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Alex Mellon | © Culture Trip
Alex Mellon | © Culture Trip

50 Women in New York Theater You Should Know About (Part One: 1–25)

Picture of Carey Purcell
Updated: 7 December 2017

Women are changing the face of theater on and off Broadway. Culture Trip has compiled a list of 50 of the most admired and socially aware women in the business. Here we present the first 25—with the proviso that many more dynamic movers and shakers could have been added.

Suzan-Lori Parks

Profession: Playwright
Known for: Venus, Topdog/Underdog, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Fucking A, In the BloodThe Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World

A Tony-winner and the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Suzan-Lori Parks has re-imagined both literature and history. The MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient is currently a Residency One playwright at the Signature Theatre Off-Broadway, which has featured her plays The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Venus, In the Blood, and Fucking A in its lineup. Parks’s accomplishments include adapting the book for the Tony-winning revival of Porgy and Bess, writing a play a day for a year, and presenting Watch Me Worka free livestreamed artistic workshop.

Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones | © Neil Rasmus/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

Sarah Jones | © Neil Rasmus/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

Profession: Actor, playwright
Known for: Surface TransitWomen Can’t Wait!Bridge & Tunnel, A Right to Care, Sell/Buy/Date

The socially aware, politically-driven Renaissance woman Sarah Jones has crafted solo shows about immigration, gender bias, healthcare and sex trafficking. Her scripts feature diverse groups of characters, and Jones plays each and every one of them. The chameleonic actress has drawn upon her multicultural background and upbringing when creating her work, which also includes “Your Revolution,” a rap poem that opposes how women are treated and depicted in pop culture and hip hop.

Young Jean Lee

Profession: Playwright, director
Known for: Straight White Men, Untitled Feminist Show, The Shipment, We’re Gonna Die, Lear

Young Jean Lee has never been afraid to ask uncomfortable questions in her plays. She has addressed black identity politics and explored the female body in silent productions with completely nude casts. Her latest work, Straight White Men, which exposes and examines an existential crisis among the eponymous demographic, will play the Helen Hayes Theatre in 2018. Part of Second Stage Theater’s first Broadway season, this production will establish Lee as the first female Asian-American playwright produced on Broadway. Along with writing, Lee also serves as the artistic director of a not-for-profit theater company dedicated to producing her work.

Sarah Ruhl

Profession: Playwright
Known for: Passion Play, Eurydice, Orlando, The Clean House, In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)

Boundaries don’t seem to exist for Sarah Ruhl, a Pulitzer Prize finalist whose work encompasses sexuality, polyamory, and reincarnation. Her nonlinear scripts blur the boundaries between reality and myth, surrealistically fusing mystical events with stories of everyday subjects like parenting, marriage, and monogamy. Author of 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, Ruhl voiced the challenges that working mothers and writers face and has helped New Dramatists fund childcare for playwrights.

Kristen Anderson-Lopez

Profession: Composer
Known for: Frozen, In Transit

Kristen Anderson-Lopez skyrocketed to fame and won the love of thousands of American children when she and her husband Robert Lopez wrote the score to the animated 2013 movie Frozen. The stage adaptation opens on Broadway in early 2018. Anderson-Lopez also contributed to the music for the funky, upbeat a cappella musical In Transit, which depicted the intersecting lives of New York’s commuters while introducing Broadway audiences to a professional beat-boxer. 

Shakina Nayfack

Hulu Upfront, Arrivals, New York, USA - 03 May 2017

Shakina Nayfack | © Photo by Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

Profession: Actress, director, producer, activist
Known for: One Woman Show, Manifest Pussy, Post-Op, New York Musical Theatre Factory

“I’ve always believed you don’t need permission to make theater,” Nayfack says. “You might need a lot of money to make a Broadway show, but if your intention is to craft and present a story, you don’t need permission to do that.”

Without asking permission, Nayfack has dedicated her career to creating theater, as well as working to help fellow artists see their visions fulfilled. Nayfack is the founding artistic director of New York Musical Theatre Factory, a volunteer-driven organization devoted to helping artists develop and present their work without the pressure of succeeding commercially.

Nayfack, who identifies as a non-binary trans woman, has also brought her own work to the stage—sharing her personal stories regarding sexuality, gender identity, and her transition—in One Woman Show and Post-Op. She recently crowd-funded a trip to North Carolina to perform Manifest Pussy, which combined the two shows, in response to the state’s discriminatory Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, commonly known as HB2.

Nayfack has kicked down doors for trans representation in theater, and she passionately supports growing representation further, both onstage and behind the scenes. Listing commissioning opportunities, design and directing programs, and casting as among the areas in which inclusion should expand, she says, “We need to find new ways to showcase trans talent. A multifaceted approach is the only way to create holistic change.”

Mfoniso Udofia

Mfoniso Udofia | © mfonisoudofia.com

Mfoniso Udofia | © mfonisoudofia.com

Profession: Playwright
Known for: The Ufot Cycle, including Sojourners and Her Portmanteau

A first-generation Nigerian-American playwright, Mfoniso Udofia has been bringing the lives of immigrants to the stage in The Ufot Cycle, an intended series of nine plays that tell the story of one family (five have been written so far.) Drawing from some of her own experiences while also creating original ones, Udofia’s work debunks some of the commonly held misconceptions about immigration and explores the subtleties within the experience of African immigrants. New York Theatre Workshop recently launched two new works in the cycle: Sojourners and Her Portmanteau. 

Martha Plimpton

Profession: Actor, activist
Known for: The Coast of Utopia, Top Girls, A Delicate Balance

Martha Plimpton is known for taking on challenging works by Shakespeare, Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard, seizing the complexities of the roles with her formidable skills. But her talent isn’t limited to classics: she’s also a gifted comic actor with spot-on timing. In 2012, Plimpton joined forces with her friend and occasional co-star Kellie Overbey to found A is For, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing women’s reproductive rights. 

Julie Taymor

Julie Taymor | © Montclair FIlm/Flickr

Julie Taymor | © Montclair FIlm/Flickr

Profession: Director
Known for: The Lion King, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass  

In 1998, Julie Taymor became the first woman to win the Tony Award for Direction of a Musical after she brought the animated film The Lion King to the stage. Influenced by her time in India, Paris, Japan and Indonesia, where she studied mime, puppetry and masks, Taymor introduced a new transcultural sensibility to Broadway. Her eye for mysticism was apparent in her mounting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She followed it with a 180-degree shift when she directed Anne Hathaway as a fighter pilot in a mercilessly stark production of Grounded. Taymor returned to Broadway in the fall of 2017 to helm a revival of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly.

Marsha Norman

Profession: Playwright
Known for: ‘night, Mother, The Secret Garden, The Color Purple, The Bridges of Madison County, The Lilly Awards

A Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winner for ‘night, Mother, Marsha Norman co-founded (along with Julia Jordan and Theresa Rebeck) the Lilly Awards to honor works by women in American theater. Co-chair of the playwriting department at The Juilliard School and former Vice President of the Dramatists Guild of America, she advocates for women working in theater to receive higher pay and increased access to affordable childcare.

Theresa Rebeck

Theresa Rebeck | © Carolyn Contino/BEI/REX/Shutterstock

Profession: Playwright, screenwriter
Known for: Mauritius, Seminar, Dead Accounts

Theresa Rebeck, a writer for stage and screen, has never been afraid to tackle uncomfortable issues—both in her work and about her work. Her scripts have addressed ambition, self-hatred, gender bias, and sexuality. She has been equally forthright about her own life, speaking candidly about her husband being a stay-at-home dad and the reasons why she departed the TV show Smash after one season. Whatever challenges she’s faced, Rebeck has kept on writing. Her play What We’re Up Against is currently on the boards at Women’s Project Theater.

Nell Benjamin

Profession: Playwright, lyricist, composer
Known for: Legally Blonde, The Explorers Club, Mean Girls, Because of Winn-Dixie

Nell Benjamin brought the “bend and snap” to Broadway in the musical adaptation of the comedy Legally Blonde, which landed the unapologetically and unintentionally successful heroine Elle Woods center stage. Benjamin’s nuanced takes on gender roles are both intelligent and hilarious. Her boisterous comedy The Explorers Club set conflicts regarding gender and ambition in a traditionally masculine setting with endless imbibing. It’s safe to predict that Benjamin’s upcoming Broadway bow, a musical adaptation of the movie Mean Girls, will be so fetch.”

Jeanine Tesori

Lisa Kron, left, and Jeanine Tesori accept the award for best score for Fun Home at the 69th annual Tony Awards | © Charles Sykes/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Profession: Composer
Known for: Fun Home, Violet, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline, or Change

When Jeanine Tesori accepted the Tony Award for Original Score for Fun Home alongside her collaborator Lisa Kron, who wrote the book and lyrics, she said, “For girls, you have to see it to be it.” Tesori and Kron made history that night as the first all-female writing team to win Best Score—Fun Home being their musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s award-winning graphic novel. Tesori’s emotionally piercing work has graced the stage for years, bringing complex and vibrant women to life through stunningly original music.

Lisa Kron

Lisa Kron | © Zack Seckler/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock

Lisa Kron | © Zack Seckler/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock

Profession: Playwright, lyricist, actress
Known for: Well, Fun Home, 2.5 Minute Ride, In the Wake

Lisa Kron has been bringing women’s stories to the stage for years. Exploring cultural as well as sexual identity, she has penned two autobiographical plays and a biographic musical. She drew from her own life in 2.5 Minute Ride and Well, before writing the book and lyrics for Fun Home, the first musical with a lesbian main character to play on Broadway. Her groundbreaking musical debut garnered critical acclaim and two Tony Awards.

Diane Paulus

Profession: Director
Known for: The Donkey Show, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Hair, Pippin, Waitress

Diane Paulus has transformed the theater-going experience by enhancing its interactive and participatory possibilities. Along with helming award-winning Broadway musicals featuring complicated female protagonists, Paulus is the artistic director of American Repertory Theater, the birthplace of many successful Broadway productions. She recently directed the musical Waitress, the first musical to be led by a female director, female composer, female book-writer, and female choreographer. In 2013, Paulus won the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical—the third woman to do so—for the circus-themed revival of Pippin. She cast Patina Miller as the Leading Player, who has been typically played by a man.

Natasha Katz

Natasha Katz after the 70th Annual Tony Awards | © Sipa USA/REX/Shutterstock

Profession:  Lighting designer
Known for: Hello, Dolly!, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, An American in Paris, The Glass Menagerie

Natasha Katz has shone the spotlight on more than fifty Broadway plays. Setting the mood for everything from serious dramas to raucous musicals, Katz has lit everyone from Elaine Stritch to Jake Gyllenhaal on stage. She’s accumulated 13 Tony nominations and six wins for her work of establishing the atmosphere, heightening the emotions, enhancing the texture of the costumes and furniture, setting the time of day, and, of course, helping casts to look their best. Katz, who also serves as a vice chair of the American Theater Wing, is lighting Amy Schumer in her Broadway debut in Meteor Shower. She will next light the Broadway bow of Frozen.

Paloma Young

Profession: Costume designer
Known for: Peter and the Starcatcher, Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Bandstand

There seems to be no place or period of time outside Paloma Young’s grasp. The costume designer took home her first Tony Award for the whimsically inventive Peter and the Starcatcher, which moved to Broadway from New York Theatre Workshop. She was also responsible for the sexy hipster designs of Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and the vintage designs for the characters of Bandstand, who cope with PTSD with the help of swing music. Bandstand’s retro-chic dresses are contrasted with shorts and bobbysocks, the shifting styles mirroring the country’s social upheavals in the 1940s.

Lila Neugebauer

Profession: Director
Known for: The Wolves, The Wayside Motor Inn, Everybody, The Antipodes

Everyday scenes are sources of heightened drama when directed by Lila Neugebauer. The drama may not be earth-shattering, but it’s powerful and sincere—as in the overlapping scenes of strangers in an A.R. Gurney play, the hidden motivations in an office conference room, or the stresses of competing on a high-school soccer team. Neugebauer’s skill guiding groups of actors has been seen in the ensemble drama The Wayside Motor Inn and the fluid, actor-switching cast of Everybody. Next up is a return engagement of The Wolves, in which an all-female cast playing a high school soccer team wrestles with teenage crises concerning friendship, fitting in, sexual identity, college scholarships, pregnancy, and eating disorders.

Tina Packer

Tina Packer | © Broadwaycom/YouTube

Tina Packer | © Broadwaycom/YouTube

Profession: Actor, playwright
Known for: Women of WillShakespeare and Company

“Fraility, thy name is woman!” does not apply to Tina Packer. The founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, Packer has performed in, directed, and taught the Bard’s canon around the world. She also created Women of Will, a performance featuring herself and Nigel Gore that combines informal lectures about Shakespeare’s work and the context of his plays and characters. “Why would a card-carrying feminist spend all her time with a dead white male?” Packer asks. The reason is that Women of Will explores the themes of gender and femininity throughout Shakespeare’s works—his female characters’ motivations, their conflicts, their loves and their limitations—illuminating moments that could easily be overlooked. Packer also wrote the book of the same title.

Kate Shindle

Profession: Actor, activist
Known for: CabaretFun Home, Legally Blonde, Actors’ Equity

Kate Shindle’s devotion to activism has been obvious on a country-wide level since 1998. After being crowned Miss America, she traveled throughout the United States advocating for HIV education and prevention. Almost 20 years later, her devotion to political and social issues is just as strong. While playing Alison in the first national tour of Fun Home, Shindle is fighting to save the National Endowment for Arts as the youngest ever President of Actors Equity. 

“It is a fascinating time to be touring this show across the country. And it’s an important time to be doing it,” Shindle says. “I didn’t just want to do Fun Home, I wanted to do Fun Home on the road.”

She is doing that literally, having bought a car to drive across America in order to visit cities and towns often dismissed as fly-over zones.

“I think we all recognize that this show doesn’t exist in a vacuum,”  Shindle says. “No show exists in a vacuum, but particularly right now, at a time when we’re facing a lot of well-founded fears about the LGBTQ community’s rights being rolled back. It is amazing to be able to zig-zag across the country and be able to say through our show to kids who are coming out and struggling in the process, ‘We see you. And you’re going to be OK.’”

Shindle is also advocating for the financial value of actors’ services. “It’s a unique situation because we love what we do so much that we can really be manipulated,” she says. “I want to encourage actors especially to remember that they’re worth a lot.”

Dominique Morisseau

Profession: Playwright, actor
Known for:  The Mountaintop, The Detroit Projects (Detroit’67, Paradise Blue, Skeleton Crew), Pipeline

There weren’t enough roles for Dominique Morisseau to perform when she was a student at the University of Michigan, so she began writing plays herself. She brought her hometown Detroit to the stage in the trilogy The Detroit Projects, which explored the racial tensions and economic troubles of the city’s history. Morisseau compassionately explores political, economic, and social issues through the stories of richly complex characters. Her most recent New York production, Pipeline, addresses the “school-to-prison pipeline” through the story of a mother desperately trying to prevent her son following that familiar path for underprivileged students. One of the top 20 most produced playwrights in America since 2015–16, Morisseau has twice won the NAACP Image Award.

Pam MacKinnon

Profession: Director
Known for: Clybourne Park, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Heidi Chronicles

“Fearless” is a good word to describe Pam MacKinnon. Known for her long history of collaborating with Edward Albee, the Tony Award-winning director has also nurtured relationships with up-and-coming playwrights, including Bruce Norris, Itmar Moses, and Craig Lucas. She has repeatedly brought uncomfortable subjects to the stage, including racism (Clybourne Park), marital discord (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), feminism (The Heidi Chronicles), and sex parties (The Qualms). She is unafraid to express her impatience regarding gender issues within the industry. “At some point I’d like to not have this conversation about being a woman director,” she says. “At certain point I’d like to be a director. There is no analog. ‘What is it like to be a man in the rehearsal hall?’ That never gets asked. It never has been asked. At times it does feel a burden.”

Catherine Zuber

Catherine Zuber | © Abel Fermin/REX/Shutterstock

Catherine Zuber | © Abel Fermin/REX/Shutterstock

Profession: Costume designer
Known for: South Pacific, The King and I, Oslo, War Paint

Catherine Zuber is never seen onstage during The King and I, but her work did receive entrance applause. The six-time Tony winner, whose credits include more than forty Broadway shows, designed the iconic ballgown worn by Anna Leonowens: an imperial pink dream. This past season, Zuber took audiences on a journey through history in War Paint, designing costumes for cosmetics titans Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein to wear through the decades. She also decked out the largely male cast of the Tony-winning play Oslo, conceiving looks for diplomats from around the world, as well as the Norwegian peace facilitator Mona Juul, played with subdued dignity by Jennifer Ehle.

The Kilroys

Profession: Activists
Known for: The List

As the name suggests, The Kilroys is not a single woman, but a group. It is made up of female playwrights and producers working to ensure parity in the theater. Named after the graffiti tag “Kilroy Was Here,” the group works to build the presence of works by women—including the number of plays written by women that are produced each year.

“We would hear from artistic directors that they wanted to program women, but they just couldn’t find the plays,” says Daria Polatin, one of The Kilroys’ founding members. “There’s a lot of talk in the theater industry and complaining and people saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ We said, ‘Let’s stop talking about it, and let’s take action.’ “

After seeking recommendations from literary managers, dramaturgs, directors, and heads of programs, the Kilroys issues an annual list of industry-vetted works by women that are ready for publication. Released annually since 2014, The List refutes the claim by artistic directors that they don’t know of any works by women that can be programmed. It has produced results: plays included on The List have seen a 90 percent spike in interest.

“The words ‘unconscious bias’ were not in the lexicon,” Polatin says. “That wasn’t being brought up a lot. Now, she says, the terms “gender bias, unconscious bias, racial bias – societal bias overall – have become more pervasive in a great way because they open up a conversation.”

The criterion for The List is changed annually in response to the changing needs of the industry. For 2017, The Kilroys focused on getting attention for female trans women of color.

“In widening our scope, we’re exploring the intersectional facets that make up the dynamics of bias,” Polatin says. “And we’re also always looking to widen our pool of nominators to make sure we’re reaching out to find the voices that will be nominating the under-represented voices. Our M.O. from the beginning has been, ‘What can we do here? How can we shine a light?,’ and sometimes we shift that spotlight towards a different area.”

Ashley Marinaccio

Profession: Actor, writer, director
Known for: Girl Be Heard, Co-Op Theater East

Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Girl Be Heard, a non-profit theatre company that encourages young women to write and perform plays on pressing socio-political issues, Ashley Marinaccio has helped dozens of young women find their voices and learn how to express themselves. Founded in 2008, Girl Be Heard has produced performances on gun violence, sex trafficking and body image, among other subjects. It has toured Europe, performed at the White House and for the United Nations. In Sarajevo in 2015, Girl Be Heard presented Under One Sun Staging the Revolution: From NYC to Sarajevo, which addressed how women in the Bosnian War were sent to race camps. as well as the aftermath of the genocide.

“We brought some pieces to elected officials, and we really saw how theater has the power to humanize a situation and bring about change in communities,” Marinaccio says. “I’m proud of that and just getting young people to speak openly about the issues important to them, and helping them find their voices and bring those voices to the stage. So many people who have been really successful in their careers outside of Girl Be Heard come through [it]. When I was there, the mission of providing a space for women to tell their stories and shed light—my personal mission in life–was effective.”

A co-founder and director of Co-Op Theater East, which presents theater as a vehicle focusing on social change, Marinaccio is also working on her PhD at CUNY’s Graduate Center. She is studying issues of theater and war, preparing a dissertation on how theater is used to maintain cultural identity and heritage in areas of conflict during wartime.

Part Two of 50 Women in New York Theater You Should Know About: 26–50 is here.