Post 1: Femme Visibility and Subjectivity in Technical Theatre – A Backstory

by hbc

Recently, while I was sitting in on a rehearsal, a director asked me, “Why sound?”

My immediate response: “Because it is like acting, but without being looked at.”

“Good answer.” he said thoughtfully, and the matter was dropped.

At least, it had appeared to be dropped. Yet my own mind continued to mull over my response again and again wondering how I had come to this conclusion.

In the beginning, I was an actor. Acting is what drew me to the theater. I loved the attention as a child, performance being what ultimately saved me from a shy and lonely childhood. When I became an adult, however, the attention repulsed me. As a female I am taught from earliest consciousness that my value is inherently measured in the realm of the physical. Without outward beauty, or even the correct kind of beauty, I may as well give up on any sort of happiness or lifelong fulfillment. Furthermore, girls are taught that to be pretty means one cannot also be skilled or well-studied, and yet paradoxically we are driven to believe that the ideal woman (a heterosexual man’s ideal, that is) stands as “beauty and brains”. Oh, but not too much brains, of course!

So with that, girls are taught to be attractive but not allowed to revel in their own attractiveness; we must remain modest and unaware of our beauty. A woman who likes herself too much is vain, frivolous, and selfish.

“Why sound?” the director asked me. A harmless question, to be sure. And yet my own answer reverberated within my self, echoing back a voice that shouted “I am just so tired of being looked at!”

It has been my experience that women in the field of technical theatre have more often than not rather low levels of feminine visibility (with the exception of costume designers, for which I am most often mistaken for being). Granted, the physical requirements of being a stage manager, master electrician, stagehand or any sort of theater technician tends to eliminate room for such “frivolities” as one immediately associates with femme fashion such as skirts, heels, manicures, makeup and excessive jewelry to name a few.

It’s true that such looks are impractical and potentially dangerous, but that is not an excuse for the overall dismissive attitude toward femme styling amongst those in the technical professions. What correlation could wearing lipstick possibly have to someone’s ability to do their job?

Professionally, I had the unbelievable luck to land work immediately after college. It was here when I found myself trapped in this mindset. Foolishly I ate up the idea that to be taken seriously, I must dress-down, look less extravagant, and “be professional’ for the first time in my life. What does this even mean, “be professional”, and why would my appearance even matter when pursuing a career in the arts? I felt like a fake. I thought, how can I build a proper relationship with these theater companies presenting myself under false pretenses?

So I stopped being “professional”, and I let them know me. I wore glitter to tech week and stage managed a show in 5-inch heels. I was made fun of. I was resented. Who cares? I still did all my paperwork on time.

My appearance has nothing to do with my work in and of itself, but it has everything to do with how my work is perceived by others.  Thus, I enjoy the duality of being *onstage and present* and yet invisible.

Why sound? Because like acting it can have profound emotional effect on the audience.  A well-placed bass throb or birdsong or ambient underscore can turn perceived emotion into real emotion. Humans have the capacity to be immensely triggered by sound. Modern audiences so used to the cinematic soundscapes presented to them by movies have difficulty in the vacuum of the (seemingly) silent stage. But I don’t think that’s all there is behind that question, and I don’t think I’m wrong to assume that the subtext, whether it is intended or not, is ultimately “Why is someone like you designing sound?” and this thought hurts me for two reasons: 1. It implies that someone like me does not “fit” the idea of theater technician, and 2. It implies that sound design is not worthy of the love of someone like me, who so clearly cares about self-love and personal aesthetic (a.k.a. vanity and frivolity).

Leave technical theater to the men and the de-feminized women, it says. You can’t be competent with technology and wear cute shoes. You, girl, cannot be skilled, well-studied, and pretty…remember?

I wish I could begin to describe my love of sound design. I wish there was room in this post. But that is the reason I have created this blog; to keep a place where I can discuss my work and my approach to sound design and sound theory from my perspective, as a primarily self-taught female working in a field easily dominated by masculine viewpoints. I am not here to shame any fellow artists or complain about work! Nor do I intend to inject overtly feminist critique into all discussions made here, but it goes without saying that my approach to sound design is highly feminine and feminist because it has been experiences with “girl hate” in my profession that led me to this standpoint. Femininity is so intertwined into my work that I cannot fathom discussing being a professional sound designer without first addressing it.


Photo is me, Hannah Birch Carl. Taken by Maisie Cousins.