building communities at brown
When I joined my high school’s tech crew freshman year, I was one of the first girls accepted onto the crew in five years—one of the first girls to pick up those drills, gain expertise with a circular saw, and run construction projects. In the years that followed, more girls joined, building impressive set pieces and rising through the ranks to eventually lead the crew. Now, as I am two years out of high school, I can look back like some kind of proud parent to see that nearly two-thirds of the crew are girls.
When I came to Brown, I expected to find a variation of the environment I encountered in high school: a field dominated by men, in which I would have to prove myself for years. Instead, I discovered a large theatre company with a tiny tech community run almost entirely by a single woman powerhouse tech director (TD). I was surprised but delighted; there was a place for me where I wouldn’t have to fight to assert myself. I found a space I was enthusiastic about joining and, in a stunning turn of events, was able to do so uncontestedly.
As delighted as I am to not have struggled through gaggles of men or people in general to tech-direct various shows, the entire situation seemed suspicious to me. Building is such a popular interest, especially for men, so where was everybody? One answer I quickly found was the Brown Design Workshop (BDW). All engineering students at Brown must be trained at the BDW as part of ENGN 0030, so many people become familiar with that space. The BDW not only provides a resource for students doing classwork but also houses the Brown Building Society, the Rube Goldberg Society, Brown Formula Racing, RISD projects, and many independent projects. From my estimation, hundreds of students build at the BDW each semester, and yet the technical theatre community is something verging on miniscule.
At first, I viewed this distribution of builders with contempt. With 35 BDS monitors and hundreds of students working in the space, why have so few joined the theatre building community? Upon speaking with members of the BDW and other tech directors on campus, however, I’m no longer concerned by this divide. As TD Rebecca Harless ’20 puts it, “I think it’s more of an experience thing when it comes to TD-ing as a niche activity—if you got into it and had a positive experience in high school, you’re more likely to TD in college.” Similarly, many aspiring engineers are introduced to the BDW through their classes, and whether or not they stick with that track academically, they stick with the space because of its familiarity. There is certainly something to be said about the gendered divide between engineering and theatre, but I cannot argue with sticking to what you are comfortable with when I myself have not reached too far beyond my high school interests.
Since my experience is only my own and I cannot speak for every woman who has ever constructed anything, I wanted to learn more about what it’s like to be a woman who builds at Brown University. In talking to women in various areas of building, I have found two common links. One, there is a distinct power in being a woman who builds, no matter the environment; two, Brown University must be doing something right because we all feel like this is a place for us.
Despite worthwhile modern progress, building is still a male-dominated field. Emily Sauter, one of the BDW’s managers, pointed out that even though there has been progress in getting women into STEM fields, she is still one of the only women in her advanced engineering classes. The head of technical theatre for the Brown Theatre Department and all of the professional adults who work at the BDW are men. Despite this, or perhaps even because of it, the new generation of women—women in engineering classes, women taking over the set construction world on campus—has conviction and is unafraid to challenge societal conventions and expectations.
Due to the systems in place that have propelled men to the forefront of these communities, different expectations are set for women from the get-go, both by other people and by ourselves. I never imagined myself as a builder; I even told my eighth-grade technology teacher I would “never have any use for this.” Later, I was only drawn to my high school’s tech crew because I had developed friendships with all of the guys on the crew who had been developing their skills for years. Emily had a similar experience when beginning to build at Brown. Upon beginning to work at the BDW, she realized she didn’t know as much as those who had grown up working on projects with their fathers. Izzy Bauman ’19, a tech director and engineer, wrote to me, “Often when a man is present, I find myself default to the assumption that he is inherently better at building than I am, which is often untrue, and therefore can become unsafe. To combat this, I have to stick to my gut and embody a degree of confidence that I do not normally have.” There is an initial hurdle that must be overcome in order for a woman to enter the world of construction—building is not expected of us, so we need to make it our own.
Because women are believed to have started at a point of disadvantage, building comes with a sense of defying expectations. Izzy recalls, “Recently, I was in a mechanical engineering laboratory, and the instructor was audibly surprised that I, the only woman in the group, was the only person to raise her hand when he asked who had used a jigsaw before. That never feels great, but I get it a lot, so it doesn’t phase me much anymore.” This act of surprising other people with your competency, though it can sometimes feel uncomfortable or degrading, can also feel powerful. There is power in being a woman teaching a man how to use a power drill. There is power in being a woman in charge of a space. There is power in doing something my way, simply because I have the knowledge and skills.
Despite the roadblocks and expectations, something about this particular campus seems to make achieving equality in building feasible. Amanda Morel ’19, member of the Brown Building Society, says, “At BBS, and at Brown more generally, I do not really feel any marginalization or exclusion based upon my gender. I find myself rarely thinking about my gender in association with construction.” This does not minimize the struggle but rather points out something remarkable about the culture of Brown University. Nearly half of the 35 monitors at the BDW are women. All of the current tech directors for student theatre on campus are women. The official technical theatre department and Brown Building Society both have many women workers. While I have not taken an in-depth look at every university or organization in America, I know that Brown University is doing something right in comparison to the outside world. This transformation has not been immediate; the Brown Design Workshop was created by men, and almost all of the adults in charge in the various shops across campus are men. The change can only be attributed to a growing new generation of women. There are 15 women monitors at the BDW paving the way for future women engineers. Members of the BDW mentor students from the Lincoln School, an all-girls high school in Providence, once a week to introduce them to engineering early. And when I got to campus and saw Stacie Farrow ’18 building every set for student theatre, I knew that could be me.
The next generation of women is here, and we do not care that men still hold the highest positions of power in construction. We do not care that the Tony Award for set design is male-dominated. We do not care that the word “engineer” is still male-associated. Here at Brown, powerful women are doing what we love, simply because we can.