Published on December 4th, 2012 | by Alicia Coombes0
Interview: Christine Young of Works by Women SF
Christine Young, the Theatre Program Coordinator at the University of San Francisco and director who specializes in new play development, has recently headed up the launch of a new website called Works by Women SF. Based on the grassroots feminist movement in New York called 50/50 in 2020, a movement that promotes gender parity in American theater by the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, Works by Women SF is another facet of the burgeoning conversations around getting the voices of women onstage and in our artistic institutions.
Art Animal: You are an educator, dramaturg, and director. How would you describe your career path thus far?
Christine Young: I’ve always admired people who have long-term career plans, five-year goals, that sort of thing. That’s never been me! My career has evolved much more eclectically. I’ve pretty much pursued several tracks simultaneously in my work life, splitting my time and focus between directing/dramaturgy/producing, non-profit administration and teaching. I love doing each of these things, and initially, I felt I had to do all of these things at the same time in order to make a living.
Yet one advantage of this multi-focal career path has been that through my experiences I have come to know a little about a lot of things, which serves me well in my current job as a teacher within a liberal arts institution. And I can really see how the different aspects of my work life have informed each other — teaching about theater has made me a better artist; working with budgets and organizational structures has made me more thoughtful about how I use resources in both educational and artistic settings; working in both tiny organizations and large institutions has made me appreciate what types of opportunities and obstacles are endemic to different kinds of working environments.
One really conscious choice I did make in my career was to shift away from non-profit theater and toward academia after my first child was born in 2004. During the first year of his life, I had something like seven jobs all at the same time. My husband was also working as a freelance arts consultant, and our lives were nuts – too little time and much too little money. So I pursued the path I thought I might eventually take one day and looked for a college teaching job. I feel incredibly fortunate that I have been able to find full-time work in the city I want to live in. That doesn’t happen for everyone. I know many wonderful artists/teachers in the Bay Area and elsewhere who absolutely deserve full-time teaching work, and there aren’t enough jobs.
AA: What sort of work do you create/produce? What would you consider your specialty?
CY: I don’t have a signature style as a director, although I do like to use a lot of space (I often stage my productions all around the audience) and I’m very conscious of shaping the rhythm of a theatrical experience for an audience. I also absolutely adore collaboration. I much prefer engaging with other artists in making a piece than trying to manifest a vision I cook up all by myself. I have a MFA specifically in New Play Direction and I’ve worked with a lot of playwrights as both a director and a dramaturg, which I would say is my favorite thing to do. I always become pretty obsessed with whatever project I’m working on, and I tend to generate my best ideas through dialogue with others. In my experience, playwrights are the only people who want to talk about the play as much as I do – because, of course, they created it! So I find it very, very satisfying to dialogue deeply with a playwright and to find inventive ways to fully manifest the play they imagine in their heads and have described on the page into a fully-fleshed live experience that makes them say “yes!” when they see it on the stage.
AA: Can you tell me a bit about your impetus for starting Works by Women San Francisco?
CY: The seed of the idea came to me in 2008 during my first semester at the University of San Francisco (USF). Working in higher education was new to me, and I was trying to wrap my head around the whole idea of academic research. I started a project where I was interviewing women directors with the idea that I would put the material on a website in podcast form as a way to capture the wisdom and artistic richness of the women directors I know. My motivation was to create a repository of the kind of material I wished had been available to me when I was a young woman training to be a theater artist. But several other projects claimed my attention and the project (which was pretty labor-intensive) got shelved.
In the summer of 2010, I met Susan Jonas, a NYC-based dramaturg and professional theater woman, at the Association for Theater in Higher Education (ATHE) conference. She did a presentation about this grass-roots feminist theater movement called 50/50 in 2020. I was absolutely electrified by her talk and I eagerly approached her afterward asking how I could get involved. She gently let me know that 50/50 in 2020 was basically a NYC-focused group, and she encouraged me to start something in San Francisco. At that point I still felt a little overwhelmed by my full-time position at USF, and I didn’t think I had the bandwidth to start anything myself.
AA: How long did the idea percolate and how did you begin to implement it?
CY: The idea has been percolating ever since. For the past two years, I’ve been following the original Works by Women blog (the face of 50/50 in 2020 in NYC) and collecting all kinds of articles, links and resources related to women in theater.
Finally, sometime last spring it clicked that I absolutely could and deeply wanted to devote myself to making San Francisco/Bay Area theater women more visible and more celebrated. I spoke to Ludovica Villar-Hauser, the founder of the Works by Women site in NYC, and she gave me permission to use the name to found a sister site here in San Francisco. I wrote a grant for a research assistant, which is a resource I have access to at the university, who could help me with the technical aspects. And I was also encouraged by the recent groundswell in interest in gender parity locally, including several events hosted by actor Lauren Bloom and the unofficial women’s subcommittee of Actor’s Equity, and the “Yeah. I Said Feminist” Theatre Salon founded by actor/director Fontana Butterfield. There seems to be a genuine hunger for women’s voices to be center stage in Bay Area theater right now. I want the Works by Women San Francisco site to support my amazingly talented and diverse colleagues in Bay Area theater and also to provide a space of encouragement and career support for young women who are considering entering the theater field.
AA: What has the response to the Works by Women SF site been? Any fallout?
CY: Well, we’ve only been live for a few weeks, so we’re still working on building an audience for the site. I would say that overwhelmingly the response has been positive. People are excited that there is a tangible visible place where they can go to see what women are doing in Bay Area theater. And we’ve consciously aligned ourselves with our NYC theatrical sisters, saying “we are part of a movement,” and while we choose to focus on what is happening locally, we also see ourselves as part of something bigger. One valid concern that has been raised though, and I think this is a hot-button issue in Bay Area theater, is who decides what content gets covered? Right now, I am pretty much exclusively curating the blog, and that’s just a necessity at the moment. There’s just me and my awesome research assistant Suma Nagaraj, and actor Valerie Weak has been very instrumental in getting the blog launched. But as we progress, I want to get more and more women’s voices out there, as interview subjects, as writers of opinion pieces, as commenters and contributors, so that the site reflects a diversity of perspectives and aesthetics that does justice to the richness of women’s work in Bay Area theater.
AA: When did you notice the issue of gender parity onstage?
CY: I’ve been interested in women’s equal participation in theater for as long as I’ve been making theater. As a high school student just discovering directing, I remember getting a list of great plays to read from my English teacher who doubled as the theater advisor, and being surprised that only one of about 30 authors was a woman (Lillian Hellman). In college, I was a Women’s Studies minor, and my thesis project was a feminist retelling of the biblical Eve myth that put a cast of eight women and one man onstage. In grad school, I was puzzled by the fact that even though my MFA Directing class was full of women, we never studied any female theater-makers, nor could I find much written about them in the books I had access to. I’ve heard throughout my career about the lack of opportunities for women both on and offstage, and yet I see women all around me working in theater. The Bay Area is full of talented women creating performance work, but they still don’t seem to be as visible and as recognized as male artists are. So that’s a curious contradiction that I’m really interested in exploring through the Works by Women San Francisco site.
AA: How would you compare the Bay Area’s scene and conversations around gender parity to the larger national one?
CY: I think the Bay Area is having an amazing awakening around gender parity right now. I have been in rooms lately with women ranging from 20 to 70 who are all fired up about creating more opportunities for women in theater. Many of these women have been engaged in gender parity work for a long time in different ways. And yet, right now, it feels like a hot topic. I think nationally, and certainly in New York, gender parity is starting to make it onto the radars of more and more producers. And yet, like any issue, it is easy for people to overlook it in favor of the many other vital social concerns that are at play in their environment. So we have to be strategic and be in it for the long haul.
A positive thing that stands out to me and gives me hope is the clarity and persuasiveness of the arguments I’ve been hearing lately. Playwright Lauren Gunderson wrote a piece I adore for the Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox Blog called “Women Aren’t Minorities!!!“, which makes the important point that we represent more than 50 percent of the population worldwide, so why, why, why aren’t our stories being told in all mediums, in equal measure to men’s? In what has been called the “post-feminist” era, I nonetheless see women young and old all around me stepping up to the mic and calling out the systemic and institutionalized sexism in our society. As we are with so many social issues, I think the Bay Area is going to be a key player at the forefront of the gender parity movement in theater in the 21st century.
Read interviews with women in theater by visiting the Works by Women SF blog at worksbywomen.wordpress.com.