By Cynthia DeGrand

Becoming Unbalanced

Company seeks to create new opportunities in the Columbus theater scene

Seriously, when was the last time drinking a lot of wine gave you a really good idea? An idea that might even change your community?

“We’ve been getting together once a month, reading plays out loud, drinking wine, and talking about what we want to do,” said Catherine Cryan Erney. “There is a whole mindset that we want to tip… because we know the talent’s there.”

I’m sitting at Starbucks with Cryan Erney, joined by April Olt and Sonda Staley, the pussyhatters of Columbus theater. We’re all sober, and ready to talk about the plans of The Tipping Point Theatre, a new theater company dedicated to creating opportunities for writers, directors, and performers who are female, older, of color, or perhaps all of the above.

“One of the reasons we started reading plays as a group together is because we noticed that there were a lot more opportunities in Columbus theater for men than women, and we actually created a spreadsheet and looked at that,” said Staley.

The group crunched the numbers of the Theatre Roundtable members for the 2015-2016 season and found some depressing statistics: more than 100 roles more for men than women, fewer roles for women over 30 than men over 30, fewer leading roles for women, and very few shows written by women. The issues were compounded by the fact that women make up a much larger share of the theatrical talent pool. While many community theaters seemed to offer more diverse opportunities, it is a less practical option for those who need to be paid for their work.

In the capital city, known for its tolerance and diversity, this information was unsettling, to say the least.

“We are not showing on stage the demographics of what is America, or even what is Columbus,” says Olt, who noted that outside of the August Wilson Festival at the Short North Stage, no shows by African-American playwrights were produced within two seasons, and the season offered only three roles specifically written for actors of color. As theater artists and as audience members, The Tipping Point questions whether economics is reinforcing the types of shows being produced—good shows, but shows that don’t provide as many opportunities for women or people of color.

“Why are we paying to not see our stories told?” asks Olt. “Look at Broadway. We’ve gone backwards because we’re spending more money on shows. So the fact that it wasn’t until 2016 that you had your first all-female artistic and production team of a musical is telling.”

So, how did get we here?

“All the theaters in Columbus are and have been predominantly managed by men,” says Olt.

“80 percent, 90 percent of shows are directed by men,” says Cryan Erney.

“I don’t think it’s malicious,” Staley interjects.

“It just happened that way,” Olt concludes.

This is Tipping Point’s real-life call to action.

“Rather than just sit around and drink wine and bitch,” explained Staley. “We decided, as women do, to change the playing field. We wanted to be the change that we needed in the Columbus theater community.”

So this January, The Tipping Point got out of the living room and onto the boards with a staged reading of two works by female playwrights featuring all-female casts: Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming, and Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women.

“[The Women] shows the darkness of our history, that when we can’t get what we want, women have been historically pitted against each other, which is thematically what we want to do in the world of theater,” Staley explained. “We don’t want women fighting for the same two or three roles. We want to open up the opportunities so we work together.”

So, where is this going?

“Fiscal viability,” says Olt.

“Fiscal viability!” everyone cheers.

“We want to—first and foremost—do really good theatre,” Staley adds.

“We want juicy, satisfying roles,” Cryan Erney says.

Women have faced discrimination in theater since being forbidden from appearing on stage in the first chapter of classical theater history, but The Tipping Point is not a “No Boys Allowed” club. Despite their frustrating experiences of having to audition for male directors in hotel rooms, or having their appearances deemed “inappropriate” for certain roles, these women have a passion for the theater arts, and they’re not going anywhere.

And they hope that they can inspire other companies to make similar changes. (They give a special shout out to The Actor’s Theatre of Columbus, a classical theater company, for its strides towards gender parity—particularly with its gender-bending production of The Countess of Monte Cristo last summer.)

“We believe that our mission shouldn’t just be ours—that it should make everybody around us think about doing things a little bit differently,” says Olt.