworn at, ignored, bullied, undermined and mansplained to pretty regularly. Some crew members would have trouble making eye contact with me. Some would actively do the opposite of anything I asked. Who’d stay in that industry? I certainly didn’t want to.

Eventually, I found great places to work that weren’t like this, that hired a mix of genders. For a money job, I mainly worked at a council-run theatre in Melbourne for 10 years. It was an oasis for me. They let me learn on the job, they trusted me, they had a policy of hiring the most excellent people, not the people with the most knowledge, they had great OH&S policies, great training policies, and they hired with gender parity in mind. This venue is one of the reasons I stuck with the job. It resourced a large part of my learning, finances and confidence at the beginning of my career.

I didnt work on a main stage until I was in my 30s.

I didn’t even dream of it. And I didn’t start working in the larger spaces until I was over 35 – more than 15 years after I began designing.

This is not what happens with young male designers. It’s just not. The industry wants to trial women for longer. It wants them to prove themselves many more times over before it’s willing to take a ‘risk’ on them.

Honestly, in my 20s ,it didn’t occur to me to be frustrated by this. I knew I wasn’t suited to the hierarchical structures of the Australian theatre industry at the time and I wasn’t interested in the theatre they were making.

One of my reactions was to create work for myself in a collaborative model with Kate Davis. This eventually became THE RABBLE, and in this space I got to experiment, fail and ignore all the normal rules and processes.

Because my style of design was self-taught, unorthodox and often for the avant-garde, I was often seen as unfit to design for the mainstage. I was considered too radical, as if I couldn’t temper my design style for the actual piece I was working on.

I heard once that an artistic director didn’t want to hire me because he thought my designs were too weird, as if somehow I might corrupt the very fabric of a living room drama, disrupt a conservative audience with the revolution of light!

I don’t disagree, but I reckon if I was a man, he would have thought I was a genius. Not an unruly woman who might accidentally perform inappropriate witchcraft on an audience.

I love light as a medium.

I really love it. I love its principles, I love colour, I love angles, I love reflection. I love refraction. I love how infinite it is. I love how simple it is. I love the maths. I love how it can manifest mood, rhythm, tension, style and even a joke or two.

I love working collaboratively with directors and other designers. I love the possibility that we’ll discover something new together, just by our very combination. I love discovering new practices and ideas in other directors’ rooms. I love meeting new people. I have had the privilege of being able to pursue these pleasures in multiple fascinating ways.

But every single time I go to work in a new theatre as a lighting designer I’m nervous. I’m nervous because I know that the people who will help to execute my design, the people who will make or break it, will probably be male. The head of LX, the head of production, the board operators and most of the crew are probably going to be male. They are normally brilliant friendly folk, who have extraordinary skill sets and work ethics. But there is also an undeniable unconscious bias that men are better at technology than women.

Technology has been designed by men, the language has been created by men, it is most often designed for men. Theatre technology is no exception. This is palpable every day I go to work as a lighting designer and sometimes I get exhausted. Sometimes I want to quit because I’m sick of having to prove myself 10 fold every time I walk into a new room.

All of that being said for the past few years Ive been offered more work than I can manage. Independent companies have been particularly excellent at leading the way on this. The List is, in part, about introducing the theatre companies to more people, beyond the obvious candidates, it is about making artists more visible.

I have sent The List to The Confederation of Australian State Theatre Companies [CAST] as a way to begin the conversation.

There is an eagerness for change. Many of the artistic directors wrote straight back, excited to talk about how to start addressing the problem. In this time of cultural change, I hope this list can make a tiny dent in a tiny corner of a niche industry.”

Sian James-Holland

“When in the emerging stages of my career, nearly 15 years ago, I was bemused by the absolute lack of women credited as lighting designer across the country. After all, a woman in America, Jean Rosenthal, created the role of lighting design itself into a formalised position.

Rosenthal fought for and promoted the advantages of a lighting designer being an integral part of the collaborative process. She then went on to collaborate and create work with Martha Graham, Orson Wells and John Houseman.

I note Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom have experienced the successful emergence of women in the technical arts. Australia seems to still be stalling, however.

For the young women I have the pleasure to teach through Australian training institutions such as NIDA, this lack of gender diversity across the art forms is an intimidating reality for their future employment prospects.

When an entire industry sees only men in a role, the subconscious reaction is that it is a man’s job. I know from first-hand experience the shock many Australian directors, choreographers and designers have instinctively indicated when meeting a female lighting designer.

Though it is heartbreaking to see, this gender gap sees emerging diverse gender artists having greater difficulties getting a foot in the door compared to their male – yet by no means more talented – counterparts.

I have seen far too many talented women throw in the towel early in their careers.

There is still much hesitation around females taking on roles in the technical arts. The generalisation that technical knowledge and innovation comes more naturally to men, is alive and thriving within the walls of creative institutions and sadly, this is not solely a male view. It’s also common among female industry leaders.

There is a present apprehension in trusting females with technical work and doubting their technical knowledge and skill, which of course is an integral part of the role.

Recently, it has been heartening to see independent theatre companies pro-actively seeking out women to fill technical roles, especially in the making of female-focused work. Emerging female directors especially have shown in recent times their desire to connect and collaborate with women in creative technical positions. This will ultimately lead to forging and strengthening collaborations with diverse gender backgrounds paving the way for more innovative performances.

Finally, we must observe the contribution of numerous senior technical artists, all of whom have been incredibly generous in their commitment to closing the gender gap in the technical art forms and I believe they should be acknowledged. Their support has been vital to ensuring women can hold steady on the path to equal respect.”

The List is published on Theatre Network Australia (TNA) is the leading industry development organisation for the performing arts, prioritising independent artists and small to medium companies.

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