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Sex & Low Beach
by Jiin Choi
Reveries of when women first described their vaginas at length onstage, tales of male producers who ran their résumés through the paper shredder—thankfully, whatever outdated anecdotes I expected to hear from female directors in New York have been phased out of my subconscious.
Whether to identify as a “female director” (as opposed to just “director”) is a hard nut to crack, given that doing so might put women at a disadvantage in an industry where men rule the roost. On Broadway, four out of five shows are directed by men, and in the 66-year history of the Tony Awards, only six women have ever won for directing a play or musical. Yet last month, the term “female directors” shone boldly at the head of a New York Times article about the state of the city’s theater industry, and this time the message held promise.
According to the article, the tide is shifting Off- Broadway, where women directors are “staging some of the most critically acclaimed productions in recent years,” and “are starting to get more shots at the better-paying, career-making gigs on Broadway.” The forecast reveals a possible stifling of the apprehension that, for decades, has kept producers from hiring women over men. For aspiring women directors, this may represent a new dawn, where the adjective “female” has nothing to do with artistic opportunity. But what did “female director”mean in the first place, if anything?
May Adrales, who has worked extensively in Off-Broadway theaters and most recently opened Dance and the Railroad at Signature Theatre, prefers not to identify principally as a female director. “I’m proud of being a woman—that’s what I am—so I’m not offended by the term,” she says. “I just don’t put myself in the lens of being female and that affecting my work.”
Adrales has never allowed notions of race and gender to get in the way of her future. “My parents always taught me that I could do whatever I put my mind to. It doesn’t have to do with being a woman. And it’s the same with me being Asian American,” she says. Thinking otherwise would be counterproductive, she contends. “I’m not thinking negatively about how the industry is perceiving me.”
For women like Adrales, shedding the designation of “female” is a way of keeping their eyes on the marquee and not in the gutter. Alice Reagan, who both directs and teaches at Barnard College and has worked at theaters throughout the city, explains, “It’s not something we want to talk about. We—and I’m talking about female directors—are trying to get work and get jobs and have careers, and so there’s a stigma attached to someone who sits around and complains.”
This clean slate of mind represents a trend among women in the field. Nowadays, the phrase “women’s theater” is hard to peg: offensive to some, co-opted by others, and misleading to the masses—specifically, to those who might associate it with feminist theater of the ’70s and ’80s. This era includes feminist work that runs the gamut from radical troupes that specialized in the experimental to the emergence of classics by Beth Henley and Wendy Wasserstein, unified somewhat by their search for a female aesthetic. In 1978, Women’s Project Theater—a company devoted to helping women directors, playwrights, producers, actors, and designers see the light of the stage—opened on West End Avenue, away from the patriarchal domain of Broadway.
Although Women’s Project remains, its mission has changed since the ‘70s. Instead of creating a brand of theater that is uniquely female, Artistic Director Julie Crosby aims to produce work that, while created by women, appeals to a universal audience. “Though saddled with a name from another era, audiences now just expect great work from Women’s Project Theater,” she wrote in an email. “Such success contradicts the frustrating myth that theater created by women is exclusively for women. We would never say that the work of Albee, Kushner, or Sondheim is for men alone.”
Be that as it may, womanhood surely colors the masterworks of a female director in some way, though just how remains nebulous. “There’s such a thing as a chick flick, but I don’t really think there’s a chick play,” says Reagan. Nevertheless, Reagan realizes being a woman “probably affects every single decision I make, [though] not on a conscious level.” She admits that many of the plays she directs have female characters at the helm, “because that’s where my interests lie,” adding that “a lot of the designers and actors I work with are women.”
A preference for collaboration, while setting off a minefield of feminine stereotypes, seems to be a common route for women directors. The New York Times reports that one of the reasons behind their rise in the industry is that “female directors have cultivated collaborations with playwrights and are emerging as forces to be reckoned with.” Adrales notes, “I would describe myself as a pretty collaborative director ... I work with a lot of new playwrights, and just inherently in the job it has a collaborative spirit.” Still, she is wary of generalizations: “You could look at the sociology of it and think, ‘Oh, it’s a much more feminine approach.’ I can’t classify it that way because that’s just who I am.”
If today marks the fall of the gender wall, tomorrow may see new horizons for young directors in the business. On college campuses like Barnard’s, ladies and gents involved in theater are seen not as competitors, but as collaborators. Rebecca Clark, a Columbia College senior who is directing her thesis play in the spring, notices a breakdown of gender-related animosity in the theater department. “You definitely see a divide between the schools—Barnard and Columbia—at certain events, which is unfortunate,” she says. “But I think the theater department is really unified under the theater banner.”
Perhaps so many directors’ reluctance to wave the flag of womanhood is not only strategic—a means of standing their ground against men—but also based on their perceived ability to interpret characters. Christina McCarver, a Barnard senior also working on a thesis in directing, describes how “it’s really easy to say ‘I can’t understand that because I’m not a 20-year-old dude, so you figure it out, David. I’m going to direct Lisa, because I super get how it feels to be a 26-year-old woman.’” McCarver adds, “You’re looking at a bunch of different humans, a bunch of different souls, which is something that, really, anyone can do.”
Whether under the direction of a woman or man, theater is a character-driven medium. Women who spurn the title of “female director” are by no means ashamed of their gender. Rather, it may be that they are so used to tapping into the minds of both David and Lisa that gender has lost its weightiness.
Whether or not directing is your style, female theater directors have made their statement. Sporting the disadvantages of womanhood is no longer in vogue.
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