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Interviews

Women in Theatre in 2020

Since 2013, MTC’s Women in Theatre Program has provided invaluable mentoring and career development for women in our industry. COVID-19 restrictions have changed some aspects of the program but the 2020 cohort won’t let it stand in their way.

By Melanie Sheridan

Comprising masterclasses and workshops (salons), leadership training, networking opportunities and one-on-one mentoring, MTC’s annual, year-long Women in Theatre Program is a vital pathway helping to address gender imbalance in the arts sector. Many alumnae are now making their mark on the industry; some, such as our Associate Director Petra Kalive, are continuing to work with the Company.

In 2020 we welcomed 12 new participants, specialising in a range of disciplines from playwriting, programming and production to dramaturgy, design and direction. The program was just getting started for the year when shows were cancelled and the theatre and HQ shut down in the wake of the coronavirus. After the initial shock came some shuffling of schedules and timetables, and the previously planned salons were able to be re-organised to occur online, rather than be postponed.

Meet Tariro and Veronique

Participants Tariro Mavondo (Artistic Direction) and Veronique Benett (Lighting Design) spoke with us following this first round of online sessions, to expound on the program so far and their hopes for it over the remainder of the year.

Mavondo began her career as a dancer and trained as an actor at VCA before she got involved with community development work, ‘using art as the medium, in different settings’. This led her to Western Edge Youth Arts, where she is now the co-artistic director – a role she values as it’s where she ‘can make the most impact in terms of lived experience, in terms of creating a company the gives space for young POC artists to step into their power.’

For Benett, it was a career change a couple of years ago that helped her find her love of lighting and costume design, and after some initial study and then working with both independent and mainstage companies, she realised what a huge jump it was between the two: ‘despite all your institutional training, there’s a huge gap between working in the indie sector and the mainstage sector.’

 

‘For me it was about two things: pulling back the Wizard of Oz curtain to see how these bigger organisations work, with a view to understanding how I function inside them as a freelancer; and also about meeting a different group of women artists.’ – Veronique Benett

 

For both, MTC’s Women in Theatre program offered the opportunity to learn and understand more about their chosen careers, and about themselves. ‘It is a privilege and such a great opportunity to be able to have time in a large theatre company, and understand the ins and outs of it, understand how everything runs and operates,’ says Mavondo, who also highlights that program’s focus on individual wellbeing, and on the business side of things – ‘in terms of how to pitch work, for instance’ – as being especially significant.

Adds Benett, ‘For me it was about two things: pulling back the Wizard of Oz curtain to see how these bigger organisations work, with a view to understanding how I function inside them as a freelancer; and also about meeting a different group of women artists.’

Workshopping in the time of corona

When it comes to how the program has delivered on their expectations, particularly in light of the pandemic-mandated changes, both women agree that the changed format has provided challenges but they remain appreciative that they are still able to participate and learn, albeit at a distance.

‘It’s not the same on Zoom,’ Mavondo acknowledges. ‘You do lose some energy by not being in the same room; there’s some non-transferables there.’ There’s something unique about ‘living and breathing a space,’ she says, ‘about being in the building. But my favourite bit of it is to be able to talk things out and discuss things with these super intelligent, super heart-focused and talented women.’ For this reason, she’s welcomed the online conversational sessions allowing program participants to talk to different people in different departments. ‘The more conversational sessions have been just so inspiring; they’ve given me so much wealth and so many ideas and insights to take back to Western Edge. My brain and my mind is just firing after each session and I’m just super energised.’

Sydney-based Benett also misses being able to go to opening nights and the casual networking that occurs at such events, but jokes that one benefit of the program’s current format is that she hasn’t had to travel for the salons. On a more serious note, however, the wider societal shutdown helped her realise that ‘having that dedicated space to chat to women with other experiences’ is not something she’d made much time for previously. ‘It is such a gift for it to be able to continue,’ she adds. ‘Even though it is via Zoom.’

Women inspiring women

Both women enthusiastically recall the Creative Pathways salon they did with the Company’s Associate Artistic Director, Sarah Goodes, and Associate Director, Petra Kalive, as a highlight. ‘The session with Petra and Sarah in particular,’ says Benett, ‘was fantastic because we could chat amongst each other and it kind of felt a little bit more like what it felt like when we were all there together in person.’

Mavondo agrees: ‘They’re such incredible women and artists and it was great just hearing about their trajectories and seeing how grounded they are. And both being mothers – to me, that was such an affirming thing to see that it’s possible, and just unpacking that, in a deep way, in a practical way: how do they do it. It wasn’t just abstract information that they offered; it was about the tangibles, about giving tips and advice on how to do it. I’m still thinking about that.’

It’s in addressing such relational aspects of the business, as opposed to the art, that the Women in Theatre program is so vital. As Benett acknowledges, even women at the top of their game deal with imposter syndrome. ‘There’s a lot of imposter syndrome,’ she says, ‘and programs like Women in Theatre are trying get it out of us, so to hear such strength from a practicing artist with families, with other things going on, was very confidence building.’

 

‘It’s one of the first times in my life being in a space where there’s enough breath to actually think about thought, and then express it. It’s so relaxed and comfortable ... there’s a lot of respect, there’s a lot of care, there’s a lot of deep listening happening. And that’s rare.’ – Tariro Mavondo

 

Continuing theatrical work when you can’t put on shows isn’t easy, but Mavondo and Benett remain grateful they are that the program has been able to continue. As restrictions lift further and life returns to some form of normal, they are looking forward to sessions later in the year that will hopefully be able to run in person. And they encourage other women to consider applying for the program next year. ‘Just being able to meet up with groups of women, other creatives, from disciplines that are different to yours, and to be able to share experiences and find what’s common and what's not, that has been really valuable,’ says Benett.

Mavondo also highlights the inclusivity of the program in terms of age, personality and more. ‘The age spread is a strength of the program too. You have people who really early career and others who are mid-career or later career, and we’ve learned so much from each. There’s a lot of experience in that group. And what I love about this particular Women in Theatre group is that actually we’re not all extroverts. It’s one of the first times in my life being in a space where there’s enough breath to actually think about thought, and then express it. It’s so relaxed and comfortable. I think there’s a lot of respect, there’s a lot of care, there’s a lot of deep listening happening. And that’s rare.’

MTC’s Women in Theatre Program is entirely funded by the generosity of our donors. It is only thanks to their advocacy that we can provide this innovative and enriching professional development opportunity to female artists and future industry leaders, supporting them in pursuing practical career pathways and overcome the challenges unique to women in the industry. Find out more about how you can become part of our Women in Theatre Giving Circle.

Published on 22 June 2020

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