Changing the Script for Women Directors: Diane Paulus and Liesl Tommy

Originally published on HowlRound.com
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“This wasn’t something we had planned for,” said Diane Paulus. The director of the Tony-nominated musical Waitress, Paulus and the production became a part of theatre history when they announced that the creative team for the musical adaption of the popular film would be comprised of women: director Paulus, composer Sara Bareilles, book writer Jessie Nelson, and choreographer Lorin Latarro. “I think it’s really important to say this wasn’t an intentional moment.”

Despite the musical’s team being referenced as a step forward in the industry’s gender parity movement, Paulus asserts that making history or headlines wasn’t part of their plan.

“It’s not like we were on an agenda to achieve an historic moment,” Paulus continued. “I think every person is in their role in the production because they are the best person for the job. And the fact that they are all women is just a tribute to the fact that women are at the top of the field in all these areas.”

Being at the top of her field is nothing new to Paulus, a Tony Award winner for her inventive revival of Pippin and who was also nominated for directing the 2009 revival of Hair, one year after she was named Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A frequent presence on Broadway, she also helmed the popular productions Porgy and Bess and Finding Neverland.

While women being at the “top of their fields” in the theatre industry may seem hard to deny when looking at the last two seasons, that has hardly been the norm. As part of a larger initiative called Women Count, The League of Professional Theatre Women released findings from a study of the status of women who were employed offstage in New York City theatres outside the Broadway district. Typically less than one-third of set designers are women, according to the study’s findings, with lighting designers ranging between 8–16 percent women and sound designers 14–22 percent. One area in which women dominated the field was costume designers, with a high of 79 percent and a low of 61 percent.

This disparity in genders was apparent at the auditions for Waitress; Paulus recalled recalling that many actors said “Oh my God!” when entering the audition room and seeing women seated behind the table, describing it as “one of the arenas where it was really felt in that traditional audition power process.”

That traditional power process, however, is one that still exists, Liesl Tommy, Tony-nominated director of Eclipsed, stressed while reflecting on the recent season. The only female director nominated for the 2015–16 season, Tommy is also the first woman of color ever nominated for Direction of a Play. Eclipsed, which chronicles the struggles a group of women face during the Liberian civil war, is written by Danai Gurira and features lighting design by Jennifer Schriever and hair, makeup and wig design by Cookie Jordan. It is also the first Broadway show to be written by, directed by, and feature a cast of all black women.

“It’s a great thing that it’s happening, that people are talking about it, that it raises consciousness. With consciousness can come more conscious hiring processes,” Tommy said. “But I think we should be careful about patting ourselves on the back. Just because I’m here now, just because the incredible women working on Waitress are here now… Is it a moment, or is it a trend? We can’t know if we’re in the front of it. I’ve been at this party before.”

Tommy’s career has been marked by a wide variety of productions, in New York and around the country, including The Good Negro, Appropriate, and Informed Consent. She directed the Off-Broadway bow of Eclipsed at the Public Theater before its Broadway transfer was announced.

Eclipsed’s arrival on Broadway came as a surprise to some, given is unflinching presentation of such a wrenching subject. When asked if she considered the play a feminist work of art, Tommy, without hesitating, said yes. “For me, it’s just about the fight for equality and the state of mind when being treated as usual.” And to tell that story, she made conscious and deliberate choices about who would bring it to the stage.

“When I first started directing and I didn’t necessarily know a lot of designers, people would often recommend people to me and I would say, ‘Am I going to end up with a team of all-white men?’ And usually the answer was yes,” she recalled. “I realized if I didn’t support diversity, it wouldn’t necessarily happen. It’s so very easy to find yourself the only one if you’re not careful. I always have diversity in mind. I always am thinking about who’s on my team.”

And she is quite pleased with the results of her Eclipsed team, saying, “All women onstage and all women behind the scene—it’s been amazing. It’s been really amazing that we created this little kabal of women making that show happen.”

But it’s not just theatre that faces problems with gender parity, Tommy said. After the season of #OscarsSoWhite, the longtime lack of diversity in Hollywood is now under a brighter spotlight as well.

“That’s the majority of the players. Or was, for a long time,” she said of the male decision makers. “We’ve seen all the specifics come out of Hollywood insanity about gender disparity there. What I think people are having to come to terms with is the depth of sexism in the workplace across industries.”

Paulus also commented on gender disparity outside of theatre, citing the number of female creative directors in advertising as well as the low number of female representatives in the Senate and Congress. For example, she said, even though 80 percent of the consumer spending in American is done by women, less than three percent of creative directors in advertising are women.

“This is not a phenomenon of just the theatre or Broadway or the arts,” Paulus said. “This is a national phenomenon. This is a fight we’re fighting—a fight women have been fighting ever since we got the vote, thanks to the suffrage movement in the US. It’s a part of our history.”

“It’s not specific to Broadway. It’s specific to life,” Tommy said. “That’s just what happens. There are millions of studies that say people hire people who they’re comfortable with. You have to fight for alternate ways of thinking.”

For Paulus, her way of thinking began as a child. Attending an all-girl’s school, it never occurred to her to not raise her hand or say her opinion, which she said resulted in her entering the professional world without viewing being a woman as a handicap.

Naming Daryl Roth, Emily Mann, and Zelda Fichandler as some of the women who inspired her, Paulus recalled, “These were women who were saying, ‘We’re doing what we do because we love it and we’re qualified and we’re leaders in the field.’ I benefited from those role models.”

Paulus seemed a natural choice to helm Waitress, which follows Jenna, a woman trapped in an abusive marriage who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and embarks on a passionate affair with her gynecologist. The musical follows Jenna’s surprising discovery of self-worth, set to soulful tunes by Grammy nominee Bareilles.

“This is not a show about perfect people. They’re characters who are broken, who have problems with complex situations, and we let that humanity be what’s on display,” Paulus said. “This is about a woman who finds her voice and gains her strength to assert herself. I know through my life and my female friendships, this is not always easy for women, historically or even today. We know domestic violence is a problem in this country. It’s a major problem we don’t talk about. For me, what I love about Waitress is it puts that story onstage in its own way.”

A highly anticipated production, Waitress is one of few new musicals directed by women in recent years. When reflecting on the low number of female-directed productions, Paulus immediately mentioned the financial risk involved in bringing a new work to Broadway.

“It’s a lot of money on the line,” she said matter-of-factly. “This idea of: Can a woman be trusted with that artistic but also financial risk?’ Working in the not-for-profit world, but also commercial world, taught me both spheres. My concern for the business side of what I do, for the bottom line, the budget, to be in concert with the art that I’m dedicated to creating, is really important, and it has paved the way for me to be trusted with a big Broadway musical.”

Another challenge women face working in theatre is child care, or lack thereof, a situation Paulus has worked to address by providing a supportive environment in her own workspaces.

“I feel very aware that I’m able to do what I can do as a working mother because I am the person in charge,” she said. “It’s been said in the field when you have to ask permission to miss an hour or two of work to go to your daughter or son’s school event, that’s the moment where you’re looked at like your priorities are not aligned correctly. Because I’ve always been in the director’s seat, or running the theatre, I’ve been able to create the schedule.

“I appreciate that’s not as easy for women who are in the driver’s seat or the boss’s position,” she continued. “I’ve been able to navigate those challenges. I’m hyperaware of that. I think that’s enabled me to navigate as much as I do—being a woman, being a mother. When I went to A.R.T. I was the only person on staff who had young kids…there are so many staff members with babies now. I want that aspect of the family to be part of the rehearsal. I’ve always gone out of my way to integrate that.”

Both Paulus and Tommy plan to continue going out of their way to change both the statistics and conversations surrounding gender parity in the theatre, celebrating what has been done but also working to do more.

“I think this is one of the most diverse seasons you’ve ever seen on Broadway,” Paulus said. “To be part of that season is amazing. And the more the theatre can model the future that is my ultimate dream—that we can reflect the world we live in.”

Emphasizing the need for the shift in culture to continue, Tommy called for “a little more thinking and not just automatic or easiest choice. It’s about consciousness. If you’re in a position of power, just ask a couple of tough questions about what the practices are in terms of hiring.

“Two years has not a change made,” she added. “Let’s have a conversation here in five years.”

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