Groundbreaking Weekend of Women+ allows space to learn and heal

“I am continuously amazed how often I have to stop myself and remember that it wasn’t until my late 30s that I got to experience rooms like this,” said Nicola Rossini, as she addressed a theater full of students, faculty and staff during the recent Weekend of Women+ at UNCSA.

Presented by the School of Design & Production (D&P) with support from Interim Provost Karin Peterson and the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts, the Weekend of Women+ event was the first of its kind at UNCSA. 

The two-day event featured guest artists representing every D&P discipline. Together, they offered varying levels of experience—ranging from professionals who are still early in their career to industry veterans—from what has traditionally been a male-dominated field.

As the founder of Harriet B’s Daughters, a group for women+ in themed entertainment, Nicola Rossini is often at the center of conversations surrounding diversity and inclusivity in the themed entertainment industry: “So often in a marginalized community we tend to turn on each other for power because we’re afraid that there’s only room for one of us. What I love about this weekend is that it very quickly breaks down that narrative.”

Weekend of women panel discussion

Nicola Rossini (fourth from left), executive producer and founder of Harriet B's Daughters, speaks during the panel discussion at the Weekend of Women+. / Photo: Raunak Kapoor

A call to conversation

Chair of the faculty planning committee Molly McCarter, a member of the stage management department, said that the inspiration for creating this event came from several sources, including Stacey Abrams’ book “Lead from the Outside,” which discusses how minority groups struggle to break into majority dominated fields. The current student body in D&P is 65% female, and they'll soon graduate and go work in what are still heavily male-dominated fields. McCarter and the committee knew that now was the right time to host an event like this. 

Stage properties faculty and committee member Kris Julio shared how inspiring it was to collaborate on this event. “The committee curated the panel with the best examples of strong women+ in the industry,” said Julio. “This event went beyond the topics that we can cover in the classroom and connected our students to a network and a way of thinking that they haven’t previously been exposed to.”

This event went beyond the topics that we can cover in the classroom and connected our students to a network and a way of thinking that they haven’t previously been exposed to.

Kris Julio, alumnus and Stage Properties faculty

The status quo is not a strategy

“The status quo is not a strategy, it is not how we move into the future,” said Dean of Design & Production Michael Kelley before a panel event, which kicked off the weekend’s activities.

The panel included all of the weekend’s guest speakers, and was moderated by Iris Cole, co-founder and CEO of Do Good Artist. Cole led the panel in discussions, with topics ranging from mentorship and allyship to authenticity in the workplace to how to push for a more inclusive work environment.

Guest speakers shared stories of discrimination from throughout their careers, based on gender and other intersecting identities (age, race, etc.), and how they were able to address or overcome issues. Cole stressed the importance of emotional intelligence and how taking a step back to process a situation before reacting can be extremely valuable.

When asked to share advice that they wished they were given earlier in their careers, responses included themes of work life balance, confidence and determination. “Know that you are a person of value and significance.” shared set designer Kristin Robinson, “Whatever your hidden desires are, they are of value and you should go after them with hunger and passion.” Emmy-nominated makeup artist and CEO of Cosmetic Face Design Herita Jones added, “make sure you love what you do because the hours are long.”

Weekend of Women+ livestream

Watch the Weekend of Women+ panel, which was livestreamed to Facebook.

Third-year undergraduate stage properties student Adia Matousek felt personally impacted after the panel, “it was really reaffirming to hear that there are other people in the industry that are feeling the same things that we’re feeling.”

Designed to create positive and productive conversation spaces, small discussion groups allowed students to speak at length with guest artists, taking a deep-dive into topics that will be important to them throughout their careers, no matter their path. Topics included “Managing Burnout,” “Negotiation and Career Trajectory,” “Work Life Jenga”: Balance & Care-taking as a Theatre Artist,” “The Intersection of Identity,” “Managing Challenging Work Environments” and “Positive Allyship.” 

Empowerment through art

On Saturday, the guest speakers, students, faculty and staff gathered in the D&P shop spaces to create collaborative art projects exploring the past, present and future of women+. “While the panels, class visits and group discussions were all incredibly impactful,” said McCarter, “the Art & Making workshop was the most important aspect of the weekend.”

Taking inspiration from quilts, which historically are used for storytelling and other large-scale collaborative projects, participants were given strips of cloth to capture personal responses to the prompt through mediums such as paint and stitching. Once completed, the strips of cloth were woven together and stretched on wooden frames to display the interconnectedness of everyone’s stories and experiences.

Quinn Mishra and Jamie Call-Blankinship share ideas for the "Past" project. / Photo: Raunak Kapoor Jennings Leonard and Kate Baxter attach strips of cloth to a wooden frame. / Photo: Raunak KapoorAlex Jarus attaches strips of cloth to a wooden frame. / Photo: Raunak KapoorKaren Walcott, Shannon Hacker and Camryn Banks work on their strips of cloth for the "Future" project. / Photo: Raunak KapoorKris Julio and Adia Matousek work on weaving strips of cloth together. / Photo: Raunak KapoorDean Michael Kelley addresses attendees at the Reception & Exhibition. / Photo: Raunak KapoorDesign & Production students view the "Future" project. / Photo: Raunak KapoorSpeakers Christina Benvegnu and Karen Walcott view the "Present" art project. / Photo: Raunak Kapoor

Julio felt that the collaborative group art projects gave the students and guests time to talk and engage one-on-one through the process of creating. This type of task resonates especially well with UNCSA students. An alumnus of the graduate stage properties program, Julio not only credits the success of the event to the supportive leadership from Kelley, Peterson and Interim Chancellor Brian Cole, but also to the energy and passion from current students.

“I feel like this student body has some of the most empowered and bravest students I’ve ever met, because they are willing to take action and really listen to how effective change happens, said Julio. That’s probably the biggest difference from when I was a student 10 years ago.”

The guests who traveled from across the United States to work with students during Weekend of Women+ felt that their time together was important and impactful. Stage manager Christina Benvegnu said that she wished she had the opportunity to go to an event like Weekend of Women+ during her time as a student. “There’s such compassion and intimacy with women supporting and sharing their experiences. I’m in awe of all of my colleagues that have been so brave this weekend.”

As for future events, McCarter believes there is still plenty of work to be done. “I would love if this were an annual event, if it were a model that could be used to lift up other marginalized identities in the field of design and production,” McCarter shared. “There is so much ground to cover in helping all of our students see themselves in the field.”

by Melissa Upton

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February 10, 2020