Recently here at Olney Theatre Center, the ratio of women to men in the work force has come up in multiple instances. Maybe this is because our entire apprentice class of 16 are women for the first time ever. But it’s also because of a recent hire in our scene shop. We’ve hired another female carpenter and the song “Baby Shark” has been changed to “Lady Shop.” I’d apologize for getting that stuck into your head but frankly it’s a great thing. I’ve been the fulltime Shop Foreman here for the past four years, and working here as Deck Chief for the last six. In that time I’ve gone from being one of two women in a shop of seven, to being one of five women. That’s a big jump, especially in the world of scenic carpentry. It’s a highly male driven field and around the country women continually struggle to find a place in it. Sexism and harassment are a constant battle for most women in technical theatre, but slowly those tides are turning. But here at Olney, that tide has been coming in for awhile.
Writing this post brings back a specific memory that happened about eighteen months ago, when we were interviewing Kasey Logan for her apprenticeship. Near the end of what can only be described as a great phone interview we asked her if she had any worries or questions for us. The phone got a little quiet and her question was hesitant, like she wasn’t quite sure how to phrase something without it potentially marring an otherwise good interview. I don’t remember her exact wording, but it was tactful and deliberate “How is the atmosphere on the shop floor?” A generalized probe into being a woman in our shop and at our theatre. Lightbulb moment. Because that is how women in this industry ask other women how they are treated. She would likely not have asked that question had she been on the phone with two men and not two women. She knew she was in a place where asking that question wasn’t going to get a combative response. I’ve gotten that question many times interviewing young women for our apprentice program. I’ve asked that question many times myself. The systemic sexism that runs rampant in a job that requires a lot of physical work, makes women hesitant. That young woman was coming from a place where a woman’s voice didn’t matter as much as her male peers. She wanted a job that was going to be different, better, more equal.
What makes the Olney Theatre scene shop that place? It’s the same reason the entire technical theatre industry is beginning to evolve, a sexist free culture. Harassment stems from the top of the food chain in any industry. When the people in charge allow an atmosphere of harassment, it grows like a fine mold across the entire company. However, when the people at the top in themselves do not stand for a behavior of better than, weaker than, or different, that company thrives on it as well. Working at Olney, I have never once been made to feel as though I wasn’t as strong as, as smart as, or as capable as my male peers. That may seem like a basic given, but trust me in this field it is not. In other theatres, I have had items taken out of my hands because “You don’t have to do that, it’s too heavy.” I have been told to go refill glue bottles “While the men get this work done.” Thankfully, that has never happened here. The culture and tone of my shop has been set by our Technical Director Steve Greene. The man at the top with an office and the status to set the tone for our entire scene shop. Here, we are a team. This is a team sport plain and simple. Every person is held to the same accountability and standards. No one needs to prove they are stronger or better because when you are working hard labor for 40 hours a week, every week, it’s best to put the ego outside. Come to work, do your job, do it well, and then go home. That’s the atmosphere. We don’t pit people against each other, we don’t make women feel inferior, and we don’t expect anything less than full on team work.
When that is the atmosphere of your shop, women can thrive in it. It makes women want to stay and continue to be in a place where they are valued and trusted. Where their opinion matters, where their suggestions are heard, and where they aren’t worried about harassment. At Olney, I am free of the invisible shield that I have up every time I step out of my house. I’m not worried about being anything less than who I am as a person physically and mentally. That is because of the woman forward culture here at Olney Theatre. The prejudices are known and acknowledged and every department has been tasked with doing better than people before us. We need to strive to continue to pave the way for the generations behind us.
We have 16 early career women in various departments at a regional theatre that does not stop. By giving them a space in which they are equal, noncompetitive, and fully integrated into a team environment we allow them the best education experience. For my two female apprentices in the shop, they are going to work here for a year allowed to be the best of themselves. We will not hinder their potential by batting down their opinions or skills with sexist behavior. Instead, here they will learn what being a woman in a shop should feel like. When they leave us and go on to make their way in the world, they will not work for the sexist old men of a slowly dying era. But if they do, they will know that it can be and should be better. That is how we change this industry. Start it from the top. I can’t help but thank Steve Greene, my boss for a lot of years now, for never once making me feel less than. It’s because of this environment that I think we’ve landed a “Lady Shop” and I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to teach so many young women in our apprentice program. I’ve been here for 6 years and constantly have a sense of pride in what we do here. We are a team, because theatre cannot happen with just one person.
Our scene shop of 5 women and 2 men is an outlier in the theatre world. This will likely never be considered the normal environment and it is certainly on the far side of equal labor force. However, it is something to step back from, look at for just a moment, and smile. Times are changing and The Olney Theatre Center is on the right side of history.
“Lady Shop do do, do do do do. Lady Shop do do do do do. Lady Shop do do do do do, Lady Shop.”