Women Leading in Theatre Need Power, Focus, Vision

Madelyn Sergel Founding Artistic Director of Clockwise Theatre.

As an ongoing series in The Marbury Project, we interview women working across the country in theatre today. What keeps them invested? What can others learn from them? What do they love about their communities and theatres?

Madelyn Sergel is the founding Artistic Director of Clockwise Theatre. She co-produced its first thirteen productions and now sits on Clockwise’s board of directors and artistic advisory board.

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As a playwright, recent productions include Party In The Kitchen and Special Needs, both at Clockwise, and Another Piece of Cake at Citadel Theatre. Her play Totally Okay, Right Now was recently published by YouthPlays and also received an honorable mention in the Julie Harris Play Competition for youth theatre. This January, Walls, Sci-Fi Series for the Stage will have a public reading at Wilmette Theatre.

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Why don’t we start by sharing a little bit about your background in theatre?

I come from a theatrical family: my great-uncle founded the Dramatic Publishing Company, my father worked there as an editor and adapter. My mother was an actor for many years, appearing in Steppenwolf’s Grapes of Wrath, Winter with Julie Harris at Victory Gardens, and loads of other work. I graduated with a degree in theatre from Syracuse University, was an actor for a decade or so, retired, had a family, and returned as a playwright, also co-founded Clockwise Theatre, and was its first artistic director. I stepped down as artistic director in February to focus on my playwriting and family, having two teenagers and an aging mom and in-laws to “staff”!

 What was being the founding Artistic Director of Clockwise Theater like?

It was an incredible seven years I wouldn’t trade for anything. I worked with some profoundly talented people and what I learned from them I carry with me to this day. It also toughened me up, gave me insight into what it means to be, as I liked to put it, “the one in the chair.” A person can shout opinions from the sidelines of experience, but everything changes once you are the one making the call. I’ve become much more forgiving of others, especially if someone is in the mix, working to make something happen. I’m also more patient regarding my own play submissions. Having been the one on the other end of the play submission/decision process, I’m now amazed if I hear anything back at all. Now I know that most times, it’s one very overworked person on the other end of the “sent” submission e-mail.

Clockwise Theatre
Clockwise Theatre

The experience also led me to really understand the importance of clarity of vision. I knew in my bones exactly the kind of theatre I wanted Clockwise to be, an organization which produced new work by Midwestern, women, and playwrights of color, telling vibrant, topical stories. That clarity was a strong asset as all of us in the start-up process as we worked with local government, built a board, developed creative and business partnerships, and talked about Clockwise to everyone.

We were also very blessed to have so many committed, insightful local officials on Waukegan’s city council. Artists do need to remember that creative thinkers are everywhere, not just in theatre.

Looking at Clockwise’s production history, gender and racial diversity is the rule rather than the exception. How does Clockwise manage it while so many other theater companies struggle with it?

I can’t speak to how other theatres select their seasons so I’ll just go with what was my method. For me I think it came down to just factoring one additional element into the process. Season selection is a complex and delicate dance. I always worked to create an emotional and experiential arc over the season for our audience. For example, I would avoid slotting plays of similar genre or style back to back. Then there was casting, what directors would fit in with what play, who I could get, their schedule, etc. There are a slew of pragmatic concerns. I would usually have one play I really wanted to do and I would begin building the season around that selection. The thing is that there is a great deal of terrific work out there, so focusing on making sure women playwrights or playwrights of color were evenly represented in a season really wasn’t that difficult. Sure, you might have to try a little harder but it’s hard anyway so one more consideration wasn’t that big a deal. Honestly, sometimes a white male playwright’s play would get bumped back a season if I liked a particular work but I didn’t have enough diversity in the season. John Green’s Doubting Thomas got put off for 2-3 seasons until I could get it on the Clockwise stage. But then I loved Lydia Diamond’s Stage Black and even had it slated, but we just couldn’t get the cast requirements filled.

As someone who is an Artistic Director and producer in addition to being a playwright, what are some things you have noticed about how gender impacts the way plays are selected and developed?

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Focus on greenlighting women’s work. Via Flickr user Alachua County

I believe that having women and artists of color in the position to greenlight productions or in positions of decision-making power is very important to insure consistently that the full breadth of stories is represented. We know in a profound way what it means to have your experience marginalized or dismissed so I think we are extra fastidious in making sure parity always has a seat at the table.

As a Chicago-based company, what have been the particular opportunities and challenges facing Clockwise when it comes to finding creative collaborators among women and people of color?

Clockwise is located in Waukegan, an hour north of Chicago. For Chicago-based artists, it costs them more money to work at Clockwise than within the city limits. Being Non-Equity, the company just cannot afford to compensate artists a living wage or, honestly, even enough to cover their expenses. So working at Clockwise requires a financial sacrifice and it is a statistical truth that women and people of color make less money across the board. So to work at our theatre, I asked people already taking a fiscal hit to take another one. That was one of THE hardest parts of the process for me. I had lots of “When I win the Lottery I’m going to pay everyone so much!” fantasies.

One of my personal limitations is that I don’t speak Spanish. Waukegan is a very diverse community so that was an additional hurdle I had to navigate. I still wish I had been better able to connect with the Latino population in our area.

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What’s interesting about Clockwise is that you mention revitalization for economically challenged communities. Were you deliberately addressing class, or was your thought process different? How do you think revitalizing economically challenged communities is connected to gender parity?

Yes, the revitalization of economically challenged communities is connected to gender parity. Cities and towns with limited employment and other issues can experience more crime and poverty. And while crime is an issue for everyone, I believe that women especially often limit their actions to out of concern of being victimized. But women generally earn less money than men, so economically challenged communities might be their only affordable option.

When I drive though a community and see empty storefront spaces, I don’t see blight. I see possible theatres. I do wish more cities and towns would follow the lead of Waukegan and embrace the proven business model that live theatre can have a huge and lasting positive economic impact on a community. If a theatre company is given a break or support on the front end by local government and businesses, their population would reap rewards tenfold.

Which three companies and organizations do you think are doing amazing work toward gender parity in theatre?

Outside of Clockwise, I would say Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, Chicago Dramatists, and 20% Theatre Company.

What, in your opinion, are the major factors impacting gender parity in theatre?

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Artistic directors currently in positons of power need to be held accountable for their play selection. Every time I see a company’s upcoming season announced, I look at the spectrum of gender and, if possible to assess, ethnicity. It’s not that hard to do the math. It would be lovely if someone (an established critic or cultural editor, perhaps?) could write a prominent feature every year, and I mean every year to avoid the “Oh, well, this season the numbers didn’t work out but we have a great overall record of inclusiveness,” with the numbers laid out. Because, face it, if Playwright-Madelyn calls them out, it would just sound like sour grapes.

What advice do you have for female playwrights and producers looking to get involved in Chicago’s theater scene?

Take power. No one will give it to you. If you don’t see getting produced what you want to see, do it yourself. Dive in. Get your feet wet. If you start to make things happen, others will join you. And speak up. If you are in a company, bring the issue up. Again and again. Advocate for other women and playwrights of color. Develop partnerships and projects.

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Also I believe theatre can only benefit from having playwrights take the reins of power. We are strong communicators, very tenacious, and generally willing to share the spotlight. A good thing in such a collaborative business.

Anything else to add?

For women of a certain age: Ignore your age. I believe women tend towards a more circuitous creative and professional journey, while men can be more linear. Many times we discover our authentic voice or true calling later in life. Or we step out of the career track for personal or family care reasons. But, as a good friend once told me, in theatre there is re-entry at any time. Don’t refrain from diving in because you had to leave the pool for a while!

Also embrace the belief that you can make your own rules. All theatres don’t have to be started by kids right out of college. You can build a creative template based on your beliefs and needs. I began as an actor, retired, had a family, returned as a playwright in my early 40s, then started Clockwise in my late forties. Youthful passion can wane, tenacity is everything.

If you trust your gut, work your fanny off, and just keep going, it’s extraordinary what can be accomplished.