A Woman of Substance

Posted by Ms. Susan Medak, Nov 20, 2018 0 comments

When I first read Katharine Graham’s autobiography, which later became the basis for The Post, I don’t remember experiencing any moments of recognition. Awe, yes. Admiration, absolutely. That a woman with so little self-confidence had found the capacity to topple a president by discovering some previously hidden strength—now that was an inspiring story. But it wasn’t until I watched Meryl Streep navigate Katharine Graham’s route from society maven to newspaper publisher with a backbone of steel that something struck me, and I recognized that her trajectory and my own career development bore some commonality. I was certainly not a pioneer of the generation of theater managers that included Nina Vance, Iris Siff, and Zelda Fichandler, or even that second wave that included Sara O’Connor and Alison Harris, Jessica Andrews and Mary Bill.
Nonetheless, as an early career manager when few women were in the field, it was hard to have my voice be heard, to be able to command a room so that my thoughts could be presented, or to be given any kind of portfolio during all those years I served as the obligatory “secretary” within LORT (the League of Resident Theatres), in a seat that was historically held by a woman. I can remember asking for but not being given an assignment, so eventually I began to simply expand my responsibility by fiat, creating an orientation program for new managers that made me the first point of contact for the next generation of colleagues. Over time, still unable to carve out a place for myself as a person of substance, I created a role for myself as the social queen of LORT, coordinating dinners, becoming the Miss Congeniality of the still-small nonprofit American theater movement. I was fun to be with, a great party animal, and I threw a really good party. It wasn’t the way I would have preferred to build my career, but at the time it was a viable way.

But during one of the LORT transitions, when it was time to select new leadership and I threw my hat into the ring, I was told that it wasn’t clear that I had the gravitas to actually take on leadership. After all, my colleagues had never seen me running my home company. For years they had only seen me as the party animal. The persona I’d created to get a foothold was the very persona, I began to feel, that was now holding me back. I spent the next few years rebuilding my public face and unequivocally owning my ambition before the leadership was offered to me. I’ve now enjoyed years of the confidence and assurance of being perceived as a leader in the field. But watching The Post, I was reminded, with so much discomfort, that the path of my generation relied so heavily on being that charming, good-natured party girl before I could elbow enough room for myself to be the woman of substance that I wanted to be. 

So now, after many years, I’m afraid I am no longer a party “girl.” I’m definitely a lot less charming but I enjoy the great luxury of being able to say or do pretty much whatever I want, as long as it’s legal. And I’ll be honest, I love being at this point in my life. I don’t apologize for my self-assuredness. I feel as though I’ve earned it. 

Caliaf St. Aubyn (Dennis Edwards) in the world premiere of “Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

And I’ve spent most of the years since I gained a foothold by trying to pull up talented men and women (but mostly women, I admit) to join me here. It pains me when I see young women who resist being their own advocates. It frustrates me when I see women who can’t or won’t see their capacity to have and wield authority. I try to coddle, cajole, and drag them into a place where they are willing to take the personal risks necessary to be their own best selves.

And I do this not because I think women are intrinsically better than men, or more empathetic, or better collaborators. I actually don’t feel that way. I just do it because I think everyone has an obligation to themselves (and to the betterment of our world ) to achieve their full potential. 

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