Directing Women

As the conversation about gender parity in the theatre continues, and as many begin to demand not just conversation but actual parity, several exciting centers of discussion and progress have appeared in recent years. One of the most visually snazzy and, for me, most interesting is Victoria Myers and Michelle Tse’s “female voices of the theatre” website The Interval: The Smart Girls’ Guide to Theatricality.

The site is nicely varied with petitions, contests, photo essays, writing by the founders/editors and guest columnists, and tons of interesting statistics in addition to the blog’s bread-and-butter, interviews.  Some of these take the form of brief statements from women about what’s going on in theatre, but most are long-form conversations with major figures such as writers Lisa Kron, Marsha Norman, and Sarah Ruhl, composer Jeanine Tesori, designer Mimi Lien, actors Kelli O’Hara and Laura Benanti, and artistic director Susan Bernfield.

Directors are not neglected.  Myers’s chats (illustrated with Tse’s photos) with top helmers such as Kathleen Marshall and Susan Stroman seem so relaxed and candid that I feel I’m getting to know these titans over the proverbial cuppa coffee.  Even better, they’re often quite instructive, offering insights into the thinking of some of the very best artists in our field.

The most recent long interview, with director Leigh Silverman and choreographer Sonya Tayeh in the rehearsal room for their recent Encores Off-Center concert reading of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, enlightens its readers about the approach that Silverman, a sterling director, takes to her work.  For example, I found the following comments, which she made specifically in reference to concert staging, to be an especially articulate statement of a critical challenge facing directors of full productions as well:

[Y]ou train the audience to watch the show in the way that you want them to watch it and not set them up with wrong expectations from the beginning….  I feel like my job as the director, frequently, is to have a vision of how an audience is going to enter a world, what they’re going to be taught, and what they’re going to be taught right away. And who it is that they’re supposed to be watching and how to watch them. It’s one of the most important things I can do as a director once you move into that production process, which is to figure out how to let the audience in, let them know what world they’re in, and who those people are. That entry point is crucial. You as a director have to build that portal or else they don’t come with you.

Reflecting on her career, Silverman expresses concerns about the obstacles facing young women that seek to direct.  Her comments are dismaying, but her achievements in the face of such headwinds are inspiring:

It’s really hard to be in your 20s and a director, and trying to get a job and get people to believe that you can handle a room. I’m finally fucking old enough—because I’m 40—that no one cares what I’m wearing and, more importantly, I don’t care. When I was younger I lied about my age all the time. I was constantly trying to assert because I had to. No one takes young women directors seriously in the way that they should be, and I felt like I had to do that. And I think that relates to everything about how you dress, how you talk, how you look, what you wear. As I’ve gotten older, that stuff has been able to fall away….  [T]he hardest time I think for a young female director is in those early years, because I think it’s really the place where young men and women are treated very differently as directors. It’s the thing that people say: men are hired for their potential and women are hired for their experience. People look at a young man and he is bright and he is shiny and they’re hiring for his potential and people look at a young women and are like, “I don’t think she can handle it.”

Elsewhere in the interview Silverman remembers that in 2006 she was only the seventh woman that had ever directed on Broadway and notes that the number has grown “exponentially” in the ensuing decade.  Still, she is frustrated about the rate of change:

I do not understand it. I do not understand why it’s not part of the conversation artistic directors have. When they’re talking about what plays they want to do and what musicals they want to do, why not have it be half and half? Why not? Why is that not part of our conversation still? Still. I feel like it will change, but I find it kind of frustrating on a daily basis. So when people say, “How do you feel about being that woman?”… I was so proud of that, and I was so happy that year that Pam [MacKinnon] and Anna [Shapiro] won. I mean that was like a revolution. It was unbelievably radical. I never thought. In some ways the world is changing incredibly fast and it’s exhilarating and in some ways you’re just like, “What?! Still?!” So when it’s like “women directors” and “only woman,” and I’m like, eh, I feel like we have to keep talking about it until it’s part of the conversation and then we’ll all just be like, “Cool. It’s part of the conversation.”

She traces some of the problem to cultural forces that have affected many girls and young women, including herself:

I think women have a very hard relationship with ambition. I’ve worked very hard in my life to have a comfortable relationship with it. I feel happy and proud to say that I am ambitious and that I don’t think that’s bad. I think Lisa [Kron] and Jeanine [Tesori] are ambitious. Lisa and I have talked a lot about what that word means over the years. I think it’s only people with ambition, with vision, with drive and passion, that can break through. I think that, in general, the idea of women having ambition is uncomfortable for women. I think that’s a self-generated myth. It goes along with a reflexive apology that women feel like they must do; I think they don’t even know that it’s happening. So I do feel all the time like women need to find a level—and I say this to myself also—that we need to feel a greater appreciation for our own ambition and not feel like it’s wrong or dirty, or like it’s a bad word or ugly, or that we shouldn’t talk about it because it’s not polite. I think you don’t get anywhere by being polite. And by “anywhere” I mean wherever it is you’re going—the full expression of whatever it is you want to be doing. And that requires an idea and that requires ambition. Particularity if you’re a director whose job it is to lead people—you need it. It has to be in your DNA.

And speaking of leadership (my personal obsession among the director’s job responsibilities), Silverman’s take suggests there are no one-size-fits-all formulae, and no short-cuts:

[I]t’s all personality. Some people like to lead by fear and some people lead by kindness and some people lead by being the class clown. It’s a combination of who the person is and who the people in the room are, and I think the struggle for authority can be a real one and a real difficult one. I have to say, I’ve just encountered it less in the last five to eight years. I think it’s just experience. The experience relaxes people and then relaxes me. But I’ve also had so many terrible experiences. And I’ve had so many terrible experiences where I’ve really learned. You get hazed. I can’t speak to whether that happens to men too, but I know it happens to women. There’s a kind of hazing process because no one is going to give you authority, you have to learn how to take it, and how you take it and how generously or graciously you do it, I think is where the personality part comes in.

With an Obie Award and a Tony nomination under her belt and a rapidly growing resume of high-profile (and highly successful) projects, I suspect that Leigh Silverman has less trouble than ever taking authority.  When asked at the end of the interview to describe her in just a few words, her collaborator, choreographer Tayeh, says (in part), “A firecracker who owns the room.  A force.”  Regardless of gender, I think most of us directors would love to be characterized like that.

If you’re intrigued by these excerpts, by all means check out the full interview.  You can keep up with what’s going on at The Interval by liking their Facebook page.

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