What Women Want

Women's Project is off life support and reenergized—but has all the persistence and the passion added up to real change for women in the American theatre?

By Alexis Greene

On the wall of Julie Crosby’s office at Women’s Project, an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper broadcasts a “Recipe for Success” in sizeable black letters:

Create great art
Market like hell
Build the board
Ask for money

“It’s something Michael M. Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, said at an arts seminar,” notes Crosby, who became managing director of the three-decade-old New York City company in October ’05, producing director in September ’06 and then producing artistic director in January ’07. “I decided to make it the WP office mantra. Every staff member has a copy on her or his bulletin board.”

Related Links:
Authors! Authors!
about collaborative playwriting, including work from Women’s Project, by Jonathan Shandell (American Theatre)
Days of Our Lives
a roundup of politically resonant productions in 2004, including Women’s Project, by Celia Wren (American Theatre)

Perhaps Crosby felt her team needed all the encouragement and enthusiasm she could muster. At the age of 43, this slender, quietly forceful woman leads a theatre that was just recently wrestling with severe financial and management crises, including the stepping down of its founding artistic director. As Crosby told an audience this past October at the company’s Julia Miles Theater on West 55th Street, “Last year, people were taking bets on whether WP would survive.” Now, with the theatre diving enthusiastically into a promising 30th anniversary season, Crosby could proudly announce that “we are thriving.”

But aside from the particular circumstances that led to the company’s near-critical situation, vital questions remain: Is there a need for a theatre dedicated to work by women? And if there is a need—as many theatre artists believe—what must such a theatre do in order to prosper? If the American theatre has absorbed the larger culture’s deeply rooted, stereotypical attitudes toward women, how will barriers to the advancement of women as playwrights, directors and producers come down? And if Women’s Project has been a beacon for companies with similar missions by virtue of its location in the nation’s arts capital as well as its longevity and reputation, has it also been effective in recalibrating the balance of power in the male-dominated professional theatre field?

Women’s Project was originally just that—a “project” of the not-for-profit American Place Theatre, where the director and acting teacher Wynn Handman was artistic director and 47-year-old Julia Miles, a former actor who was married to the influential entertainment agent Sam Cohn, was associate director. Miles launched the initiative in 1978, and despite its somewhat self-deprecatory name (Crosby and the present board at one point considered changing it), the women who began submitting scripts for the first season, in 1978–79, were pleased to discover they had found what Miles dared to call “a home for women playwrights.”

It was the late 1970s, and the women’s movement still seemed to be in full roar. Action for Women in Theatre, an initiative started by youthful directors Nancy Rhodes and Carole Rothman, had surveyed employment for female playwrights and directors in not-for-profit theatres from 1969 to 1975—and discovered that a pitiful 7 percent of the plays being produced were written by women, and only 6 percent were staged by female directors. As if in response, that first season, Miles—assisted by Gayle Austin, Caymichael Patten and a young actor named Kathleen Chalfant—engineered 20 readings and 4 studio productions, all written and directed by women. Some of those women wondered why their work was largely relegated to the American Place Theatre’s basement space, but most welcomed the attention.

“Women’s Project was a whole new concept,” recalls Lavonne Mueller, whose drama Warriors from a Long Childhood, about four soldiers in a prison camp at the end of the Korean War, was produced by Women’s Project in May 1979. “It was a place for women to hang their hats and try their ideas. It was courageous, also, to produce a play by a woman about how men bonded and became a family.”

“There had really been no outlets for women,” observes Gail Kriegel, who wrote a play called Holy Places that Miles produced in the second season. “Julia raised money and gave amazing support. We used to have readings—not the kind of readings there are today, where everything has to be perfect—but so you could really work on your play and get solid feedback. When it came to the production, Julia kind of left things up to everybody else, but we all understood how busy she was.”

To be sure, from the late 1960s through the early ’80s, theatre companies for and about women were being established by feminists from California to Massachusetts. In New York City alone there arose It’s All Right to Be Woman Theatre, the Women’s Experimental Theatre (WET), New Cycle Theater, New Feminist Theatre, Womanrite Theatre, Westbeth Playwrights’ Feminist Collective, Spiderwoman, Women’s Interart Theatre and Split Britches, among others. A number of these were structured as collectives by women who wanted to invent their own pieces, make visceral, politically activist theatre and serve communities of women—gay women, working-class women, battered women—whom theatre, and American society, had ignored.

Women’s Project had no such agenda. By contrast, it was intended to be a producing entity only, and hardly a radical one at that. The model, after all, was the hierarchically structured American Place, which had been lauded for producing new plays by the likes of Robert Lowell, Ronald Ribman and Sam Shepard. Miles, perhaps responding to this influence as well as to the impetus of the movement at large, wanted mainstream recognition for women’s work.

“Julia was adamant about that,” says Suzanne Bennett, who joined the Project in 1984 as its literary manager and, except for a brief sojourn in San Francisco as artistic director of the Eureka Theatre, would remain there through the 2003–04 season. “Julia wanted reviews from the New York Times. She wanted plays to be tested in the mainstream,” says Bennett, interviewed one afternoon at a restaurant in Chelsea. “There were lots of feminist companies, but the work wasn’t very good. There would be clumsily didactic acting and a lack of sophistication in terms of production values. From my own aesthetic, there was a world of difference between WP and feminist theatres regionally.”

By the late 1980s, a majority of these feminist companies had closed shop, for reasons that ranged from founders’ burnout to lack of funding and the companies’ inability to pay their founders living wages (which, of course, led to burnout). Carolyn Levy, who in 1980 started the Women’s Theatre Project with three colleagues in St. Paul, Minn., was surprised that her group lasted as long as it did (eight years).

“The irony is that we existed totally during the Reagan administration,” says Levy, now an associate professor of theatre at Hamline University in St. Paul. “In the early ’80s, money was already in the pipeline. The changes that happened in the funding world because of Reagan—funders diverting money into social services, because the federal government was putting less money there—took a while to affect organizations.”

For a time, Women’s Project seemed immune to this sea change. Its visibility under the auspices of the well-established American Place helped win grants from the Ford Foundation, among other funders. In 1986, Sallie Bingham’s Kentucky Foundation for Women pledged $1 million over five years—an extraordinarily mighty sum for a small company—provided that it incorporate separately from the American Place (Women’s Project had produced two of Bingham’s plays, and she and Miles, both southerners, had become friends). In late 1987, the theatre optimistically took the heady but risky leap of moving out of the American Place (and, by spring ’88, had been renamed Women’s Project and Productions).

Women’s Project also seemed insulated from what writer Susan Bolotin, as early as 1982, was calling “post-feminism,” in an article for the New York Times Magazine. Apparently ignoring his own paper’s signal—or getting in under the wire— Times drama critic Mel Gussow also wrote a feature for the magazine“Women Playwrights: New Voices in the Theater”—which came out on May 1, 1983. Marsha Norman had just won the Pulitzer Prize for ’night, Mother, and a photograph of her adorned the cover.

“That was the moment of greatest mainstream affirmation for women in theatre,” recalls Bennett. “It was a moment of ‘We have arrived.’”

“It is difficult,” says Bennett, “to say when that feeling started to slip, because it was so wonderful to get that gift from Sallie Bingham and occupy space in Chelsea [at the Apple Corps Theatre]. Plays were better received and were better, period: Marlane Meyer’s Etta Jenks, Connie Congdon’s Tales of the Lost Formicans. Work was being treated seriously. It seemed that women in theatre would go up the ladder. Doors would open.”

“There was not a sudden collapse, à la Susan Faludi’s anti-feminist ‘backlash,’” continues Bennett. “I think feminist theatre had been on a shakier foundation than we realized. I think people just had not been that interested to begin with, and nothing had happened to change that impression.”

Eventually, the funding squeeze and the counter-feminist mood caught up with Women’s Project and Productions, not to mention the challenge of not having a permanent performance space. According to Bennett, it became increasingly difficult to raise money: “Seasons were shorter, and it was hard to continue. Underneath, things were precarious. WPP enjoyed a reputation nationally, because of its books and conferences. It was the most visible theatre for women in the United States. But there was a struggle to get audiences.”

On Nov. 7 and 8, 1997, nearly 500 women gathered at the New School, where Women’s Project and Productions was celebrating its 20th anniversary with a conference entitled “Women in Theatre: Mapping the Sources of Power.”

“Have we got power?” Julia Miles called out to the crowd, as she was greeted by applause on the conference’s rainyopening day. “If not, where do we get it? And what do we do with it once we have it?”

For the determined Miles, power involved the company possessing its own theatre, and, in 1998, with a $500,000 gift from the ever-generous Bingham, the organization secured a mortgage on Theater Four, a run-down proscenium house on a dilapidated block: 55th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The building, which had briefly been the home of the Negro Ensemble Company and had also functioned as a commercial Off-Broadway theatre, cost $1.5 million. As part of a capital campaign, more than $3 million had been raised or pledged for renovations.

But the task of organizing and providing oversight for repairs overwhelmed Miles, and by the end of summer ’03,the board and Miles reached an agreement whereby the founder, now in her early seventies, would step down, and her youngest daughter, Marya Cohn, would be acting artistic director for a season. In December ’03, the board hired stage director Loretta Greco to succeed Miles, and Greco took over on May 1, 2004 (the same year the venue was rechristened the Julia Miles Theater). Two years later, a reconstituted board, citing runaway debt, parted ways with Greco as well; soon after they handed the challenge of revitalizing the theatre to Crosby, who had come on as managing director in fall ’05.

In the space of almost 30 years—only one generation, really—Women’s Project seemed in danger of disappearing.

Julie Crosby describes herself as a woman who is “prone to moral outrage,” but has taught herself to give in to that emotion only briefly, then step back and focus on the task at hand. Most often, she gets the results she wishes to achieve.

Crosby was born in Midland, Mich., near Flint, into what she calls a “very religious” family. When she was two, her parents moved Julie and her older brother to the suburbs of Dallas, and there, she says, “I was always the kid in the play” in community theatre productions. The family moved back to Michigan when Crosby was 12, and she was sent to Bob Jones Academy in South Carolina, the fundamentalist Christian preparatory high school of Bob Jones University.

“It’s a subject of dispute between my mother and me about how I wound up there,” Crosby says with humorous understatement. “But I was not religious, and this seems to have been a decision my mother made because she thought it would be good for me.”

There was no theatre at Bob Jones, but, says Crosby, “I was very dramatic. I asked a lot of questions—I’ve always been a really good student—and that made them very uncomfortable.” Crosby was discouraged from applying to the university (the feeling was mutual), so she returned home and went to Michigan State. Moving to New York after graduation, she managed productions on and Off Broadway, and internationally. During a bout of unemployment, she entered a master’s degree program at Columbia University and went on to earn a doctorate in medieval literature. Her dissertation: Divas of the Dark Ages: Women and Early Medieval Drama.

There has been little time for scholarly contemplation at Women’s Project (the organization has reverted to its original name). Crosby’s “to-do” list has included collaborating with the board to rewrite the mission statement, to make it clearer and more aggressive; launching a producers’ lab; working with the company’s long-established playwrights’ and directors’ labs; and, most important, restructuring debt and renegotiating the building’s mortgage, a process that began when she was hired as managing director. “During fiscal years 2004–06,” says Crosby, “the organization amassed a deficit of close to $1 million.” But the theatre building has been reappraised at $5.7 million and is now in better company, as several new, sleek structures have joined it on the block, including a home for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “The shrewdness on Julia’s part of purchasing the building in the first place—I bless her for that,” says Crosby. “Once we understood the value of the asset, it was much easier to consolidate debt and refinance.”

For the first time in four years, Women’s Project is breaking even.

As for Michael Kaiser’s “Recipe for Success,” Crosby takes it to heart, especially the ingredient “market like hell.” Greco brought a shocking-pink girly look to the company’s website, and Crosby has added a Women’s Project anthem (composed and sung by Addie Brownlee). The theatre keeps a page on the popular website MySpace and, like many 21st-century not-for-profits, generates a slew of colorful, come-hither e-blasts about events and programs that are available to members. The message: WP is hip and fun. The young are welcome here.

The art, Crosby acknowledges, has had to bend in amount and scope to the demands of a conservative budget. Last season, a transitional one for Crosby, included two mainstage productions, one of which, Kathryn Walat’s Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen, had been slated before she took over. Crosby’s own contributions included transFigures, a rarified though well-produced collage involving religion, fanaticism and a psychosis called the Jerusalem Syndrome, which causes a visitor to the Holy Land to imagine that she or he is a Biblical figure and to walk through the streets wrapped, toga-like, in a hotel bed sheet. Conceived and directed by Lear deBessonet, transFigures drew on texts from contemporary playwright Bathsheba Doran, Henrik Ibsen and Joan of Arc, among others. DeBessonet, who had previously staged the work in a New York City church that formerly hosted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, broke away from the restrictions of the Julia Miles Theater’s proscenium stage to set up platforms along the sides of the house and generally treated the theatre as found space.

The more accessible Girls Just Want to Have Fund$, a package of brief plays written, directed and produced by the company’s lab participants, was presented in May ’07 downtown at the prestigious World Financial Center, where it drew more press and better audiences. (Lab members, many of whom already have reputations as up-and-coming theatre artists, get a workout at Women’s Project.)

The present season, the first that Crosby has fashioned in its entirety, has included two premieres. First up, this past December, was Wapato, a comedy about four older women written by lab member Peggy Stafford and directed by lab alum Rebecca Patterson. A so-called “Hothouse” development project, Wapato rehearsed for three weeks and was performed three times, rehearsed for two additional weeks and presented three more times. Currently on the mainstage is Trista Baldwin’s expressionist, nonlinear Sand, directed by lab member Daniella Topol. Set in the Middle East during an unspecified war, Sand, according to its author, is “about an American crisis of spirit” and asks that “America take responsibility, as a nation, for being there in the first place.”

This spring Women’s Project will also host Catherine Trieschmann’s Crooked, a drama staged by artistic advisor Liz Diamond that focuses on an imaginative, physically challenged adolescent. In May, lab members will revisit the Financial Center with Corporate Carnival. “I’m a firm believer,” says Crosby, “in producing as creatively as you can within the resources that you have.”

Google “women theatre companies” these days, or go to the website of the Fund for Women Artists, and you find the names of numerous not-for-profit groups across the country dedicated to women making theatre, or to stories dramatized from women’s perspectives. Some, like Venus Theatre in Washington, D.C., or Voice & Vision, New Georges and Hourglass Group in New York, began life during the 1990s. But many others have emerged since 2000: 3Graces Theater Company, viBe Theater Experience and Flying Fig Theater, all of NYC; the 20% Theatre Company in the Twin Cities (so called for alarming statistics about the underrepresentation of women in the professional American theatre); Rosalind Productions, Inc. in Los Angeles; and the Women’s Theatre Project in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.—to cite only a handful.

The groups’ profiles are as varied as their names.

Voice & Vision develops plays and performance pieces during a series of 15-day retreats at Bard College in upstate New York. This season’s six developmental projects included Seven—a set of monologues by Paula Cizmar, Catherine Filloux, Gail Kriegel, Carol K. Mack, Ruth Margraff, Anna Deavere Smith and Susan Yankowitz, based on interviews with women from Russia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Guatemala and Cambodia.

3Graces, according to executive director Chelsea Silverman, “serves as a platform for socially relevant theatre—universal stories told from a woman’s perspective,” although the group has also staged work by men. Last fall, 3Graces produced A Good Farmer by Sharyn Rothstein, about a farmer and an illegal Mexican immigrant struggling to overcome antagonism in a small American town.

The motto of Rosalind Productions is “Entertain. Empower. Enlighten.” In spring ’07, the troupe staged an all-female As You Like It set in the Wild West, a co-production with the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company.

Indeed, Martha Richards, founder and executive director of the Fund for Women Artists (which is coordinating an international event called SWAN Day—Support Women Artists Now Day—on March 29) reports that the Fund “is getting responses from all over the world,” suggesting that “there are more women making art than we realize.” But, as she has discovered running the Fund, the thousands of women making art in the U.S. usually cannot raise the money to do the projects they envision, or, in most cases, simply exist on what they do raise.

That so many theatre groups are involved in producing women’s work, albeit on slim budgets and small-to-nonexistent salaries, suggests the possibility that feminist theatre is not dead but has just slumbered and is awakening in a new form—a form that may be less radical and more inclusive, in terms of ethnicity and gender, than it was during the 1970s and early ’80s.

But the presence of these groups also testifies to a situation that has changed only modestly since the 1970s: In the professional American theatre, the numbers of produced plays written by women do not equal the numbers of produced plays written by men—and the numbers of directors, producers and designers who are women do not match the numbers of men who perform those same artistic activities. The last account of any standing— Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement? (prepared by Bennett and Susan Jonas and released by the New York State Council on the Arts in 2002)—stated that, of the plays slated to be produced by more than 400 TCG member theatres during the 2001–02 season, 17 percent were written by women and 16 percent were scheduled to be staged by women.

Translation: If the status quo is not providing women with the artistic opportunities they need, or telling the stories that women want to tell, then women might as well start their own theatres.

The NYSCA report is aging rapidly, yet no organization has stepped forward to undertake the kind of employment survey that almost every other industry in the U.S., including segments of the entertainment industry, considers basic. In the absence of an up-to-date study, artists who experience the lack of parity between women and men in the theatre are at a stalemate when talking to those who believe the issue has been resolved.

Luis Castro, director of arts development at Time Warner, which provides grant money to Women’s Project and other companies through Time Warner’s Diverse Voices Small Theater Fund, believes that, for a funder at any rate, the information would be “vital, to show people that there is, frankly, a need.” (He recommends NYSCA, the Alliance for the Arts or the organization that publishes this magazine for the job.) “The information would be incredibly valuable,” says Castro, interviewed over the telephone last fall, “because it tells the story of what the status is—and, as with any good grantmaking, it is important to know where the problems are.”

As the many women interviewed for this article attest, those problems are both economic and cultural. The problems can be large, like the issue of who is wielding the economic clout: “Who is producing, who is ultimately holding the purse strings, determines the stories that happen,” says Chandra Thomas, co-founder of viBe Theater Experience, which helps teenage girls write and perform their own plays.

The problems can be apparently small but in fact quite overwhelming, like how a woman juggles running a theatre company, making a living and raising a family: Elyse Singer, artistic director of Hourglass Group, reports that “My day has to end for the most part at two o’clock, because my daughter has to be picked up at school. And that’s hard. My partner is supportive, and I work it out, but it’s very challenging when you’re paying a babysitter more than you are being paid.”

One possible approach to the first problem is to bring together playwrights, directors and young producers, as Women’s Project is now doing. Over the course of two years in the labs, dramatists and directors connect with potential producers—and producers “on the way up” meet theatre artists with whom they can, ideally, establish career-long relationships. “Why is it that more male playwrights get produced?” asks Crosby. “It may be that they are better about forging those relationships.”

It may also be that producers and artistic directors underestimate women’s power to draw audiences. “Right now, theatre created by women is tending not to succeed economically,” Crosby notes, citing recent commercial failures like Lisa Kron’s Well or Eve Ensler’s The Good Body. But is that view completely accurate? TCG’s lists of the top 10 most-produced plays at its member theatres, from 1994–95 through the current season, reveal that when a play by a woman has been a popular or critical hit in New York City—on Broadway or Off—it is usually produced in large numbers in the regions. From Emily Mann’s Having Our Say: the Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years, to Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, to Margaret Edson’s Wit, to Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, to Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, a number of women’s plays have made the top 10. If it were really true that women’s work did not sell, theatres would not continue to produce these acclaimed plays in such quantity.

Still, Jann Leeming, co-chair of Women’s Project’s board of directors and a successful entrepreneur in her own right, evaluates the situation bluntly: “We’re in a capitalist society, right? What holds everybody back in a capitalist society? The fear of losing money. Men still want to have control of money; they’re still more comfortable investing in men. The real problem is that women don’t use their financial power to change these things.”

Cultural patterns that stymie women’s parity with men in the theatre are harder to discuss than economic ones, because they involve complex issues such as comfort with power and self-aggrandizement, gender stereotyping and contemporary attitudes toward feminism. A recent roundtable conversation with some of the women in Women’s Project labs—playwright Katori Hall, directors Gia Forakis and Topol, and producers Maria Goyanes, Linda Powell and Allison Prouty (also associate producer at Women’s Project)—touched on the apparent ease with which male artists in the theatre “anoint themselves” as the new geniuses on the block, versus women’s reluctance to do the same; the fear of being ghettoized as a “woman artist” and rejected by the mainstream, versus the determination to advocate for women; the fact that female artistic directors and producers do not necessarily support women; and whether artistic control should be exerted “from the top down,” or whether a collaborative organizational structure results in more artistic power for more women.

The bottom line is that, within the microcosm that is the American theatre, these artists are wrestling with American society’s ambivalent—some might say downright negative—attitude toward women.

“I want to put the work of women out there, so they can be artists,” says Susan Bernfield, artistic director of New Georges. “But I experience a veil that goes up between the world and the work. There’s some sort of demarcation there. We’ve stopped putting our mission statement in press releases, and I’ve seen a change in the way the work is regarded.”

“It takes a long time for something to become culturally acceptable,” says Crosby, allowing a hint of moral outrage to come through. “Women look at things differently, and they haven’t had as much opportunity as men to have that picture they see produced. WP has to be the conduit by which we show that what women have to say is absolutely vital and absolutely appealing to an audience—an audience of men and women. We don’t need to be living with medieval statistics in the year 2008.”

Alexis Greene is a New York City–based author who writes frequently about women in the theatre.