Powerful Women of Off-Broadway
Seven prominent women writers, directors, and producers share their visions and thoughts on how Off-Broadway can better support their collective efforts.
In the past few years, the number of Off- and Off-Off Broadway productions directed, produced and written by women has flourished in a once male-dominated world. The seeds first sown in the late 1950s by inspired young women intent on telling stories has, 40 years later, exploded into a proliferation of women running companies where women can raise their voices, express their unique experiences, and change the face of American theater.
The first in a series of articles on women in theater, TheaterMania recently rounded up seven prominent women writers, directors and producers and asked them to share their thoughts on women artists, on what motivates their work, and on how Off-Broadway can better support their collective efforts, as well as to explain their vision for the future of American theater.
Our roundtable includes:
Margot Harley (MH), producing director, The Acting Company, America's leading classical touring repertory company
Julia Miles (JM), (pictured below right) founder and artistic director, Women's Project and Productions
Susann Brinkley (SB)., (pictured top left) co-producer of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Chesapeake
Ludovica Villar-Hauser (LVH), (pictured middle left) owner/artistic director of The Greenwich Street Theatre,
and director/producer of The Countess
Linda Ames Key (LK), artistic director, Six Figures Theater Company and Director of Flyer
Lisa Stephenson (LS), playwright of Bedside Manners, produced by Theatre Rising Ltd
How do you choose the plays you work on?
SB I look for two elements in a piece: First, I look for a piece that will last and become a part of the body of American theater, and second, I look for a piece that is transcendent, that illuminates the human spirit. This is what resonates inside me and guides me in choosing a play.
JM My tastes are quirky and therefore every play I choose has an off-beat quality to it. Language is very important; I want a play that has a heightened sense of language, one that supports and moves the play. Also, it must be a piece that works only for the stage and not another media.
AK I look for an experimental quality in a piece, one with raw energy and freshness that gives it a star quality. I want a piece that is thought-provoking and makes the audience become an active participant. This is what inspires and makes the piece transcend.
LVH I'm drawn to plays with a classical structure and great atmosphere...that speaks with us on a human level about who we are. Atmosphere is created by what the people are saying, not saying and can't say. I work organically, and with the playwright and the actors to explore the world we are creating, and from this experience comes the music. Every play has a musical score that is at the start an undercurrent to discover, and if we are successful, the rhythm of the play becomes evident--and there you find the voice or the score of the piece. For me, the rhythm of the play is its structure. And, ultimately, I pick what I fall in love with.
LK Our Company's mission statement is very exact in that we are dedicated to producing pieces created by women for women. Every play must have women make up at least half of the characters.
MH I produce classical plays, so the language used in a play is the most important element for me. I'm interested in plays that speak of the human condition, have a larger scope and universal theme.
When you first came to New York, what were the opportunities available to women as directors or playwrights or producers?
JM I came here in the '50s as an actress, and at that time there were no women directors or producers. Because I had two small babies and no time to make rounds of 'go-sees,' I started a theater company in Brooklyn Heights. It was then that I began to direct and produce. After my third child was born, I went to work at the American Place Theater and eventually became an assistant director. We started the Woman's Project because there were no plays by women.
LS I came to New York and got my first job at the Vivian Beaumont Theater as a production assistant, and for the next five years worked in the production end as everything from production assistant to dresser, and eventually as a stage manager. I had no clue as to if there even were women directors or producers, even though my interest and love was in the production side of theater. To that end, if you can do the job you can get it--I'm sure some of my bosses never even noticed my gender.
AK I grew up in New York and attended the theater from the time I was a small child. When I saw Cuba and the Teddy Bear, something inside me went off; I knew I just had to do this! In school, I was fortunate enough to have Devon Allen as a mentor, and she taught me to be twice as smart and strong as any man. As a young producer, you see gender bias all the time--but my mentor taught me to have a backbone and how to watch my back too, which is important for a woman to gain a presence in this business. Still, when I go to a meeting most men assume I am an actress and not a producer...so some things never change, even after all these years.
LVH I come from an odd place, being an outsider from London. Everything I say is how it was about 15 years ago, so bear with me. I came here after I had produced Long Day's Journey into Night in the West End and had the dream of coming to New York because I believed--and still do believe--that the Americans know best how to produce, and I wanted to learn from them. I wanted to produce and direct modern classics of Ibsen, Strindberg and O'Neill, but then I realized if we don't nurture new playwrights, there will be no new theater in the next 10 years. I had this vision of combining the brilliance of English technical skills with the excellence of raw emotional American acting, creating a new kind of theater that would ensure a consistent, high-quality theater, night after night. After my arrival, I was in for a rude awakening. First off, if anyone tells you we speak the same language they're kidding--we communicate on entirely different planes. Also, in London it takes you years, and I mean years, to get inside the group, but once you're in, you're in. Here in New York you can meet people and get in rather quickly, but that doesn't really mean anything. It took me over a year just to understand that. Then there was the harrowing drama of surviving in New York and still having time to pursue my theater dream.
MH I started out as a dancer, but in the late '50s there was no real interest in modern dance, so I switched over to acting. At that time there were so few opportunities for women other than acting--until a great number of the original regional theater companies were started by women directors who could not get a job. Women like Zelda Fichandler, who started Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Margo Jones in Texas, and Julia Miles, who started Theater Currents in Brooklyn Heights and then the Women's Project, all were the pioneers of regional theater and the first female voices to be heard.
JM Over the past 20 years, the Woman's Project has conducted a study of non-for-profit regional and Off-Broadway productions and tallied the number of plays written by women. In the '70s, only six percent of those plays were written by women, which is why I started the Woman's Project--to specifically create a much needed body of work that we could develop. But today, that figure is still only 22 percent....I really thought it would be much easier for women to find their voice and that the growth would be much greater, but without places for them to exercise and explore their talents, they're limited. It's vital for women to write, because women have different stories to tell than men do, and women directors work differently. A male director may come to you with one, perfectly clear idea for the show, where a woman director will come to you with three or four different concepts of how to go about a piece.
SB In 1990, I started Alice's Fourth Floor with Yolanda Smith, Melanie Joseph and Beth Schacher. As the artistic director, we developed over 300 new plays, such as The Loop by Warren Leight, Lemonade by Eve Ensler, and Jason and the Nun by Matt Williams. Then, in the later '90s, the NEA began to fall apart and I became disenchanted in producing not-for-profit and took the risk to go commercial. I became partners with Angelina Fiordellise and bought the Cherry Lane Theatre and began to work with a pool of over 100 Off-Broadway playwrights, one of whom was John Cameron who wrote and originated the role of Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This was a commercial success...and made it easier for me to raise the money for my newest production, Chesapeake, by Lee Blessing.
LVH In England, we grow up with theatre all around us; it's produced in church basements and on the top floor of local pubs--everywhere. Here, it's a miracle every time a curtain rises. Once I realized that theater owners were the ones who decided what kind of theater would be produced, I realized I was going to need my own space in order to have my vision be heard. So my brainchild was twofold: first, to start a business--a cleaning company in order to support myself and still have time to produce theatre. Second was to find a home for myself so I could create my own reality, my own world where playwrights could come and work at their craft. If playwrights have a place where they can write, hear their work and have the opportunity of reworking the piece, you can create a new body of work. We spent five years working on The Countess, and produced three different productions of it before taking it to Off Broadway. This can only happen within a company setting.
LK The Six Figures Theater Company was started to support and nurture women writers, directors, producers and actors. It is our passion to see that women find a place to express their voices on every level. Once you are a member, you are encouraged to lead readings, produce your own pieces and grow as an artist. Women seem to have less conflict in their pieces but struggle for a spiritual and philosophical level in their work. They are not so linear in their thinking as men.
AK Having your own theater company is the most cost-effective, satisfying way to enjoy [creating] theater...and a development space is the answer for a director to have a good show. That's how a show succeeds and you can only do it there.
LS When I began to write my play Bedside Manners three years ago, there was a natural progression without pressure. I was inspired by an article on a husband and wife who ran a bed-and-breakfast and placed a journal in each room for the guests to write in, to explain how they came to be there. I had no idea that the play would have men only, a mix of men and women, or, as it ended up, all women. But now there are 15 characters of all ages with a series of monologues relating to their personal journey in this B&B. I was fortunate to have Tom Franco to direct it, plus a wonderful company like Theatre Rising Ltd. to option the play and produce it.
MH In 1968, I was the administrator of the drama department at Juilliard, under the direction of John Houseman. When we realized what a tremendously talented group of actors we had in our first graduating class--like Kevin Kline and Patti LuPone, John decideded to start a company to give these young actors performance experience. The Acting Company, which tours around the country playing in 32 states to over 60 cities every year, remains the only such company still touring today--in a country that craves and needs this type of theater. I believe a company is vital to having a high standard of theater. It's only in the secure environment a company provides that actors can begin to trust themselves and each other. This family experience nurtures actors, directors and designers, allowing them the time and the space to grow and hone their craft. A company also creates a climate for audiences to evolve and for communities to develop a passion for theater.
What does the Off-Broadway Community need to do, that it's not doing now, to support your work?
AK The Internet is the greatest way for Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway to market itself. Particularly with new websites focused on theater like playbill.com and theatermania.com providing a vast nationwide audience with the opportunity to explore what's happening in New York (other than Broadway musicals) and discovering what hot tickets there are to buy. My own company, Add Motion, is a content-driven, film/video creative production company responsible for producing and creating streaming video for various websites by providing 30-second spots of live broadcasts on the web. The first show we did streaming video for, De La Guarda, was a big success and helped build the buzz for our services as well as the show. This is the wave of the future--its cost-accessible for small companies, offers visual impact and is fun for the browser to explore.
LVH For The Countess, we have been very fortunate--very, very lucky. Our audience is from all over the world, and its been generated mostly by word-of-mouth. At present, there are options to produce The Countess in Denver, Boston, Pittsburgh, Los Angles, Montreal, Australia and Japan, and the play will also be published this year, which is a tremendous coup. But still, we struggle every week...quite frankly, TDF saved our asses in the first months by selling tickets for us that helped generate that word-of-mouth. Also, because we have the front of the Samuel Beckett Theatre plastered with visuals, decorated in a Victorian fashion, and because the staff is friendly and chatty, we pull in people by the sheer enthusiasm we have for the show and it's paid off. Still, the Off-Broadway community must find a way to support every show. Maybe a central agency with a publicity and marketing department needs to be created and into which each new show pays a certain portion of their budget and is provided with marketing, publicity and promotion.
SB I think women have more chances to produce theater because the men seem to leave theater sooner for the more lucrative opportunities offered in film and television. Still, the financial pressures and lack of support by the press make it almost impossible to sustain new permanent companies.
LAK We place a lot of importance on production values and making sure the photos we select are commercial enough to get picked up. Our current show, Flyer, is about Jerry Cobb, who was the first woman NASA trained as an astronaut in the '50s. We knew the image had to be very The Right Stuff so that's what we did and it worked. There is also a national foundation dedicated to Cobb that we tapped for support and the National Organization for Women has been wonderful in helping us bring in an audience.
JM You need great reviews especially in the NY Times. But the press must broaden its scope of reporting on theater as well as make a commitment to support new shows and featuring new artists. There are too many financial obstacles that a production must surmount in order to survive, and an active involvement by the press is essential to all concerned.
MH I think the press needs to be far more supportive in its coverage of Off- and Off-Off Broadway theater that it has been. Anyone producing a play will tell you just how difficult it is to get reviewed, leaving you with only grass-roots strategies to promote word-of-mouth and excitement. Older companies, like Manhattan Theater Club, have a large subscription base...while smaller companies on a limited budget face enormous challenges in marketing their work.
What is the future of Off Broadway?
SB I think we will see Off Broadway make a strong commitment to American dramas and become the breeding place for an entirely new generation of American playwrights. I also believe Off-Off Broadway is the laboratory where the future talent can grow. This is where we will find the stars of the next five years.
AK The Off Broadway community will split off and start it's own thing. It has the spirit of the independent film community and is dedicated to story, not spectacle.
MH In the past few years, everything has moved up a notch: Off Broadway is now what Broadway used to be--a place to take chances and explore new ground. Off-Off Broadway is now what Off Broadway was--a laboratory for new artists to showcase their work. Unfortunately, the money needed for all this has escalated to the point where most companies, mine included, remain homeless. Real estate costs have taken a toll on everyone involved.
JM Regardless of all the problems we face the theatre will survive. It has been here since the Greeks and will continue because we need it somehow. It touches us in a powerful way. It allows us to watch, learn and feel. It enlarges our senses and potential for growth. There is sweetness in that. It's nice.