Women Center Stage – An Interview With Dina Vovsi

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Dina Vovsi directs everything’s whispered (for now).

“Joann is late for her first day of work, she’s recently divorced, and she’d really like to get her 8 year-old daughter out of her princess costume before dropping her off at school. As if she weren’t stressed enough, her daughter gives her a sparkly purple princess pen as a present for her first day of work – purchased with the allowance her father has been giving her without Joann’s knowledge. Later, Tess, Victoria, and Jim debate the merits of juice cleanses in the break room, and Rachel pops in with the replacement temp she’s training – Joann. She’s older than they imagined and looks nothing like her picture – yes, the company requires pictures of everyone before offering them a position, even as a temp. Joann has nothing in common with these women, and it shows, and they eventually leave her alone with Jim, who is taken aback when Joann suddenly breaks down and tells him why it’s her first day back at work in 8 years. This is a first time a woman in his office has talked to him like a real person. They’re interrupted when the rest of the women run in announcing there’s a princess in the office – who turns out to be Joann’s daughter, hastily dropped off by her father when the babysitter got sick and he had a meeting that was clearly more important than Joann’s first day of work. The women start to run away from the situation, knowing well that Joann will not be kept on if the executives find out this is her daughter, when Jim steps in and says he’ll say she’s his daughter and he’ll apologize for causing any sort of dilemma. It’s that easy. He won’t get in trouble. Problem solved.”

What inspired you to do this play?

I love this year’s theme – media narrative – but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to specifically explore (there’s so much you can do with it!) so I started out by gathering a group of artists that I knew had something to say on the subject and how it relates to us as women and men.

Through discussion, research, observational exercises, and improvisation, certain topics kept resurfacing – how women are perceived and treated in corporate workplaces, marriage, the socially constructed roles of mothers and fathers in the household, competition between women whether it be between friends, coworkers, or mothers and daughters, and the unfortunate image that’s been painted of what a man should be like – generally speaking, the media, especially in recent years, has told us that men are immature commitment-phobes that will always be boys and never be men, are completely incapable of taking care of themselves, and shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions.

The title everything’s whispered (for now) comes from a story one of my actors told about how her co-worker writes e-mails in italicized purple font and how she can’t take her seriously because of it – when she reads her e-mails, it’s as though everything’s whispered.

How did you get involved in Women Center Stage?

I met Alex Mallory through two different friends/colleagues and was terribly excited to be asked to participate in Directors Weekend this year.

Your play addresses the struggle of a work/life balance. What are your views on how that balance is portrayed currently in the media and entertainment?

Well, that’s interesting, because as a theater artist, the work/life balance doesn’t exist so much as you end up working all the time – at your day/night job for money, and putting the rest of your time into your art. There isn’t room for much else. Our group’s discussions often ventured into the world of dating, and how we, as theater artists in our mid-twenties to mid-thirties, tend to be single far more often than our non-artist friends simply because finding a partner and having children isn’t a priority – our art is. There’s a lot that we sacrifice to be theater artists in New York City – comfort, space, nature, seeing our friends on a regular basis, significant others who don’t understand why we do what we do for little to no money. That led to examining what the rest of the world – the non-artist world – sacrifices too. One of the characters in the piece, Rachel, is newly engaged and dropping her life in New York – her job, friends, everything – to follow her fiance to Cleveland where he’ll begin his residency at a hospital. She’s training Joann to take over her job – Joann who hasn’t worked in eight years, married young, and is recently divorced with an eight year-old daughter. Joann completely lost track of who she was during her marriage – she lost herself and she’s only beginning to find her way back. And now Rachel is dropping everything to go set up a house for her and her husband and try her hand at…gardening?

In the media, we see women sacrificing their work for marriage and children all the time. In real life, I see it both ways – it applies to men too – men who give up their dreams to provide for their families. They’re not always as happy as they seem on television. It’s a lot of pressure to feed multiple mouths. I recently read an article about a Hasidic Jewish couple that was drowning in that kind of pressure – the woman traditionally stays home with the children and the man is the sole provider. Because they aren’t allowed to use birth control, the couple kept having more and more children – and the man was forced out of his studies and had to take on several jobs to support his ever-growing family – and he was in his early twenties. The media looks at gender inequality in Hasidic Judaism and how it oppresses women, but reading that article made me realize what a horrifying position that man had been put in – it was heartbreaking.

What do you think needs to change regarding that portrayal?

I think things are changing and have been changing but there are still an abundance of people like Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson that are trying to stop us, not only as women, but as men, as people, from moving forward, because they are terrified of change.

Your play also addresses how women are treated in the office compared to men. Why do you think that disparity exists?

I think it stems from top-down leadership – as stated in our prompt, 94% of world leaders, 80% of the United States Senate, 80% of world parliaments, and 95.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are men. Women are the minorities in these environments and aren’t given nearly as many chances to climb up the ladder. Even though they’ve worked just as hard, if not harder than their male co-workers to get where they are, they’re still being objectified by their colleagues. The d-bag who wrote the unofficial guidelines for Goldman Sachs’ 2013 Summer Interns on his blog is a prime example: “Bang a (female) intern, and tell the Associates and above about it. If they haven’t ever done it, they sure as hell always wanted to. They’ll respect you for it. ” Why does this disparity exist? Because this kind of attitude is clearly encouraged at corporations such as this by its leaders.

What kind of thoughts or action do you hope to motivate with this play?

The play is really about how to stop apologizing for who we are as women, as men, as people. We need to stop apologizing and, as one of my actors often says, “take a leap.” For ourselves and for each other.

How do you respond when people say that sexism does not exist, especially in the work place, and that women are not treated differently than men?

I’d laugh. I mean, come on. I’ve never actually met anyone who’s told me that so if the moment comes, that person should be prepared to go for quite the ride. As someone who looks very young and prefers to wear flowery sundresses, flats, and no makeup, I give off a certain first impression. I recently read an article that’s been making waves – “I Was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl” – and I agree with a lot of the points that Laurie Penny makes – but at the same time, I should be allowed to wear a fucking sundress and be taken seriously. What I love about her essay is that she’s learned to really own it when she tells people she’s a writer. That’s so important. I’ve learned to own that I’m a director, to really own that, and all the other stuff stops mattering to people.

So many plays and stories are told by men. What do you think prevents women from telling their stories?

Women are telling their stories, they’re writing plays – incredible ones – they’re just not being produced as much as plays written by men. Although more and more theater companies – mostly off-Broadway New York companies and progressive regional theaters in big cities – are becoming more committed to producing work by a diverse group of writers, we’re not seeing that happen so much on Broadway or in the majority of regional theatres. Commercial producers – and more importantly, investors – are mostly men, and they’re the ones choosing what will be on Broadway, which isn’t setting a great example for young artists in the industry.

If more women could tell their stories, what do you think would change?

Again, I don’t think women aren’t telling their stories, but those stories definitely aren’t being heard by enough people. I think stories – plays, films, television shows, etc. – can change a lot, actually. You’d be surprised at how inspiring a line, look, or image can be. Especially in the theatre, where you’re forced to pay attention, you can’t help but reflect on yourself and the world in some way – the flaws become really apparent.

Two women just won Best Director at the Tony Awards – only the second time a woman has won Best Director of a Musical. Why do you think that is the current state of things?

It’s once again linked to the domination of Broadway by male producers and investors. The Tonys only consider Broadway productions and women are much less likely to be hired to direct Broadway shows. It could be because those producers tend to hire men over women, or also because Broadway isn’t really a major goal for a director anymore – especially directors who are women, I’ve found. The material isn’t as exciting, at least not in the straight play world (I can’t speak much about musical theatre, I’m afraid it’s not my thing). Why compete for a chance to direct an Arthur Miller revival on Broadway when you can be directing the world premiere of a new play off-Broadway? It’s a shame because Broadway has truly limited itself in the straight play world for fear of not selling enough tickets (a legitimate fear).

I personally haven’t seen a Broadway musical in at least six years (they’re just not my thing) and the last two Broadway plays I’ve seen – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Clybourne Park – were both directed by Pam Mackinnon. Those plays transferred from Playwrights Horizons and Steppenwolf, respectively. Women are directing work they believe in and they’re getting noticed at the Off-Broadway level, and occasionally, those shows transfer. If Off-Broadway theatres keep hiring women, and Broadway producers keep bumping up off-Broadway shows, then that’s progress.

We see so many more plays written by men than by women onstage. Why do you think that is the current state of things?

I already answered this above, and personally, I’m much more excited about Bekah Brunstetter’s Cutie and Bear in Roundabout’s upcoming season than I am about the Broadway transfer of The Glass Menagerie (although I love The Glass Menagerie and I’ll certainly be seeing it too.). I’ll leave it at that. More new plays by women, please.

How do you think the current state of things can continue to change?

Not only should the theater community at large make it its mission to produce more plays by women, but to produce more plays by men who write strong, multi-dimensional female characters. Let’s make this our mission in film and television too, in commercials, on billboards, on the Goldman Sachs blog (I know that last one most likely won’t happen in my lifetime). Let’s be aware of the stories we’re telling and the messages we’re trying to send. Let’s stop apologizing and start taking leaps.

Please tell me your thoughts about the roles women currently play in theatre and the roles you hope to see them play in the future.

I’d love to see more women become artistic directors of major off-Broadway and regional theatres and really champion gender equality by producing plays by exciting new playwrights who are women and hiring directors who are women and designers who are women. I’d love for Broadway to just go away so that producers who know and care very little about our crafts are not responsible for the face of American theater, but that’s not very realistic. I’d love it if the government would care a little more and create more opportunities for theater artists, both men and women, to be able to make a decent living and have health insurance and not have to waitress and have time to date. I have a lot of thoughts.

everything’s whispered (for now)
was devised in collaboration with my ensemble of actors that I wanted to recognize: Michael Grew, Jake Lipman, Amanda Marikar, Lillian Meredith, Lucinda Rogers, and Tracy Willet. They’re funny and make me laugh and cry.

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