Emily Fish goes behind the scenes of gender disparity in technical theatre
Cambridge theatre has no lack of women. It’s why if you go to an audition you’ll see ten girls for every guy; it’s why we’re able to put on shows with an all-female cast, like the fantastic Lent Week 2 ADC production of The House of Bernada Alba; it’s why the very male-heavy How To Succeed is an ambitious choice for the Lent Term Musical. But this facade of an area where women are making their own space extends only as far as the sides of the stage - what goes on behind the scenes is a very different story.
The technical side of theatre is rife with roles traditionally considered to be ‘male’ work: carpentry, lighting design, sound design. As a woman, walking into the workshop or lighting box at the ADC is slightly intimidating - inside are a select handful of (mostly) men who know exactly what they’re doing, handling power tools that look like something out of a horror movie, and speaking in a technical jargon that is practically unrecognisable. Having been assigned the role of Technical Director for the ADC Freshers mainshow in Week 6 of Michaelmas - a job I did not directly apply for, and didn’t know anything about - this was the sight I was first met with. It immediately felt like I didn’t know enough to be there, and that somewhere along the line, a horrible mistake had been made.
Having been rather thrown in at the deep-end with my first Technical Director job, I didn’t really have any other choice than to knuckle down and get on with it. Undoubtedly, if I’d known what it had entailed before I started I would have immediately have turned it down - but that’s not because I genuinely couldn’t do it, but because I thought I couldn’t. And though the resources that helped me through it were extensive and incredibly informative, including the people already experienced in tech work, I wouldn’t have known where to find them unless they’d been pointed out to me.
Technical roles in Cambridge theatre rely on those undertaking them to have an existing knowledge, or to be ready to learn as you go. While women will often only apply if they meet all the criteria needed, men are much more likely to apply for a job even if they only meet a few. It would be unfair and inaccurate to claim that the low numbers of women in technical roles is a result of outright discrimination; the issue lies in societal coding of what is ‘male’ and what is ‘female’. Speaking to the men involved in the tech side of Cambridge theatre - building, lighting, or sound - it is clear that they have acquired such an insight and love for their roles because they were brought up with the opportunities to pursue them, or had at least had some experience in their area. Many of the women I’ve met have similarly already been involved in tech before they arrived in Cambridge, and are therefore a part of the seemingly impenetrable group of intimidatingly knowledgeable elect. However, there is a much greater incidence of men, as opposed to women, who decided to give tech a go when they got to university.
This disparity is a direct result of traditional ideas of what men and women are capable of doing - without even considering the effects on those who identify as non-binary - perpetuated by all genders alike. There is an endless cycle of the mainstream media and society suggesting that these roles are more appropriate for men, which demoralises and discourages women from considering taking these roles on. Consequently, there is a severe lack of female or non-binary figures in these positions, which further prevents women and others from believing this option is open to them.
If the issue is women self-opting out of these opportunities, then combatting it becomes complicated. There is little persuasion in an impassioned speech from someone already experienced in tech theatre telling you to just ‘give it a go!’ Giving it a go can easily seem too scary. Encouragement perhaps needs to take a subtler form.
I recently spoke to Eleanor Mitchell, secretary of CUADC, about the ways in which the university’s committee hope to make technical roles more readily accessible for women. Visibility, though subtle, appears to be vital in encouraging women to consider taking the roles on. Simply the act of seeing other women thriving and succeeding in positions that are traditionally reserved for men is an empowering one. Going to the theatre and seeing a set entirely constructed by a woman is ridiculously exciting - not because it’s shocking she could do it, but rather because society has trained us to forget just how capable women are. As famous examples like the ‘We can do it’ poster and the more recent ‘This Girl Can’ campaign show, sometimes all it takes is an overt and public reminder of this capability for women to take action.
Of course the acquisition of knowledge and experience in the technical realm of theatre cannot be approached in such a straightforward fashion. More easily accessible information, such as infographics and printed manuals, are only helpful to the extent that people make the effort to actually access it. Nevertheless, Eleanor mentioned that CUADC are hoping to encourage existing Technical, Lighting, and Sound designers to take on trainees in the form of assistants. Despite the incredibly helpful committee
members and range of information available that makes learning on the job a very easy process, the prospect of applying to do something which you feel completely unprepared for is daunting - regardless of gender. The inclusion of this role as an option for those interested in tech theatre will, I believe, be the most effective way to promote anyone getting involved, but especially women, because of their unlikeliness to apply for jobs for which they do not fully meet the criteria.
Ultimately, as a woman who has experienced the fun, satisfaction, and pride that accompanies a technical role in Cambridge theatre, all I can do is recommend taking up the opportunities that CUADC is hoping to instigate. Even if you try it out with one show and then never enter the ADC again, university is about trying new things and making mistakes, and now is the perfect time to do exactly that. Prove to yourself, and to others, that gender plays no part in what jobs we pursue. If we can solidify this mindset within the bubble of Cambridge, it promises a diversified future in whichever field we find ourselves once we have graduated. •
Emily Fish is a first year English Literature student and is on the Pembroke Street editorial team.
Illustrations by Lizzy O'Brien