If you're planning to be in the Theatre District next Tuesday evening, June 9, don't be surprised if you see Katharine Cornell, Mary Pickford, or Dorothy Parker sashay by. Those creative heroines and many more historic ladies will be portrayed by current artists and members of the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW) in the org's third annual Women Stage the World – Gender Equality Parade. Equal parts street performance and political action, this engaging, suffragette-inspired march is meant to educate the public about the gender disparity in the theatre industry, as men continue to significantly outnumber women as playwrights and directors. To find out more about this unique, once-a-year happening, we asked theatre director and interactive artist Mahayana Landowne, the Chairman of the Advocacy Committee of the LPTW, to share her remembrances from past parades and explain what she hopes bystanders (especially those buying theatre tickets) get out of this year's edition.
"We have a lot to say, and we want to be on stage."
My first event with the League of Professional Theatre Women was posing for a 30th anniversary photo on TDF's TKTS Booth's red steps
in Times Square in 2010. I was in a group of female professionals who had dedicated their lives to producing theatre. We stood there proudly and then, in a flash, the photo was over. The passersby didn't know who we were, and we soon disappeared into the crowd.
I have worked as a freelance theatre director for the past 18 years. About five years ago, I realized that I felt isolated. I wanted to help build a supportive community of other women in theatre. Since I had also been working as an activist and interactive artist, I joined LPTW's Advocacy Committee, where we brainstormed ways to get female voices heard. We asked ourselves, "How can we make our message fun, playful, and nonthreatening, but also clear, undeniable, and inspiring?"
That's how we came up with Women Stage the World, a performing activist collective in which contemporary female artists dress as historic creative women and interact with the public. We researched these icons, created costumes and personae, and mingled with people -- in particular theatre audiences.
Women Stage the World's first public event was at Lincoln Center's New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, greeting guests as they entered an LPTW event. They were delighted to converse with the resurrected Aphra Behn
; Augusta, Lady Gregory
; Rachel Crothers
; Katharine Cornell
; Susan Glaspell
; Mary Pickford
; and my character, noted writer and critic Dorothy Parker
. (I originally wanted to be Mae West, but I couldn't find the right dress.) People really seemed to love shaking hands with their heroes.
But sometimes we go guerilla. A few times I've gone to see a show channeling Parker, and I've struck up a conversation with the stranger next to me at intermission. I've introduced myself as Dorothy Parker, chatted a bit, and then asked, "Did you know that women write plays, too? This theatre doesn't seem to realize that. Would you be willing to speak with the house manager and box office to let them know you'd be interested in also seeing work created by women? Thank you."
The idea is to raise awareness through engaging interactions instead of angry attacks. Parker's famous wit works particularly well during these exchanges.
I have a long and rich background in performative activism. I was a member of Billionaires for Bush
, a founder of Dance Parade
, and an organizer of The Line
, a single-file line of people holding pink slips that stretched three miles from Bowling Green to Union Square. I deeply believe that clarity of message is vital to the efficacy of protest. When the LPTW Advocacy Committee first started working, many of the participants were playwrights, not performers, and some were shy about interacting with the public. They were willing to do the research but begged, "Please don't make me dress up!" I led the group through rehearsal conversations. Participants were asked questions and had to respond as their characters. At first, many of them were timid, but as we worked they realized they could combine their voices with these celebrated women from the past. They fashioned their own characterizations and started to inhabit these historical figures.
Marchers in a previous Women Stage the World parade
Costumes helped -- especially hats. We memorized facts and practiced interviews so they could answer any question in character. We learned how to exchange information through improvised interactions. We became inspired by these women and wanted to reintroduce them to the public.
We worked the TKTS crowd a few times, asking ticket buyers to consider who wrote, directed, and designed the plays they were seeing, and to ask theatres what they were doing to support women's voices. The lines were very long and, I'll admit, many tourists had little interest -- after all, they were already being accosted by Elmo and Spider-Man. But we connected with some of them and had wonderful conversations, and a few even spoke of how the theatre gender gap was similar in their hometowns.
In 2013, our troupe decided it would be fun to stage a suffragette-style parade
, with sashes calling for more women theatre artists on stage, backstage, and in the front office. But what should our sashes say? We chose "Women Stage the World." In addition to getting our own message out, we wanted to remind people of all the women in history who had stood up for respect and equality before us.
Next Tuesday, June 9, we'll gather in the breezeway of Circle in the Square
and kick off our third annual parade at 6pm -- and we want you to join us. Choose a character from theatre history, throw on a costume or fun hat, or just come as you are. All genders and ages are welcome: anyone who believes in our goal of making sure more women's voices are heard. After all, women make up over half of all theatregoers. We have a lot to say, we want to be supported, and we want to be on stage and behind the scenes, not just in the audience.
Mahayana Landowne is a NYC-based theatre director and interactive artist
Photos by Erik McGregor