Berkeley stage company strives for gender equality
in its presentations
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
For most of us, if we're honest, striking a balance astride life's topsy-turvy landscape is an everyday goal. For Symmetry Theatre Company, it's a mission.
The small, Berkeley-based group, founded in 2010 by Bay Area actors Chloe Bronzan, Robert Parsons and Jessica Powell, aims for gender equity in a mostly lopsided industry.
Symmetry produces plays with significant female characters, accepts no scripts with more male roles than female roles, and guarantees the number of Actors' Equity Association contracts offered to women will equal that of the men.
A 2009 study by Emily Glassberg Sands, a Princeton economics student at the time, showed that a slim 18 percent of United States productions were by female playwrights. Yet theater experts and bean counters in box offices across the country agree: Women make up about 80 percent of their ticket-buying audience.
"When I was at Whittier College on a theater scholarship, their mainstage shows were always male heavy," Bronzan says. "We'd be competing for two female roles while they were out on the street, pulling non-theater (male) majors in, just to be in the play."
It's more than a petty grumble over parts. An actor hones his or her craft on stage and without opportunity, art stagnates. Theater groups like Takarazuka Revue in Japan, Southern California's Los Angeles Women's Shakespeare Company, and a British cast made up of women currently portraying all the roles in a production of "Julius Caesar" in Brooklyn, N.Y., run an all-female ramrod into the issue.
"Rather than go to the extreme of doing something with all women, we're trying to achieve balance. We aren't making a huge dent in the numbers as much as setting a model. We just want the ideal world, where everybody's stories are important," Bronzan says.
Parsons says Symmetry has opened his eyes to the number of great female playwrights who have difficulty getting their plays produced.
He too, resists extreme generalizations, but says women experience the world in ways different from men and that performing their work "opens up a different ride." The male fingerprint, he says, is deeply ingrained.
As an educator who has taught at the Berkeley Rep school and Solano College, he tries to achieve a level playing field.
"I bring in female writers. Often, the writing is as good (as a male playwright's) or better," he says. "I often use nonpublished work that should be published. If there was a general sea change in the way these things are taught, that would help."
Bronzan says well-written scripts by male playwrights show they understand women well, but suggests there are certain shades a woman is more likely to capture.
"Women bring a perspective that's the result of being gender challenged in the world," she says, ironically assigning the actual problem -- inequity -- a special, valuable role.
Symmetry's current production, "Carnival Round The Central Figure," playing at Berkeley's Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave., through Dec. 1, is by Diana Amsterdam. The play's 15 roles have been condensed to nine and the contemporary drama runs in what Bronzan says is "one straight shot, without intermission, to maintain momentum."
The play is a look at Western attitudes about death and dying as seen through the eyes and eerie family and friends of a fatally ill man. It's darkly comic and highly theatrical in an absurdist way.
There's music and multimedia, with a pivotal, plain-speaking, female protagonist. Bronzan says it's perfectly matched to the company's surreal-loving aesthetic.
"The play arrived on my doorstep in book form on Halloween last year," she recalls. "It had just a cryptic note: 'Symmetry will really like this.' It creeped me out and I put it away."
But the story's honesty haunted her and the playwright's voice was one she felt compelled to produce.
In the new year, Symmetry faces a new challenge. The Bay Area Project Policy of the Actors' Equity Association allows producers to hire its members at a stipend rate, but without health or pension benefits. Symmetry's term is expiring and their plan is to upgrade their contracts to the next level. Bronzan says the first few months of 2014 will be devoted to grant writing and fundraising. Once the funds are in place to offer the new contracts, they'll be back on the beam, achieving balance.