Quote: Diversity of representation in storytelling of all kinds breaks down stereotype, and leads to greater understanding.

Valerie Weak

Actor, Theater Educator, Founder of the Counting Actors Project and Co-Host of Works by Women SF.

The Counting Actors Project is a labor of love, founded in 2011 by Valerie Weak to report on the gender parity efforts of Bay Area theater productions. The 100% volunteer run project literally counts the gender of writers and directors, total number of actors, gender of actors, and more for locally produced shows.

Q: The Counting Actors project collects data and shares a breakdown by gender of playwrights, directors and actors working in the SF Bay Area. Tell me more about how this action has led to more representation of women in theater and what other gender parity efforts you’re involved in?

A: Before I started collecting this data and sharing the numbers, there was no one doing this for our field in the Bay Area. By sharing the monthly post, and the aggregate data in a longer report, I’ve validated the inequality that many felt but couldn’t confirm. By continuing to present the numbers without assigning praise or blame, I’ve created a tool that others can use to talk about hiring, casting and programming choices. In turn, this has contributed to growing awareness in the region, and several theaters making commitments to things like choosing 50/50 male and female playwrights or directors, or to casting men and women in equal numbers.

As the co-host of Works by Women SF, I organize outings to see and support local theater. Roughly once a month, we go to the theater as a group! We pick a show that is women-led: a female playwright, female director, majority female cast, majority female design team, and a female-driven story. Anyone can come with us by joining our MeetUp group Works by Women, San Francisco, or just see where we’ve gone and what we’re up to next.

In theater, women have fewer jobs as playwrights, directors and actors and fewer high-paying jobs. In fact, during my first four years of the Counting Actors Project, I found that only 27% of playwrights in the Bay Area were female.

Q: What motivated you to start the Counting Actors Project and what do you hope your gender parity advocacy work achieves?

A: I’ve been an actor since childhood. It is my passion and my life’s work to tell stories, but as I moved through my career I noticed an inequity. It frustrated me that I began being turned down for work soon after joining the stage actors’ union. I didn’t suddenly become un-talented, yet I wasn’t getting work – why? I knew it had something to do with the costs of hiring a union actor, but there were other union actors working more regularly than I was, many of them men.

I needed to see if the feeling I had about bias towards women was supported by the actual numbers, so I started doing the Counting Actors Project in 2011, which counts how many women versus men are participating in theater productions in the Bay Area.

Around that time, my friend and colleague, Christine Young, was also working on gender parity related projects in theater, and we decided to join forces to fold our individual projects into WWSF. We both hope this work helps elevate exposure for women in the performing arts and brings to the forefront the diverse female voices and stories we need to hear.

Q: How can your work change the world?

A: This is where equal representation is so important! Diversity of representation in stories, media, and theater breaks down stereotype and leads to greater understanding.

For example, seeing a play by local playwright, Lauren Gunderson, about a female mathematician, astronomer or scientist shows us all that the quest for knowledge is a shared value for women and men. Theater is where we can all live in one another’s skin and learn about our shared humanity, but only when all voices are given equal value.

I hope to always work as an actor and a teaching artist, speaking up for change in my community, and supporting others who are also working towards diversity and representation.