Behind the curtain: Women in the U’s Theatre Department discuss underrepresentation


After months of tireless work and endless rehearsals, the stage is finally set. A clamoring audience shuffles into their seats and anxiously waits for the lavish curtains to reveal a new world. Behind the curtains, a cast and crew swiftly apply finishing touches to the opening scene. The lights dim and so does the audiences’ chatter. For a moment, the theater is still until music awakes the stage. The performance begins. Everyone holds their breath.

In theater production, various elements take part in creating the world viewed on stage. Women are among the many who assist in the triumph of a production. From the University of Utah Theatre Department, Sarah Shippobotham, Brenda L. Van der Wiel and Savannah Hayes provide insight on how a successful performance is achieved and the importance of women in theater.

Sarah Shippobotham is an actor-training professor at the U. She is associated with the Pioneer Theatre Company at the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre and is a voice and dialect coach. She has also trained as an actor at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama located in Cardiff, Wales. In an email exchange after a Zoom interview, Shippobotham revealed why women’s representation is significant in theater. She said, “What we are dealing with right now is an underrepresentation of women in theatre while we also deal with the historical underrepresentation of others.”

Sarah Shippobotham has worked as a voice and dialect coach on productions such as “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” Photo by Melinda Pfundstein.

She added, “Women make up a huge part of society, so it is important that their stories are told – just as it is important that IBPOC (Indigenous, Black, People of Colour) stories are told too.”

Shippobotham has worked on projects with the playwright Jaclyn Backhaus, such as, “Men on Boats,” to aid in more representation. “Men on Boats” focuses on the discovery of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River with all the male characters portrayed by female and nonbinary actors.

Through a Zoom interview, she explained how actor training contributes to a successful theater production. “For me, when people are trained to be actors, they’re trained that acting is an actual skill.” Shippobotham said the voice and body of an actor convey a story that the audience can witness because theater is about telling a story. Without actor training as a core part in theater production, she said a play may not be as impactful for an audience.

In addition to actor training, costume design holds immense importance to the success of a theater production in creating a world in which a story is told. Brenda L. Van der Wiel is an associate professor and the head of the Performing Arts Design Program at the U. She designs for the theater department frequently and designs every year for the Pioneer Theatre Company. Van der Wiel has also designed for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Some of her own favorite work has been presented at the festival.

Brenda L. Van der Wiel said she admires the work of Robert Cuzuolla, who is a costume designer for ballet and opera. Photo courtesy of Van der Wiel. 

In a Zoom interview, Van der Wiel explained why costume design is an impactful part of theater and how a show is interpreted through costume design. “Every little detail is something that can aid in storytelling, even if it … isn’t something the audience can see, it might be something the actor can internalize [and help] them inhabit the character fully,” she said. Van der Wiel said “even something as simple as a wedding ring” is a decision one must make through the eyes of a character. Costume design in theater assists the audience in identifying a character’s personality. “Theater is all about collaboration,” Van der Wiel said. Constant collaboration is key to executing a director’s vision. In a production, she said, “I think it is amazing when all the elements come together.”

When all the departments come together in collaboration, stage management is an influential part that guides the operations of a theatrical performance. Savannah Hayes is a first-year student at the U. In addition to her studies, she is learning about stage management. Hayes managed theater productions throughout her junior and senior years of high school. She also decided to be a part of a show choir crew and was later offered the position as an assistant stage manager.

Savannah Hayes said her family introduced her to theater. She has been fond of the art form ever since. Photo courtesy of Savannah Hayes. 

Hayes suggested that stage management plays a crucial role in theater. “There just wouldn’t be as much communication,” she said in a Zoom interview. “We help rehearsals and then we run the show too [such as] telling when the lights to go [on].”

To her, stage managers are the “big communicators” who run the production meetings, make sure everyone pitches in their thoughts, and are “everyone’s friend.” Hayes said if anyone needs a Band-Aid or even a pencil, a stage manager would provide what is needed.

In a follow-up email interview, Hayes explained why women’s representation is important in theater. “We can kind of see things a little bit differently than men so we can suggest things they might not think of,” she said. “We can also help inspire young children”

The final scene concludes and the curtains close while a roaring audience applauds the collaborative efforts of the cast and crew. Everyone rejoices in the culmination of the show. For a successful theater production, a variety of people and departments work together to fulfill a director’s vision. Representation of IBPOC and women are historically underrepresented in theater. Savannah Hayes said, “We’re equally as big of a part in theatre as men no matter the area.”