Written by Artistic Director: Erin Eva Butcher
My company’s second season has come to a close. We produced 2 all- female shows: The Winter’s Tale by Mr. Shakespeare and Miss Penitentiary by Laura Neubauer. These shows were put up quite close to one another time-wise which made for a very high stress few months. And now that it’s over I have a bit of time to reflect, think about what I learned, and plan our next step.
One thing I know for sure.
I am never producing another outdoor All- female show again. Ever. And neither should you.
Let me explain.
There were a number of challenges I foresaw in doing our first outdoor show and only our second show ever. The park in Somerville we chose to use was lovely and conveniently located, but we had no access to storage, bathrooms, or electricity and the City of Somerville was incredibly unhelpful in regards to all these things. These were issues I knew I would have to deal with, but the worst problems were the ones I never could have anticipated.
Because we produced the show in a public park- it had to be free and open to the public- totally fair. What I did not anticipate was the “public” I would be dealing with. This show was cast with a group of 10, mostly 20-something women. The director was female, most of the designers were female, our Stage Manager was female and myself and the two other members of my company were female.
And hey- that was great- that is our mission after all. To give opportunity to female theatre artists. But what that meant was that… there were no men. None. It was young ladies as far as the eye could see in that park without any male company… well except for the aforementioned “public”
Vaguely, in the back of my head I must have known that a few homeless fellows would populate a public park in summer every now and then. But I really didn’t think much of it. I would be there every day anyway if there were any problems, and I had very rarely ever been approached by any homeless people in Somerville in my 4 years of living there… so it would be fine….
It was not fine.
Because these men (and I say men not to point fingers but because every single one of them was, in fact, a man) were not just homeless, or were perhaps not homeless at all… but they were often drunk or high. We are in the middle of an opiod crisis in Massachusetts after all. So there we were, 15 or so young women in a park going about our theatre business. It wasn’t long before the men who would drink or shoot-up in the park began to approach us. Some would try to move or touch the set (because us little ladies should not be lifting such heavy things), try to talk to the girls while they were backstage during the show, or would just park it right behind the backstage area and sit there. For hours. One of them 8 hours straight one day. Just sat there behind them. Watching them.
After talking to the local police about the issue (who came by the park a grand total of ONCE throughout or entire 3 week run of the show) They told me there was really nothing I could do about the issue. It was a public park and so long as these men were not physically doing anything wrong they were allowed to stay. Simply making us all uncomfortable was not a reason to ask the police to remove them. Having to deal with men, under the influence, by myself, in a park was not something I was prepared for. And seeing as I am the Artistic Director of this company- the buck stops here- if there is a problem, in the end, it is up to me to solve it.
But how to solve it? I had some very unhappy actors on my hands. Actors who were being leered at and approached by strange, often intoxicated, men. They did not want any of their belongings left unattended- understandably- which meant that at least one member of my already thin staff had to be there, watching these men watch them every day.
The few times I approached these men to ask them to move, or stop being loud, or sit with the rest of the audience while the show was going on I was met with a level of aggression I was not prepared for.
Living in liberal Massachusetts, doing theatre, and working in an all female work environment, means that these days I don’t often come across too many openly misogynistic men. But these guys- oh man- they did not trow with this freckle-faced little girl telling them to do a damn thing in anything resembling an authoritative voice. They would yell back at my request and I would immediately back down. Then I would quickly change to the safest possible tactic- flirting. And you know…. that’s gross. It was awful. It felt gross. It still makes me angry even thinking about it. The fact that the only workable tool at my disposal to diffuse that situation was to put on a big ole smile, apologize profusely for being so silly, and gently manipulate them in my girliest, highest pitched of voices to do what I wanted- tossing my hair all the while.
If you are a man reading this- you can’t know what that’s like. Having to lower yourself to flirting and smiling at a man who you find frightening and repulsive in order to ensure your safety and the safety of those around you. It is humiliating and demeaning, and true- no one made me do it- but I don’t really think I had any other tools at my disposal in that moment. Engaging them at their level of aggression would not end well. For however strong and smart and capable I feel on the inside, I am still 5’6” and 120 lbs on the outside up against a man twice my size who is getting angry and already in an altered state of mind.
And as much as I hated doing it, and as much as I hate admitting it, it is and was the only way to deal with that particular breed of Angry White Male. Because even men whose lives are in shambles, who have nowhere to go but a public park, and nothing to kill the pain but these substances STILL believe themselves to be above women. Still believe that as a woman I must interact with them in a certain way that maintains these gender roles. And that they have the RIGHT to leer at young women any damn time they please, especially if there are no other men around to stop them.
And that’s the thing. There were no other men around. The only thing these men would respond to was other men.
Example: By the end of the run I had taken to asking my boyfriend to come to all the shows he could simply to sit backstage and discourage these men from approaching the girls. It worked. They were gone. And as he sat up there one day, myself and my female usher, sat at the Front of House Tent until the audience moved for Act 2. And up walks this man. Drunk. Scary. And carrying a very large something under his shirt. He pulled it out to reveal a giant handle of whiskey that he had “found on the street” And began to regale us with tales of his drinking- of men had had suddenly decided to beat the crap out of in bars- of how no one messed with him. He stayed there at the table talking at us for a good fifteen minutes and all of our quite smiling and gentle encouragement for him to leave was not working. I suppose I could have asked him to leave- but my though was- “this man is clearly unstable and drunk, what might he do if I upset him? What else might he have under that shirt?” So I texted my boyfriend to come down to us. And the second he appeared the guy scampered off quick.
And that just proved to me even more- these men know what they are doing. They know that this behavior is not acceptable but, they believe they have a right to my attention, to my time, and to look at my body as much as they want no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.
The bottom line is, its sad, but it is not safe to do an all- female show in a pubic park. Not safe for my actors or for me. If we had had even one or two men in the cast I know the experience would have been different. Isn’t that sad?
Even in 2015 it is still not safe- even in broad daylight- to be female in public…. unless your boyfriend’s there.
And just so I don’t leave this all wallowing in victimhood let me add- it was still a great show. We brought art to a community that lacked it. We showed women in strong dynamic leading roles to people that were not usual theatre-goers. This is how I fight that system. There will always be people at your work, in your town, in your government who do not see women, minorites, people with disabilities, as beings with thoughts and feelings as acute and complex as their own. But the more we stand up in front of the world- do the work- and speak the speech, the faster things will change. I will not be silenced. I may not do another outdoor all-female show but, I’m not through fighting yet to make women’s stories more visible. I’ve barely even started.