When I moved to the Bay Area in 1978, I telephoned the San Francisco Opera Scenic Shop to inquire about work. A man answered the phone. I introduced myself to him and said that I had worked as a freelance scenic carpenter on college campuses for five years and I wondered if there was any work to be had for a scenic carpenter at the Opera Shop. He laughed. “What’s so funny?” I asked. He replied, “I never thought a woman would have the balls to call this shop looking for work.” That was the beginning of my relationship with the SF Opera, which eventually would span six opera seasons.
I have not thought about my years working in theater for some time. At a recent book group discussion about gender, I related the story of how I came to be the first woman to work on permit as a scenic carpenter in the only unionized shop in Northern California. The union I refer to is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). A friend who heard my story at the book group that night asked me if I would write it up, so here it is.
During my college years, I supported myself working part-time at on-campus theaters. I was what was then called a theater technician. I constructed and painted stage scenery, hung and ran lighting instruments, ran sound boards, built props, worked as a stagehand and roadie, and moved large objects. I loved being macho. I earned a bachelor’s degree in drama while swinging a hammer.
In the Bay Area in 1978, I landed a job as the master carpenter for the Berkeley Repertory Theater. I worked at the Rep for one year and then I did a four-month stint as a welder at the Denver Center Theater Company, which was preparing for its inaugural season (in 1979). Once the DCTC opened, I moved back to the Bay Area, where I freelanced as a theater technician. Mostly I worked as a scenic carpenter at a number of small theaters in the Bay Area. I got quite a bit of work and was able to support myself.
Although the Opera Shop did not approve of women scenic carpenters, it had no problem with women scenic artists. The carpenters built the scenery and the artists painted (and sculpted) it. The lead scenic artist in IATSE at the Opera Shop was a man, but almost all the scenic artists working under him were women. So it was acceptable for me to work as a scenic artist, and I did so during the active season each year, which lasted from about January through May. When I was laid off from the SF Opera, I called around to the many non-union little theaters in the Bay Area and always found work as a scenic carpenter or stagehand.
During that time, I never gave up on my dream to work as a scenic carpenter in the IATSE (to which I belonged as a scenic artist); and I regularly sent my resume to the IATSE office in SF. I would follow up with a phone call to ask if it had been received and the good ole boy named Perry who ran the office would inform me that he couldn’t find it. I would wait a few months and send it again. Clearly, Perry was throwing it out, because it was never on file. But I could just tell that he knew who I was – that woman who kept trying to get work as a carpenter.
In 1981, the SF Opera staged a historic production of Aida featuring Luciano Pavarotti and Margaret Price. The production required a huge amount of new scenery that had to be built and painted, as well as enough props to cover the surface of the moon. After a couple of months of work, we scenic artists were informed that we were to be laid off for a few weeks to give the carpenters time to catch up. They needed to construct more scenery for us to texture, paint, and dress. The head of the carpentry shop, Pierre, had pulled in every scenic carpenter he could find, all hands on deck, and still he couldn’t produce the scenery fast enough.
Pierre knew me since I had worked in the shop as an artist for a couple of years at that point. I went into his office, shut the door, and broke it down for him. I told him that I was about to be laid off and that probably within a few days I would be working as a carpenter in one of the little theaters in town. He was short-staffed and desperately needed experienced scenic carpenters. I explained that I could not get work through the union hall, which refused to issue me a permit. I told Pierre that I was pretty sure that Perry threw out my resume whenever I sent it in. I suggested that Pierre hire me to work for him temporarily until the carpentry shop caught up and I was needed again as a scenic artist. He agreed to do it and he said he would call Perry and personally instruct him to issue me a union permit so I could work as a scenic carpenter for Pierre. He told me to go down to the union hall the next morning and my permit would be provided and that I should report to work once I had the permit.
The following day I caved in to the devil because, well, revenge is sweet. I did not wear my carpenter’s clothes to go to the union office. I wore a long, flowing, pink skirt (with a ruffle around the bottom), a blouse, stockings, high-heeled sandals, and a slew of bangle bracelets. I even put on make-up (which usually I never wore). I sashayed into Perry’s office and told him I was the woman Pierre wished to hire. He reluctantly admitted that Pierre had called him and asked him to issue me a permit. “I need to have your resume on file to give you the permit,” Perry said. Perhaps he hoped this would present an obstacle. I sweetly informed him that he ought to have it on file since I had sent it to him every few months for three years. He actually pretended to look in his file cabinet, where, of course, he didn’t find it. He said he must have misplaced it. I produced a fresh copy from my purple velour handbag. Perry then issued me my permit. When I left his office I walked down a hallway to the elevator. About a dozen young men my own age lined that hallway as they waited to see Perry about work permits. These were not good ole boys from the previous generation but my contemporaries, who had overheard my conversation with Perry, and they gave me a round of applause.
After my visit to Perry, I changed into my overalls and reported to Pierre for work. I swung my hammer for a month building scenery before Pierre’s crew “caught up” and I returned to the scenic art department on the other side of the shop. Remember the guy who laughed at me the first time I called the shop in 1978? I knew who he was and he knew who I was and he wound up having to work alongside me during my month as a IATSE union scenic carpenter. As it turned out, I had even more “balls” than he had originally imagined.
That’s the story of how I became the first woman to work on permit through IATSE as a scenic carpenter in the SF Opera Shop. While writing this account, I discovered that the 1981 SF Opera production of Aida is available in its entirety on YouTube. You can access it through this link. Have a peek at the incredible scenery that I had the privilege to build and paint; and a listen to the magnificent voice of Pavarotti (who passed away in 2007 at the age of 71). The stagehands at the SF Opera who worked Aida said that when Pavarotti sang, the floorboards vibrated beneath their feet and his voice vibrated in their chests. Pavarotti was also a fine human being. The stagehands said he would talk to them as equals backstage, joking with them and asking them about their families. He was kind, generous, and humble. I would like to think that it would have pleased him to know that a young woman carpenter had a dream fulfilled working on his Aida.