Buried in the recesses of Bucktown’s Flatiron Building, Collaboraction Theatre’s GENDER BREAKDOWN offers unexpected challenges. Following arrows to the 3rd floor audience entrance, I end up at a locked door and a sign “Quiet. GENDER BREAKDOWN is in progress.” I panic. Wrong time? Wrong place? Wrong…what?
Then others arrive and kindly show me another (equally obvious) arrow pointing to the box office down angled corridors in the opposite direction. There, I receive a glossy program packed with lopsided statistics about female vs male representation in Chicago theatre. Then I’m invited to hang out in a funky performance space with a bar selling icy water bottles and Pabst Blue Ribbon. A few minutes later, I’m led through angles again to where the hitherto locked theatre door is now open.
Collaboraction lets us walk in painful shoes
Panic long gone, I take in the animated young crowd till the house lights go down and the voice of GENDER BREAKDOWN creator Dani Bryant fills the room: “Are you embarrassed by the title?” she asks. “I am – and it was my idea.” As the audience absorbs this, ten actresses enter to a booming recording of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” And so begins GENDER BREAKDOWN’s 80-minute exploration of pervasive sexism and racism in Chicago theater.
GENDER BREAKDOWN, based on commentary from 200+ theater artists, lifts the curtain on a sobering reality: Onstage and backstage, women at Chicago’s nationally acclaimed theaters are still a minority. A recent study found that only 52% of non-Equity shows and 23% of large Equity shows had equal or majority female cast breakdowns. For non-white actresses, the numbers are far lower. Behind the statistics, GENDER BREAKDOWN’s personal stories let us walk in local actresses’ often painful shoes as they strive for success and respect.
GENDER BREAKDOWN digs into colors and shapes
I may have missed the arrow to the box office but GENDER BRAKDOWN’s message of limited opportunities and everyday exploitation is impossible to miss. In a heart-wrenching vignette, eager actresses ask if they change their appearance and behavior, will male directors “love me now?” Later we learn that “I don’t see you as a love interest” is a casting euphemism for too heavy, too ethnic or too nontraditional.
Although fearlessly digging into the truth behind skin color and body shapes, the devised show directed by Erica Vannon garners mixed results. In particular, informal conversations feel forced whereas the more stylized scenes are compelling and organic. Its bold content loses punch in moments that seem like a rough draft instead of a finished product.
Nonetheless, the show is effective even in its current state. It might be tricky for a newcomer like me to find the box office but GENDER BREAKDOWN’s creators and performers are certainly pointing in an important direction.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Now through April 1st
Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 PM
Sundays at 3:00 PM
The Vault at Collaboraction Studios
1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.
$20-30 regular price
$10-15 students, educators & industry
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her Jeff-winning play Arrangement for Two Violas will be published by Chicago Dramaworks in spring 2017.