Center Stage: Tracy Liz Miller on empowering women in theater

"Theater should challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged," Miller said.

The sentiment is a snappy phrase but no easy task. It takes a lot of work to transform the stage into a vehicle for change.

However, the risk of hard work never dissuaded Tracy Liz Miller from pursuing her goals. Her belief in the power of theater to influence the community motivates much of her work in performing arts throughout the Valley, and her ideals are already making a tangible impact in the theater scene.

Theater as a mirror for society

By the time she moved to Arizona in 2013, Miller had considerable experience on the stage.

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She grew up participating in theater in Michigan and graduated with her bachelor's in music theatre performance from Western Michigan University, before going on to get her master's degree in acting from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival/University of Alabama.

Miller then moved to New York and spent 14 years there working as a freelance actor and director. She and her partner decided to move to Arizona in 2013 in order to raise their daughter in an environment more suitable for a family than the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple.

Now Miller is serving her third year on staff at Chandler-Gilbert Community College, her first year as the director of theatre arts. She teaches, directs and advises students as a self-described "jack of all trades."

She said theater is important for students because it's full of opportunity to showcase the nature of its community. 

Of course, that can only be accomplished if it actually depicts the community in question, Miller said, which is why diversity is so important.

"Theater is supposed to be a mirror that we hold up to society," she said. "If that mirror is skewed, if it's not really representing society in terms of gender, ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds, then it's not true — it's a fallacy."

In order for theater to remain a relevant part of our changing culture, Miller said it's going to have to learn to adapt.

"I think audiences are going to require that theater evolves," she said. "Otherwise we'll lose them."

Bridging the gender divide

One of Miller's most recent and largest exploits is The Bridge Initiative, a nonprofit she co-founded with the mission to "identify and empower female artists in the Southwest region, with the aim of gender parity across all theatrical disciplines," according to its website

She founded the Initiative alongside Brenda Foley, a fellow performing artist who shared her frustration in terms of opportunities for women in the Valley.

After discussing their mutual dissatisfaction with the area's widespread gender disparity, they decided to step out and do something about it in fall 2014. 

The idea to form a nonprofit sparked and grew quickly. Miller and Foley developed their concept in time to present it at an Arizona Commission on the Arts initiative called the Arizona Art Tank in 2015. The regional event allowed contestants to pitch "innovative arts-based ventures to a live audience and a panel of experts for a shot at up to $10,000 in seed-funding," according to the art tank website.

Part of The Bridge Initiative's pitch was dedicated to proving that the gender divide is even more prominent than people may think.

Miller said the numbers alone were alarming when they began to analyze the 2013-14 season of local professional theaters.

"The local statistics of gender disparity are pretty latent and pretty startling," she said. "Of the top three budgeted organizations of professional theater, they had not one female director. The season had no female playwrights ... actors that were hired were 70 percent male and 30 percent female."

When Miller and Foley pitched The Bridge Initiative to the art tank, they also discussed ways they could improve the situation as an organization. Their ideas centered around expanding the network of local women in theater by planning meetings, events, discussions and readings of female-produced works.

Their ambitious plan, that not only highlighted gender equality in Arizona theater but created tangible solutions, struck a chord with the audience and judges. The initiative took third place in the art tank and was awarded $6,000 to kickstart its campaign.

Miller and Foley raised another $4,501 through an Indiegogo campaign and finally had the financial backing to turn their pitch into reality.

Foley said the organization's goal is to tell the stories that otherwise might go unwritten.

"We're looking to create professional opportunities in the Valley for both men and women, including women of color," she said. "A lot of plays are written by men, but we need women to tell the female story."

Since its inception, the two co-founders added Lizz Reeves Fidler to the organization's roster as executive director of administration. The three of them have worked together to make the voices of women heard in the community.

One of its biggest events thus far was a large symposium of classes and readings held in June 2015 to highlight the work of local and national female artists.

The main event at the symposium was the world premiere production of the winning script in their first keystone contest. Miller and Foley judged over 100 entries and selected Kat Ramsburg's work, "Anatomy of a Hug," as the 2015 winner, crowning her as their first Playwright of the Year.

Local artist Amanda Noel Trombley was invited to direct the first production as the symposium's first Director of the Year honoree. She said it was a great experience because of how the organization's core mission aligns closely with her own values.

"The Bridge Initiative is so unique," Trombley said. "I love what (it's) doing, not just with casting but with getting female voices heard for playwrights. We need more, and we need for them to be encouraged and heard."

The Bridge Initiative's work was also important in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts' decision to produce the 2015-16 Main Stage season with more female playwrights and lead roles, according to the school's press release.

To have influenced that decision meant a lot to the staff working at The Bridge Initiative.

"That was really rewarding for us," Miller said. "ASU is producing the next generation of designers and directors, who will perhaps remain the Valley. If they're introduced with the idea that there should be gender parity, then they will hopefully roll that into their professional lives, which is exciting."

New year, new season

Although much of the organization's future is still up in the air, its founders plan to continue their initial goal of changing society's perception of leaders in the theater.

"When you think 'leader,' you automatically think 'male,'" Miller said. "Often 'white male.' No one's doing it maliciously, but I think it's a systematic pattern that needs to be addressed. We need to continue to bring it to the forefront. And we have seen change since our inception. We have seen some progress in who's being hired and what plays are being produced locally."

The Bridge Initiative continues to hold monthly meetings as well as bi-monthly free play readings. One of their long-term goals is to produce a directory of female artists in Arizona, to counter the argument that theaters would hire more female directors if they knew where to find them. 

Miller has a very personal interest in female empowerment. She said much of the inspiration behind her work comes from having a four-year-old daughter.

"In my small corner of the world, I want to help influence it so that when she is an adult, she has more opportunities," she said.

Related links:

ASU MainStage drops the boys to the curb, adding seven women playwrights for the 2015-2016 theater season

'Sex with Strangers' is more than shock value as ASU alumni explore technology and relationships

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