Published on August 16th, 2012 | by Alicia Coombes0
The Beauty of Symmetry: a Look at the Symmetry Theatre Company
When friends and actors Chloe Bronzan and Jessica Powell noticed that their male counterparts consistently scored higher-paying and more frequent acting jobs, they decided to do something about it. In 2010, they created the Symmetry Theatre Company in San Francisco along with Chloe’s husband, Robert Parsons, also an actor, and produced their first play (Show and Tell by Anthony Clarvoe). With its success, they commissioned Patience Worth by Michelle Carter in 2011, and just closed their third production, Emilie by Lauren Gunderson.
Symmetry Theatre’s aesthetic is to tell stories in an abstract way, featuring extraordinary events and people; for instance, an elementary school classroom blows up, an uneducated housewife composes volumes of critically-acclaimed literature through seances or the work of a female physicist’s ghost was the link between Newton and Einstein. In other words, it is extremely unlikely that you will see Symmetry do a dysfunctional family drama.
Symmetry Theatre’s next project in April 2013 will be a production of The Language Archive by Julia Cho, a story about a linguist’s inability to articulate his feelings of love.
Their mission is multi-layered: to create professionally-produced theatre that will excite, stimulate and challenge audiences. They also strive to produce plays acknowledging that women’s stories are just as important as men’s, hopefully heightening public awareness and the theatre community at large for the need to create more “balance on the boards.” Finally, Symmetry Theatre only chooses shows with at least as many female characters as male, and gives at least as many Actor’s Equity (AEA, the stage actor’s union) contracts to women as they do men.
The founders of Symmetry Theatre were not the first to notice the lack of female voices in theatres in the area. After joining Actors Equity, Valerie Weak, a local actor, felt as though she was giving great auditions but losing parts to non-union actors.
“I didn’t suddenly suck at being an actor overnight,” Weak said, “so why wasn’t I getting cast? Over the years I’d noticed the trend of being in shows where more of the union contracts would go to men than women.”
The Screen Actors’ Guild reports statistics on member diversity, but AEA does not, so Weak decided to start counting actors to determine the degree of her suspected disparity. She started the Counting Actors project on her blog and has been posting the results every month for over a year. Other Bay Area theatre professionals have submitted their counts as well, adding to her data. The results were telling: most months, men largely outnumbered women in the categories of directors, writers and total actors.
The response to Weak’s work has been positive.
“I get thanked pretty regularly and people tell me what I’m doing is important,” Weak said. “I think part of why the response has stayed positive is because I put up the numbers in a fairly neutral presentation. It’s ‘here are the shows, here are the total actors, here are the men, here are the women’ and the reader can be the one to say ‘this sucks’ or ‘no wonder it’s been so hard to book work lately.’”
Weak feels that the best way to continue the conversation is to offer alternatives – like what Symmetry Theater is doing – and to support work made by women with time, money, and energy. She tries to advocate for playwrights telling women’s stories and companies offering roles for women, and to encourage dialogue between theatregoers and artistic staff.
While in theory many larger theatres are trying to be more inclusive, in practice the results can be disheartening. As Bronzan of Symmetry Theatre says, “I’ve never met a theatre colleague who has said ‘Women should not be equally represented on the stage, female playwrights are not as good as male ones, and female directors don’t know what they’re doing,’ but each year when show seasons are announced, there doesn’t seem to be much progress toward parity.”
Just like the public’s response to Weak’s new research, Symmetry Theatre has received positive reviews.
“We’ve been delighted to see both theatre goers and colleagues be so supportive of our mission and work,” Bronzan said. “Getting financial support has been a little more challenging. Grants are very hard to come by because there is now so little funding and so much competition. We hope to eventually get enough support to be able to do more than one show per year.”
Bronzan does mention, however, that there are a few misconceptions. One is that Symmetry is a feminist company vying for the exclusion of men in theater.
“We just want to present work in which the female characters are equally developed and interesting, but our shows do not have to be only about women,” Bronzan said. “We also believe that women should not have to work under different circumstances than men – which is often the case in theaters that hire both union and non-union actors – the non-union actors are overwhelmingly female. Therefore, we make sure that we do not hire more male union actors than female, though we do hire both.”