The Helen Gurley Brown Foundation Grants Permission for Women in Theatre to Take 'BOLD' Risks

Special Features   The Helen Gurley Brown Foundation Grants Permission for Women in Theatre to Take 'BOLD' Risks
 
Carol Dunne, co-founder of BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle, shares what the initiative is doing to tackle gender parity in the theatre industry.
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45 Broadway productions opened in the 2011-12 season. Ten were directed by women. Three plays were written by women. Two musical books were co-written by women and two books of revivals were newly adapted by women. One musical featured a score co-written by a woman. That’s it. Ten directors, seven playwrights and librettists, and one composer-lyricist.

Avid theatregoer Helen Gurley Brown noticed the disparity. Yes, that Helen Gurley Brown, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine for 32 years and author of the 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl. She suggested to her friend and frequent theatre companion Eve Burton, who was a vice president at Hearst at the time, that they do something to change the gender paradigm in theatre—women should be responsible for writing and directing their own stories. The seed was planted.

David Brown and Helen Gurley Brown
David Brown and Helen Gurley Brown Photo by Aubrey Reuben

In 2017, Burton, now executive vice president and the chief legal officer of Hearst and president of the Helen Gurley Brown Foundation, reached out to Carol Dunne, artistic director of Vermont’s Northern Stage. Because it wasn’t just on Broadway where the male-female statistics weren’t reaching parity. A 2016 study of gender equity in leadership positions in nonprofit theatre, conducted by The Wellesley Centers for Women in partnership with American Conservatory Theater, showed that only 19 percent of regional theatres were run by women.

So, Burton and Dunne started there, by creating a network of women artistic directors and providing them with the support to produce more work by women and directed by women as well as the funding to create more opportunities for young women to advance in the industry. The BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle was born.

The Circle launched in 2018, with five female artistic directors each receiving a $250,000 grant for their theatres, to be used toward BOLD initiatives, including hiring female directors and designers, developing one new musical theatre piece written by at least on woman, and each hiring a woman associate director to mentor. Since the inception of BOLD Theater, five BOLD associates have been promoted to theater leadership, over 60 new works by women have been developed, and five musicals by women are currently in development.

"As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, the women who have been supported by our program are more than ready to meet the myriad challenges that face the theater industry. We are committed to creating equitable and artistically inspiring theater that answers the call to make the world a better place,” said Dunne.

Carole Dunne
Carole Dunne northernstage.org

Read on below for more from Dunne and the plans BOLD has for moving American theatre forward.

What’s the most important step you’re taking for gender parity in the industry?
Carol Dunne: The most important steps we are taking are funding and mentoring. We support visionary women theater leaders and fund them to continue innovating while preparing the next generation for theatre leadership. Cohort 1 theaters received $250,000 a year for three years. Mentoring is the action that we take as a collective. The BOLD grant funds up to four positions at each theater for women who aspire to theatre leadership. We commit to “transformational” mentoring and work hard to help our associates move on to higher levels of leadership. Since the grant began, 5 of our associates and artistic directors have been appointed to major leadership positions at nationally renowned institutions. The theaters are demonstrating tremendous growth as well. Northern Stage, the theatre I lead, is really hard to recognize from pre-grant times. In our first three years as grant recipients, we developed 25 new plays by women, commissioned a new musical by an all -female team, earned a NY Times Critic’s Pick for our BOLD supported world premiere and saw a 23% budget growth in our overall company, exclusive of the grant funds. What a profound impact this program is having!

What would full gender parity in theatre look like and what impact would it have?
Dunne: Parity is men no longer controlling the field. One BOLD Circle member shared that in her experience her male colleagues were hired on their potential while female directors were hired only after proven success. Parity is young women being offered artistic positions in the theater based on their potential and being given the experience necessary to eventually become a disciplined and visionary director and artistic leader. I want to see 50% of major theaters led by women, and 50% of Broadway shows directed, produced, designed, and staffed by women. When we reach parity, we will have a theatre that is more reflective of the world. Most theatres used to reflect one point of view, and that point of view was from a white male artistic director whose power was often siloed in the artistic office. Power was also siloed in finance committees, which were traditionally run by male board members from the for-profit world, whose experience would often lead theatres to “safe” choices that ultimately caused them to fail. The growing diversity in our board and staff at Northern Stage has created an entirely new environment where our teams listen more, learn from each other, and work more collaboratively than in the past. I also think that women-run theatres can put a premium on treating all company members and artists with great care. In my experience, happy, supported artists make better art.

How has the landscape changed for women in the time since your organization was founded?
Dunne: Our program is only three years old, but in that time, we have had 5 women go on to major theater leadership, and I can’t but think that this is only the beginning. In the past two years, four brilliant women of color have been added in major theater leadership (Nataki Garrett, Maria Goyanes, Stephanie Ybarra and Hana Sharif), two of whom are joining the BOLD Circle cohort 2, and the tide seems to be turning. However, we are still in the minority, and still running many of the institutions that don’t have the financial support to take the artistic risk that can define visionary leadership.

How do you see the role of your organization regarding gender-intersecting identities like race and sexuality?
Dunne: The BOLD Circle supports all women, and we actively seek those whose voices have been shut out for too long. Each of our theatres is passionately committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Our theatres are a powerful platform for modeling anti-racism, and we will continue to work towards a theatre world that better reflects humanity as long as we have this extraordinary opportunity from the visionary Helen Gurley Brown Foundation.

Do you have a call to action for theatregoers? What about for theatre companies?
Dunne: Follow brilliant vision and direction and take risks with your theatre-going. We can all name five or so men who constantly direct on Broadway. How refreshing it is to see another point of view. For theater companies, mentor tomorrow’s leaders. Don’t just have internships. Actively mentor and take risks for your associates. Give them the space to try and fail and learn. I have learned so much from Jess Chayes, our BOLD Associate Artistic Director, and she has brought so much to our company. I gave Jess a mainstage play to direct before ever having seen her work, because that kind of risk is in the DNA of our grant. She absolutely had a steep learning curve coming from small Off-Broadway spaces, but she did a beautiful job, many times over, and is ready to run a large theatre. Jess also brought a point of view that is different than mine. Actively open the doors, actively hire those who don’t look and sound like you and see what amazing things they will do.

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