Debunking the Stereotype...A Woman Behind the Switch Board

By. Jana Prager

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Hi, I’m Jana, a twenty-something choreographer and lighting designer. I have a BA in Dance and recently finished my MFA in Choreography in London. Now that I’m back in New York I am pursuing a career in multiple facets of dance. The article you’ll be reading is based on my experiences as a female lighting designer in a male-dominated field in 2017, a hen in the rooster house. I’m sharing my story because gender bias is often overlooked in dance and theatre as they are generally considered to be accepting and equal fields. However, the subtle bias that does exist needs to be discussed and we as female “techies” deserve to continue to push forward and inch closer to that glass ceiling, no matter how small a percentage we are of the technician population.

Like most New York artists, I have to wear a few hats in order to pay bills. As a result, I live primarily as two people: Jana Prager, choreographer and Jana Prager, lighting designer. It wasn’t until I left academia that I realized the latter title would be uncommon for myself, a woman.

As I started my education in lighting design while getting my Dance BA, I was surrounded by women. While not many went on to pursue lighting professionally and most did not even pursue dance or theatre professionally, at the time, nothing about being surrounded by women while scaling a tall scaffolding, parcan in hand, seemed uncommon. During my choreography MFA, while studying the dance lighting designers who paved the way for me, I heard a lot of female names: Nananne Porcher, Beverly Emmons, Jennifer Tipton, and our Patron Saint of all things dance lighting, the incomparable Jean Rosenthal. My class was full almost exclusively of women who were choosing to take the course as an elective, as it was a female dominated dance department. Once again, it felt nothing but normal to have another woman footing my ladder every day.

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It wasn’t until I worked one of my first professional post-graduation technician jobs that it hit me: I was a minority. “The girls,” our academic mentor’s go-tos, and I were hired to assist on a build and load-in. When we arrived I quickly realized that the three of us were the only women there. The main employees were male, the “muscle” hired to help with lifting stage parts were male. For the first time in nearly six years of lighting design and technician work in academia I was nervous, I was shaky, I was hyper-aware of the differences in our anatomy. That moment was my first taste of something I was going to notice from there on out in my career: it wasn’t going to be me and the girls anymore. The men I worked with on that day were so used to working with our mentor’s female former students that they didn’t bat an eyelash. However, it was becoming glaringly clear that this wasn’t going to be the norm of the rest of my career. 

Dance and theatre people pride themselves on being very open-minded, “color blind”, not gender biased, and on ignoring gender roles. While this is generally well and true, we open minded theatre folk still grew up in a world that exposed us to all of those things before we even had an inkling as to what career path we were taking. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that sexism exists in our field, but I will say that our field isn’t immune to our prior understandings of the world around us and how it was presented to us, often through antiquated gender roles. It comes out in very subtle and well-intended ways: a designer who just met you looking surprised that you carry your own multi-tool instead of needing to borrow his, a male member of the company you’re designing for not understanding that you really don’t need help carrying that small ladder (mind you, this doesn’t mean we never want help; sometimes the ladder is really too tall or a stage weight too heavy for one person), meeting people on a new job and seeing their inability to avert their eyes from your anatomical differences, the assumption that you don’t own your own wrench.

I consider myself to be very fortunate to be forging my path in a male-dominated field in this day and age; I do not have many of the obstacles that the women before me faced. There are, however, still statistics that remind us that equality is not stable in any industry, even in our own bubble of artistic acceptance. There is still a pay gap, there are still fewer female CEOs, there are fewer female politicians; in most industries women still have to work harder than men to gain the same respect. This is even more difficult for women of color, gay and queer women, and disabled women. Our bubble of artistic love and acceptance is not exempt from such statistics, as women make up less than 14% of the lighting designers in the industry.

Female technicians in 2017 still haven’t developed the antibody to combat unintentional sexism in our industry. Realizing how unintentional much of the bias we face is, I’ve realized how unintentionally I’ve altered my life and career to accommodate the often fragile understanding men can have of a woman in the boys club. Over time I wore only my baggiest and boxiest t-shirts to work, covering up the fact that I was the only one in the theatre with breasts. Despite already being a “tomboy,” I found myself constantly trying to sound like “one of the guys” so that I could never be mistaken as flirting with a male coworker or client. I breathed a little bit heavier every time I climbed a ladder knowing that my curvy hips were on display with nowhere to hide. I’ve spent so much energy in my career trying to strip myself of my femininity. This realization helped me to understand the type of path that I want to forge for the women who come after me, and helped me to comprehend that I was simply standing on the shoulders of the strong female technicians before me and relying on progress that is now, frankly, antiquated. What could I do for myself and the generations that follow?

I’ve always considered myself an unapologetic personality. But here I was, silently apologizing over and over again for my (not-quite-up-to-societal-expectations) femininity. That was when I decided to quit apologizing in my career, in my sex, in my gender identification, and in my female anatomy and all it encompasses. I will no longer apologize to a ladder for supporting my hips, no longer apologize to a group of LEDs for projecting a feminine silhouette onto the back wall while walking in front of them, I will now refuse to avoid eye contact with my own femaleness when I have my multi-tool in my hand.

As women, we often view courage as a defiant act: breaking a rule or being the first woman to do something. For me, being courageous in my career right now is none of these things. My courage doesn’t need to be the courage of the women before me because the obstacles aren’t the same as before. The obstacle to overcome now is ourselves and our ability to step out and be ourselves, unapologetically. Ending an industry bias comes in many forms: sometimes it’s smashing the glass ceiling in one go and sometimes it’s a pair of C-cups walking into a theatre without hiding away behind an oversized t-shirt.

So I’ve chosen to push forward as a technician not despite my femininity, but in celebration of it. I’ve chosen to march forward into the theatre with a deep breath and my wrench in the back pocket of my curve-hugging skinny jeans.