GUEST BLOG: Putting Strong Women on the Stage

Writer: Helen Banner of Dutch Kills Theater Company

Helen Banner

The people I make theatre with are a huge part of my life. I can’t talk about my work without thinking about them. Every performance represents hundreds of hours of collaboration, and I’m lucky to be part of a fluctuating system of women directors, designers, actors, and producers connected through off-Broadway residencies, labs and festivals. We make projects happen and give each other much-needed support in a theatre system that’s been under unprecedented pandemic stress. We watch each other’s work, celebrating its value even when it hasn’t hit home with an audience or the critics.

Sometimes, we are the critics; challenging each other to do better, to change processes that have gone awry, or develop different work to live up to our own goals. These relationships have pushed me forward, so it’s puzzling to me that I don’t see similar examples on the stage even in plays that focus on women in work environments.

We need to widen our representations of ‘strong female characters’ beyond the simple narrative of a woman at the bottom punching upwards, particularly in light of news stories from multiple industries about the way failure can sneak up on women in senior roles. Women, and particularly women of colour, are finally getting the top positions they deserve, but without the infrastructure and support they need to succeed, so that they burn out or fail within organisations that remain male-centric and are institutionally weaker as a result.

I want to explore how women can use their power under those pressures, and how it’s possible for them to maintain solidarity with other women, rather than scrambling over them in a struggle to reach the top. If senior women can’t support each other or more junior women, not only does something become distorted in their own experience of work, but the whole system loses out on their, talent and the effects ripple subtly upwards and downwards.

Intelligence, the play we are taking to Edinburgh, is about three women in the US diplomatic service. Two of them are young Foreign Service Officers, navigating the turbulence in the wake of President Trump’s gutting of the State Department, while angling for a good first foreign posting. They’re assigned to work with Sarah MacIntyre, an older, higher status special envoy, who has been leading a back-channel negotiation with a splinter group leader, and in the process they all have to choose how they are allied to each other.

Doing research, I spoke to an amazing array of women working as conflict resolution specialists and negotiators, and learned that we’re facing a crucial period in American diplomacy. In the Obama years, there was fear that too much was being outsourced to special envoys, and that a “militarisation” of diplomacy was underway.

After 2016, the problems grew more acute as the State Department was stripped of personnel and resources. The questions changed. From asking “what is problematic about this institution?”, to “how we can save this institution and preserve what’s good in American diplomacy?”. What comes across talking to women diplomats who’ve been closely involved in these events is their continuing conviction in the role of diplomacy, and their energy and anger, even as they’ve faced deep personal obstacles in their own careers.

This threw up questions about how hope was getting balanced against duty and ambition. What happens when you find yourself in a coveted and potentially powerful position, but as an individual you disagree with a policy? And how do you challenge the systemic problems you encounter in institutions that have grown out of an unequal past?

In the play, racism is clearly affecting the career track of one of the Foreign Service Officers, but there’s no way for her to push back against it inside the building without further jeopardising her career prospects.  How much the other women in the room notice and speak up is crucial to her working to her full potential. Friendship between the two younger women has sustained them through the previous administration and helped them navigate whistleblowing and stress, but their solidarity breaks down in this high stakes environment, as one of them looks to Sarah MacIntyre to save them.

The interplay of gender, power, and seniority is a live topic. When mentorship doesn’t work out, it’s always painful. But I notice a generational divide between older and younger women that makes things even more complicated. I hear stories of women managers who want to lend their experience and support to younger women, but don’t understand how their own behaviour now reads differently as standards have evolved around gender, race and sexuality. What was celebrated as groundbreaking, stereotypically “strong” female behaviour in male environments now seems questionable – playing into existing power structures, rather than changing them. To explore that, we have to write about these women in senior positions encountering younger women who won’t accept them as trailblazers and role models, and ask ourselves what remains of value in the pattern of their ascent.

The characters in Intelligence are in the room to role-play the start of a potential peace process. They come into the room believing that they can create an alternative to the status quo, and their real challenge is to hold onto that hope even as events on the ground worsen. They’re not heroic, just trying to make the work they do count, and to find their places in a deeply troubled country that – they come to realise – may have no right to try to reshape the rest of the world.

These are women confronting a new, post-Trump and post-pandemic world that needs a different realism. Problems aren’t solved by toughening up their exteriors, no individual has all the answers, and any failure of solidarity can be a fateful weakness. But what each woman brings though is their full intelligence and watching three women take on the world is an electrifying experience. I can’t wait to see our amazing cast perform in Edinburgh and see how the audience feel about the decisions made on stage.

Intelligence will play at The Edinburgh Fringe at Assembly Roxy : 3 – 29 Aug 2022

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