Julia Miles has indeed come a long way from her native community in Pelham, Ga., the daughter of wealthy tobacco growers. During an interview with director Billie Allen, Miles admitted there was nothing in her early background to prepare her for life as founder and artistic director—now artistic director emeritus—of the Women's Project & Productions (WPP), now celebrating its 26th year.
Since its inception, WPP has produced more than 100 plays by women playwrights. And, thanks to Miles, at least in part, works by women playwrights currently make up close to 20 percent of the plays produced nationwide. That's a far cry from the seven to eight percent being produced when Miles started out.
The interview, sponsored by the League of Professional Theatre Women, took place in the Bruno Walter Auditorium at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, on Thurs., Nov. 6. The conversation was part of an ongoing oral history series taped for the library archives.
Billie Allen, who has directed many productions at WPP—including the award-winning play "St. Lucy's Eyes," starring Ruby Dee—is an executive board member of the American Theatre Wing and a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women. Her interview chronologically covered Miles' life—personal and professional—and was largely a summing up of what led to what.
Miles recalled that, although she had never been to live theatre, she wanted to be a movie star, at least as a child. The first play she saw was "Oklahoma!" on Broadway, and from then on Miles had her sights set on a theatre career. She went on to study acting at Northwestern University's theatre department—"because many movie stars went there," Miles chortled—and after she graduated came to New York (now married), had her first child, and took acting classes with Lee Strasberg.
Coincidentally, Allen was also studying with Strasberg at the same time and remarked how they—she and Miles—were the only mothers in the class; neither was especially impressed that Marilyn Monroe was there as well. "She was so beautiful and so shy," Allen said and Miles agreed.
Miles started producing when a friend asked her to come on board as co-founder of Theatre Currents in Brooklyn Heights at St. Ann's Church. In her producer's hat, she had found her niche and within short order she was producing Off-Broadway. Her early productions included Arnold Weinstein's "Red Eye of Love," Kenneth Koch's "George Washington Crossing the Delaware," and Elaine May's "Not Enough Rope."
A major turning point for Miles was joining the American Place Theatre (APT) in 1964, its opening season, first at St. Clement's Church and later at the theatre on West 46th Street and Sixth Avenue. Her ability to pick good plays and her tenacity were duly noted and she moved up the hierarchy from assistant manager to associate director, where she was instrumental in advancing the careers of such playwrights as Jack Gelber, Ed Bullins, and Maria Irene Fornes.
The latter, Miles observed, continues to be one of the best playwrights writing today and surely "the best woman playwright. She writes about life as it should be, not as it is. Yet, she is so real."
It was during the heady mid-'70s—not coincidentally at the height of the women's movement—that Miles started thinking about the one-dimensional presentation of women in theatre and the small number of women playwrights writing at all. She was determined to do something about it and, with the help of an $80,000 Ford Foundation grant, Miles founded the Women's Project at the American Place Theatre.
"You were the only New York City producer who recognized the need," said Allen.
Clearly, WPP was an idea whose time had come, and Miles found kindred spirits quickly among such artists as Kathleen Chalfant, Emily Mann, and Kathleen Collins, an African-American playwright "who wrote 'The Brothers' from the sisters' point of view," Allen said.
But the most successful piece WPP mounted was a 1983 revue, "A…My Name is Alice," a collection of skits and songs written by 28 writers, including Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd. It has since been published and produced globally in many languages. Miles admitted frankly that the company has never surpassed the success of that production.
"Nothing happens in theatre, unless you luck out. Let's face it," Miles said.
In 1986 WPP became an independent producing organization, although it did not actually leave APT until 1988. The company operated out of several theatres before landing its current home on West 54th Street in 1998. In addition to producing the works of women playwrights, Miles wanted to nurture women directors as well. To that end, she formed a forum for women directors. Among the directors who have worked with the program are JoAnne Akalaitis, Emily Mann, and Elinor Renfield, who ran it for a while. Looking back, Miles also takes pride in the company's educational outreach program, which she says "has been an intoxicating experience for kids."
And in 1997, WPP hosted a symposium, "Many Sources of Power," that featured panels on women writers, directors, and designers. More than 500 people attended. Two recent plays have moved on to commercial runs: "The Exact Center of the Universe" and "St. Lucy's Eyes," and even those plays that don't get produced commercially are published, Miles said. Indeed, she has edited eight volumes of Women's Project anthologies, collections promoting women writers WPP has produced.
Miles is not afraid to produce controversial plays, Allen remarked, citing, as a case in point, "Gum," a play about female circumcision set in the Mideast. "The agent for that play was surprised we were willing to do it," Miles recalled.
Allen praised Miles for juggling a family—three daughters and two husbands—and a career and asked her how she did it. Miles talked about her wonderful children—one of her daughters, Marya Cohen, is now the artistic director of WPP—and acknowledged that she has been fortunate in having good domestic help. She added that she has been very lucky in her kids and career.
The interview was over and the floor was opened up to the audience for questions. Two questions that seemed especially relevant centered on how women's plays have evolved—in terms of subject matter—and why there is an enormous discrepancy between the number of women playwrights and directors in theatre and film. On screen, the percentage of women serving on the creative teams is still small.
Miles responded that the discrepancy was an outgrowth of the large amount of money involved in film. In a commercial arena, the stakes are much higher and as a result the opportunities for women far fewer.
On the subject of how women's plays have evolved, Miles said, "The subject matter is broader today with more social commentary. Years ago, we saw many more plays about mother-daughter relationships."