A Call for Equal Support in Theatrical Design

by Elsa Hiltner

Technical theatre is comprised of designing and constructing. In some areas of design, those roles are separated, and separately compensated. Set and lighting designers overwhelmingly have a technical director and master electrician hired by the company to execute a designer’s plan, even at smaller, non-equity, and storefront theatres. In contrast, costume designers are left to their own devices at all but the largest institutions. Without the support of a technician, costume designers have their hands in each step of bringing the design to the stage—measuring actors, drafting patterns, building costumes, shopping, coordinating rentals, fittings, completing alterations, writing up laundry instructions, coordinating understudy costumes, returns, budgets, the occasional mid-run maintenance, and strike. The stitchers and assistants they work with are usually interviewed and hired by the costume designer and are paid from the designer’s fee, or occasionally the costume budget if there’s room. 

Costume design is also the only area of technical theatre in which women make up the majority. Based on three years of numbers she compiled, Porsche McGovern (http://howlround.com/who-designs-and-directs-in-lort-theatres-by-gender-phase-two) notes that 76.5 percent of set designers and 80 percent of lighting designers are male, while only 30 percent of costume designers are male in the League of Regional Theatres (LORT). I argue that much of this division of labor (or lack thereof) is based on institutionalized gender bias within theatre and our society. This inequity stems from our culture’s gendered views on who makes clothing, how much their time is worth, and the often skewed understanding of what skills are required to design and build a costume, let alone an entire show. This imbalance compounds inequities between male and female designers. It relegates costume designers, mostly women, to artisans, while set and lighting designers, mostly men, remain purely artists. This enables set and lighting designers to focus purely on their design, while costume designers must be both designer and technician. It means that a costume designer cannot design as many shows per year as a set or lighting designer can, and therefore earns less. It also effects the kinds of theatre we make and the types of voices theatre gives voice to. And finally, it harms the collaborative dynamic within a production team and influences theatre designer diversity. 

On the surface, the allocation of support and resources within a theatre company is based on the design discipline. Female set designers are offered the same resources as male set designers within an institution, as are male and female costume designers. But this is where our culture’s gendered views on garment work come into play. For most of Western history, paid garment work was seen as men’s work. While women made garments in the home, men held the vast majority of paid positions as tailors and patternmakers up until industrialization in the nineteenth century. When the modern garment factory was born at the end of the nineteenth century, women were brought in as stitchers, a source of cheap and dependent labor. 

“Anyone who has ever completed a garment, let alone patterned one, knows that garment construction is, in fact, highly skilled labor.”
More than 100 years later, the labor of garment work is still effectively women’s work and is incorrectly considered, much like modern agricultural labor, to be unskilled, disposable, and worth minimal compensation. In the age of a globalized garment industry and the $5 Old Navy t-shirt, garment work is performed by women with few rights and resources, women who are not deemed worthy of a living wage, and have little voice with which to lobby their case. Anyone who has ever completed a garment, let alone patterned one, knows that garment construction is, in fact, highly skilled labor. Yet I see a direct correlation between how much any stitchers’ skills are valued, and the market rate for mass produced clothing. 

Given our gendered views on who makes clothing and how much their time is worth, it is telling that in the female dominated, garment-based field of costume design, designers are expected to act not only as designer, but also (still) as laborer. We should move beyond these outmoded expectations. If and when designers choose to construct their designs, the time and labor that go into each process should be compensated fairly, just like any other area of theatrical design. Between design disciplines, as between genders, support should be equal and resources should be commensurate. 

As companies, theatres have done little to question how often set and lighting designers only work with hired technicians. It serves their bottom line not to. Statistics show that women are more likely to take on uncompensated work than are men. For better or worse, it’s a tactic used by ambitious women who need to maneuver in our culture’s (and dare I say, theatre’s) male-dominated system. Women are also much less likely to ask for increased compensation or assistance. In many ways it’s a rigged system in which women who don’t take on extra work are penalized for seeming uncooperative, while women who ask for increased compensation are often deemed entitled. Theatre companies benefit greatly from this free labor. 

Artistic directors, production managers, and designers alike have also done little to reassess the expectation that some, but not all, designers are both designer and technician. We have grown accustomed to the roles we all play. The familiarity makes them seem natural, ubiquity makes them seem fair. Yet, if a set designer were expected to design and build a set at a midsized theatre they would likely balk. Conversely, when a costume designer says that they don’t build their designs, it’s viewed as overly demanding or as a sign of incompetency. 

As a costume designer, I am also guilty of maintaining the role of costume designer-technician. By being willing and able to do some work that I am not paid for, I am maintaining a norm that limits costume designers to people who are privileged enough to take on extra work without compensation. When I build the costumes I design, I make it harder for costume designers to request assistance and gain an equal footing. The thousands of unreimbursed miles I have driven for shows every year are another barrier I have helped build. When I complete alterations or return mid-run to repair a shoe, I am limiting who can afford to work as a costume designer. I have often seen this donated time as the crux of making art that I deeply care about and that has my name attached to it. (Not to mention the price I have to pay to “make it.”) 

“Designers of all disciplines will be more diverse if we support them equally. And theatre will be better for it.”
Like any art form, the process of making theatre can’t be separated from the final product. As creators of art, we benefit from collaborating with people with diverse viewpoints and backgrounds. We create better, and more fulfilling work when our concepts are challenged and new ideas are brought into the room. Theatre is a response to the times, a place where people can gather and “hold up the mirror.” In order to make our art relevant and more reflective of our diverse society, we need to promote diversity backstage as well as on stage. Designers of all disciplines will be more diverse if we support them equally. And theatre will be better for it. 

As collaborative artists who come together to solve problems in the most creative and technical ways, I am confident that we can balance this load. My goal is for theatres that hire technical directors, carpenters, and master electricians to hire technicians for their other designers. The smallest of our theatres which rely on volunteers to build their sets or cable their lights should coordinate the same resources for other designers. Changes like this happen over time, so I would like to start the conversation and begin moving forward now. 

From my perspective as a costume designer, there are some small, easy steps that could be implemented relatively quickly at any theatre, including small storefronts. All theatres should reimburse production-errand mileage, and add a budget line for costume builds or alterations. If a storefront can hire a technical director, they can afford to budget for these items as well. 

If they have not done so already, midsize to larger theatres should also add an assistant and maintenance/costume build position for each production that suits the size, scale, and style of the production. This is a larger budget item within a season and may take longer to fully implement, but goals should be set and planned now as budgets and grants are being prepared for upcoming seasons. 

I also encourage companies to look at how they can support their props, video, and sound designers, among others, and create a long-term plan so that all designers have commensurate resources, equal support, and therefore comparable worth. We are all affected when resources are divided unequally. The current imbalance restrains creativity and collaboration, and limits the impact of our art. It’s a dynamic that favors privilege and therefore restricts designer diversity. And as it is rooted in societal gender bias, it compounds gender inequities. We need to work consciously to correct that bias. The current system is a product of its history. We must move beyond our history and actively work to equally support all designers.  

This piece, A Call for Equal Support in Theatrical Design by Elsa Hiltner was originally published on HowlRound (http://howlround.com/a-call-for-equal-support-in-theatrical-design), a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on 11/23/16.