Gender Parity: We Must Stop Believing Stupid Things

Shea Sullivan

This is a guest post by
producer and choreographer
Shea Sullivan.

The Ziegfeld Club is the sponsor of
The Marbury Project through December 2015.

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My first time producing an Off-Broadway musical, I was asking for help and advice from every theater professional I’d ever met. And then someone said something stupid.

I was on the phone with one of these industry pros — let’s call him Joe — and telling him I was producing this musical. And he said to me:

You’re never gonna pull this off. You’re a first-time female producer. Why do you think you can do this? You need a male producer.

Joe said it like it was a fact, like how could I not know this established truth? Here I’d been on this call, walking down 42nd Street, talking to someone important about something hugely important to me. Joe threw this punch through the phone, and it knocked the wind right out of me. I sat down right there on the steps of the New Victory Theater. I have no idea what Joe said after that, or what I said exactly, but it was not entirely ladylike. I got off the phone as quickly as possible and sat there with my female self.

Before that moment, no one had ever said anything like that to me. We all sort of vaguely understand and semi-accept the “truth” that we live in a man’s world, but to hear it said like that, so clearly, as a matter of fact — I didn’t know what to do with that. Two decades working in entertainment and nobody had actually come out and said “You can’t, because you’re a girl.”

The show I was producing was called Pageant, a musical about a beauty pageant, complete with evening gowns and makeup demos and swimsuit competitions. Pretty girlie stuff. When I’m not working on a musical, I’m choreographing talent for national and state contestants for the Miss America Organization, so Pageant was the perfect marriage of my two worlds: Broadway meets Miss America. There was no other human better suited than me to produce this particular project. It hadn’t been produced in New York for more than 20 years, and I wanted people to see it, to experience the pure joy I felt about this show.

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Joe knew all about the team I’d put together. I had a male director, a male general manager and an all-male writing team. As if this weren’t enough, the whole concept of Pageant is that all the female contestants are played by men playing women, so I had an all-male cast, too. I wish I could say I was already bracing myself to defend the all-maleness of the cast and crew at this point, but the truth is I hadn’t even thought about it. Here I was, the only woman on my own creative team, and Joe was telling me that my gender was a liability.

It was a stupid thing to say. It was. But it hit me hard. For a split-second, some tiny part of me believed him. Raising money for anything Off-Broadway is always tight, and this is a big show for Off-Broadway: a musical with a big cast of big personalities, and trunk-loads of props and costumes. Broadway producers with Tony Awards were telling me that this was a great idea, but they weren’t jumping in to join me as producers. Was it really because I was a girl? “Puttin’ on a show” ain’t easy, and when Joe said “You’re never gonna pull this off. You’re a first-time female producer” with such confidence, it seemed like it might be a real reason to quit, to believe him, to accept that I couldn’t do it. He didn’t say “You need an experienced producing partner.” He said, “You need a male producer.” First-time was not the problem, Female was.

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Spoiler alert: He was wrong. I produced the show. I was the sole general partner. That LLC was me. It’s something I will always be very proud to say. I’m proud that it happened, I’m proud of everyone that worked on the show and I’m proud of how my team immediately stepped up to tell me not to listen to stupid stuff.

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A year later, I’m a brand new board member of the famed Ziegfeld Club, and we’re in a meeting asking “How can we empower women more?” when my phone starts blowing up. Pageant is nominated for a Drama Desk Award. I burst into tears. I don’t know why, but in that moment, seeing that nomination, I flashed back to Joe, I thought about what would have happened had I listened to him. This thing we’re trying to address in that very room does exist, this thing where someone will flat-out say “You can’t do this because you’re a girl.”

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One of the reasons I’m so drawn to the Ziegfeld Club is because we need it. Still. Right now. 2015. We need to support women creating and producing theater. We need to draw attention to the fact that people still say stupid things about what gender you must be in order to produce, direct, writer or choreograph. Fun Home was the first all-female writing team to win a Tony for Best Score. Waitress, coming up later this season, will offer the first all-female creative team ever on Broadway. These are incredible milestones, but it’s stupid that these “firsts” have never happened before in two, three, four centuries of New York theater history.

What do we do? We stop saying stupid things. When we hear someone say something stupid, we say “OK, that was stupid, let’s move on.” We stop believing stupid things. We roll up our sleeves, we flex our biceps, we shout “We Can Do It!” at the top of our lungs until the stupid stops. Can we do it?

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Hell yeah. We can.