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Women Directors: Reinventing the Wheel and Rolling It Uphill

Women in the arts have had their surges in popularity, but few of them have remained in the documented history of theatre, so we have been denied not only the experience of their work, but the knowledge of their very existence. Because of this, each new generation of women artists has had the tiring job of reinventing the wheel—finding their own way to credibility, access, power, and funding. These are the sad realities with which Maxine Kern, moderator and curator, began the fascinating panel discussion, "Expanding the Presence of Women Directors," on a cold December evening in the Shiva Theatre of the New York Shakespeare Festival/ Public Theater. The evening was co-presented by Judith Shakespeare Company and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting and developing directors.

This was the third of three panels moderated by Kern, part of a study on Women in Theatre sponsored by the New York State Council on the Arts. According to the study, women direct less than 20% of professional American theatrical productions, a statistic that has remained static for the last 20 years.

Five Directors, Five Approaches

The larger part of the evening was an overview of the five directors present, each one introducing her work process, and, for a few, video samples of her work—pale reflections of compelling and varied live theatre.

The directors varied most in how much they have been supported by the infrastructure of the theatrical community. This ranged from Leslie B. Jacobson, founder and artistic director of Horizons Theatre in Washington, who has primarily worked outside the system and is struggling to find funding for her next production, to Kaia Calhoun, who attended Yale for her graduate degree and has received fellowships and grants in support of her work ever since her graduation.

Kim Durban of Australia just finished her Masters of Directing research production, spending two years exploring and reinterpreting a little known classic text, "Alice Arden," through the prism of her personal vision of both theatre and women, including separating her audience by gender. She claims, like Stanislavsky, "I can now say I want to do every show for two years." In Australia, she says, "I don't think there's such a thing as a career, just work." And there were no mentors for her—"I had to be my own guru."

Karin Coonrod just finished directing an experimental, revisionist production of "King Lear" at a university, and seems to fluctuate between higher-paying university jobs and her own financially riskier productions.

Joanne Zipay, founder and artistic director of the hosting company, Judith Shakespeare, has, since graduate school, nurtured this Off-Off-Broadway theatre to foster more work for women in Shakespeare production on and offstage, and to house productions of his plays that rethink women's roles, both literally and metaphorically.

Starting with the Text

All of the panelists, however traditional or experimental their approach to directing, expressed a deep reverence for the text, and for their task of illuminating what is essential in a play. Durban also talked about working through her own burning questions in the process—not to arrive at answers, but just to keep working through the questions—and the need to get to a point of nakedness, to "strip yourself down to nothing to know what comes." Yet, she also expressed a frustration with the literature itself, because "the range of woman is not portrayed."

Jacobson wants to bring a fresh perspective to the theatre, "destroying preconceptions and stereotypes," and so produces and directs material that explores gender roles. She works with personal testimony—individual, authentic voices—and with plays developed through an improvisational process. Her current play series, "In Good Company," places three to five historical characters in an imagined meeting in each play.

Zipay clarifies that the point of her controversial work (like her gender-reversed "Julius Caesar") is not to make a statement, but "for people to have an experience." As a parent, she is also exploring the possibilities of more family-friendly theatre.

Calhoun is working for the "healing climb upward" that is one of the derivations of the word "classical." A revolutionary who started in guerilla theatre, she has now "found my opportunity to be subversive with Shakespeare."

Money and mentoring were also discussed: are women afraid of money and of risking money; are women afraid to help each other; is it satisfying for a woman to be mentored in a male structure?

The discussion was audiotaped for the archives of the NYSCA study, as were both other panels. A transcript of the May panel, "Expanding the Presence of Women in Shakespeare Performance," is available online at www.judithshake

What of Personal Struggles?

Afterwards, a number of informal conversations took place, in which audience members said they wished that the panelists had shared more of their personal struggles that seemed to be hinted at, but were never stated outright. The one time it was raised by an audience question, Calhoun immediately quelled it, stating that women can't dwell on their limitations—they have to be willing to get beyond their fear of being demeaned and allow themselves to make the coffee and be the gofer, just as men have to do. None of the other panelists responded, although the realization that there were other factors involved as well was clearly visible in their faces.

Jacobson had stated earlier what seemed to sum up the feelings of the evening: "The strides we've made we need to protect. The ones we haven't made, we need to."

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