GUEST BLOG: Introducing Young Women to Backstage Theatrical Arts by Elsa Ward

When I came to NYC in 1986, fresh out of graduate school with an MFA from Rutgers University in theatrical design, I was offered my first job in the theater world – costume designer. Although I had been trained in all areas of theatrical design, even working my way through graduate school as technical director of a university theater, I accepted the job and happily worked as a costume designer for 15 years. I had the great fortune to work for many notables, such as John Patrick Shanley and Sam Shepard. I loved every aspect of the theater and the creative backstage world. However, throughout my tenure as a costume designer, I noted that women dominated costume design while men dominated other backstage roles. I eventually left the theater world to pursue television work and other business opportunities, but this observation stayed with me and somehow a seed was planted that someday I might help creative young women discover the vast array of opportunities within the careers of backstage theater.

I revisited this idea a few years ago while I sat in a mostly empty theater watching my 17-year-old daughter in a tech rehearsal. As I watched the crew focus lights and set props in place, I noticed that not much had changed. I thought, “more young women need to know about this world and I can do something about it.” Being around many young women, I also realised that it was the high school years that create awareness and spark the interest. Then, in June of 2017 the NY Times article “Theater Jobs Skew White and Male” was published, further confirming my instinct that increasing the number of women working in all areas of the theatrical arts would not happen organically; it must be deliberate. In the fall of 2017, I submitted a business summary for the Open Stage Project to the Actor’s Fund Creative Entrepreneur Program. I was accepted into the program and with the Actors Fund’s encouragement and support, the Open Stage Project was born.

The Open Stage Project exposes young women to careers in the backstage arts and introduces them to female professionals working in these fields so that they gain knowledge and develop mentoring relationships. With the generous support of Lynne Meadow and the Director of Education, David Shookoff, at Manhattan Theater Club, we held our pilot class in April of 2018. Students from Fordham High School for the Arts in the Bronx and attended a performance of “Saint Joan” at MTC, after which the students met with Jane Greenwood. We are currently working in collaboration with the NYC Department of Education’s Career Technical Education (CTE) Department of Media, Technology and Design in order to bring more young women to performances where they have the opportunity to meet with producers, directors and designers. Mary Louise Geiger (Lighting Designer, Arts Professor, Academic Director, NYU) and Rosemarie Tichler (former Artistic Producer at The Public Theater, Professor at NYU) serve as advisors to the Open Stage Project.

Furthermore, as theater professionals we have an obligation to support these creative young women in our communities while they are in their formative high school years, by offering practical advice to help them pursue careers in the backstage arts though the Open Stage Project. Through the Open Stage Project, we can support these young women in researching and choosing universities that have strong theater programs with robust backstage training, as well as strong connections to working theater professionals. If there was any advice that I would have loved to have had during my high school years, it would have been from a teacher or counselor encouraging me to get as much exposure as I could to the vast array of careers available in the theatre. Open Stage Project is that exposure!

The Open Stage Project seeks to be an important advocate for young women who want to pursue careers in the backstage theatrical arts. If you would you like to volunteer your time, donate tickets, or participate in anyway, please contact the Open Stage Project at openstageprojectnyc@gmail.com.

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The Open Stage Project  (www.openstageproject.org) is an afterschool program dedicated to bringing young creative women’s voices to all areas of theatrical storytelling. Beginning with career awareness, it plans to build mentorship, community and pathways for young women to choose a career in the backstage theatrical arts.

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