XX-Rated Theater: Philippines-Set Hedda Gabler Required Female Perspective

Bay Area theater suffers from gender disparity at every level of the game: whose scripts get produced and which kinds of stories get told, which actors get union contracts, who gets promoted to leadership positions — and who gets to direct a show. An invaluable new report from Works by Women SF in partnership with WomenArts shows just how dismal the statistics are (though women in theater have a way better shot at parity than at, say, Google). In the Bay Area from June 2011 to November 2014, women got just 42 percent of all directing jobs and 37 percent of the highest-paying directing jobs.

Theater companies love to talk about this problem, but when it comes to combating it, few take concrete steps, all but ensuring their commitments to inclusion never leave the safe confines of a mission statement or strategic plan.

Bindlestiff Studio, which has been, in company lingo, “an epicenter of Filipino-American performing arts” since 1989, has found a clever way to buck that trend with its production of Hedda Gabler.

Henrik Ibsen's 1890 play follows a young married woman in thrall to both societal norms of decorum and twisted notions of romanticism and courage; she believes suicide can “shimmer with beauty.” She both zealously enforces and chafes at gender roles, yearning to shape lives, both hers and those of others, according to her strange ideals, but she can't bear “scandal” — at least while alive. Hedda is one of the great roles in Western theater for women; the play is one of the first theatrical examples of realism.

Alan Quismorio, Bindlestiff's artistic director, has long wanted to produce the classic, but he felt it ought not be helmed by him alone, both because of the play's content and because the gender disparity in directing is particularly acute in Filipino theater. “In the Filipino-American community, a lot of the directors are male. They're still very much male,” Quismorio said.

In 2013, Quismorio saw Aimee Espiritu's work in Bindlestiff's Stories High directing workshop, and shortly thereafter he approached her about co-directing Hedda with him. While some could argue that the more progressive move would be to hire Espiritu to direct on her own, Espiritu's background is more in live storytelling than theater. “I never would have thought about this classic at all,” Espiritu said. “I wasn't familiar with it. [Quismorio] was like, 'That's why I thought of approaching you. With such a proto-feminist play, why wouldn't I ask a woman to co-direct with me?'”

As co-directors, Quismorio and Espiritu are both peers and mentor and mentee, and the two bring complementary skill sets to the project. “There's this sensibility that Alan brings in terms of the background, the history, and the classics, which I don't have,” Espiritu said. “But I clearly have my own feminist sensibility, and my background is in design” — which has aided her in envisioning this production, whose cast is almost entirely Filipino (quite possibly the first such version of Hedda in the U.S.), in the Philippines in the 1950s.

Espiritu sees myriad connections between that time and place and Ibsen's turn-of-the-century Norway. Both cultures upheld strict class systems and gender roles, and both, on the eve or the immediate wake of independence, saw great turmoil among their intellectual and academic classes. If her familiarity with the drama is not longstanding, Espiritu has more than made up for it with copious research and with profound appreciation for its impact on Western theater — “It was so ahead of its time,” she said — and the impact she hopes it will have on Bindlestiff's young, Filipino audience.

“Aimee has shown such natural inclinations for directing,” said Quismorio, who also performs in the production. “I don't even say anything anymore. I just watch her go at it!”

Many Bay Area theater companies' opportunities for young artists come in the form of internships or fellowships, which can be an excellent training ground (for those who can afford to work without pay), but which often are no more than glorified personal assistant positions, or worse. (I once almost took a supposedly artistic fellowship at a theater until someone who had the gig told me all he did was janitorial work.)

While it certainly wouldn't serve Bay Area audiences to hand Berkeley Rep's or ACT's stages to a newly minted college grad, even high-quality internships with broad recruiting efforts don't do enough to nudge the numbers of working professional artists, reported by Works by Women SF and WomenArts and so many others, toward parity by gender or by any other metric. What Quismorio and Bindlestiff are doing with Hedda Gabler thus serves as a bold but urgently necessary model for developing the artists and leaders of the future: Don't just give them a seat at the table; offer them the chair next to you.

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