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

50 Women in New York Theater You Should Know About (Part Two: 26–50)

Picture of Carey Purcell
Updated: 7 December 2017

Here is the second part of our portfolio looking at some of the most amazing women leaping barriers and shaking up New York theater today.

Liesl Tommy

Liesl Tommy | © Matteo Prandoni/REX/Shutterstock

Liesl Tommy | © Matteo Prandoni/REX/Shutterstock

Profession: Director
Known for: Eclipsed, Kid Victory, Les Misérables

When Liesl Tommy made her Broadway debut, she also made history. As director of Eclipsed, Danai Gurira’s gritty portrayal of women struggling to survive at the end of the second Liberian Civil War), Tommy guided the first Broadway play with an all-black female cast and creative team. Born and raised in Cape Town, she has directed politically charged re-imaginings of classic works that feature inventive presentations of physical and political violence. Her production of Les Misérables, performed at Dallas Theatre Center, featured a racially diverse cast performing a contemporary take on the musical favorite.

Leigh Silverman

Profession: Director
Known for: Violet, Sweet Charity, Well

When Leigh Silverman was honored at the 2016 24 Hour Plays, she said: “Refuse to be silenced. Make the work. Turn your rage into action. Find your inspiration. Find your resistance and resilience. Hold it close. Get loud.” The versatile director, whose resume includes Lisa Kron’s Well, David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, and Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s musical Violet, has practiced what she preaches. Whether directing new works (The Way We Get ByOn the Exhale) or re-envisioning more familiar works (The Wild Party, Sweet Charity),  Silverman’s has been tirelessly devoted to “making the work.”

Mariah MacCarthy

Profession: Playwright, performer, producer
Known for: Baby Mama, Magic Trick, Honors Students  

MacCarthy is devoted to putting “weirdos” onstage—and center stage. The founder of Caps Lock Theatre Company, MacCarthy has written, directed, starred in, and produced fellow artists’ work as well as her own.

“I was like, ‘Where are the other self-producing female playwrights in the community?’” she recalls, asking herself. “‘I don’t see them. I guess I gotta do it.’”

MacCarthy isn’t afraid to share her own stories. Her solo show Baby Mama chronicles the decision she made, after unexpectedly becoming pregnant, to place her son for adoption with a gay couple. Her Honors Students follows a pair of violent teenage girls in a mutually abusive relationship who mug and blackmail men in their small suburban town. Fearless in her exploration of potentially controversial or discomfiting topics, MacCarthy’s work focuses on minorities as the main characters, especially when their sexuality is part of the story.

“If the people in my plays are straight, there’s a very good reason they’re straight as opposed to the opposite—needing a reason to be queer,” she says. “If they’re straight, it’s because someone needs to get unexpectedly pregnant at some point, or they have a specific relationship to privilege that’s important to the play. I really like writing leading roles for character actors, actors who don’t often get to be the lead. I just like taking what would normally be in the corners and putting it center stage.”

“I sort of feel like I’m not the controversial one,” MacCarthy adds. “Everyone else needs to catch up. I don’t think I’m saying anything so extreme or ridiculous.” She notes how reviewers across the board wrote that Baby Mama was “shocking” or that she washolding nothing back.”

“I was like, ‘Oh, I am holding so much back!’” MacCarthy says. “You should really see me when I’m not holding back!”

Jane Greenwood

Jane Greenwood accepts the award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater at the 68th annual Tony Awards | © Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Profession: Costume designer
Known for: The Little Foxes, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Present Laughter, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The stars come out for Jane Greenwood, the costume designer who has designed more than 125 Broadway productions and dressed the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Al Pacino. Her recent work includes Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bright Star, and You Can’t Take It With You. After decades of Tony nominations, beginning in 1965, Greenwood received a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2014. Three years later, she finally won her first Tony for dressing Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon for the Manhattan Theatre Club revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes.

Sarah Laux

Profession: Costume designer
Known for: A Doll’s House Part 2, The Humans, The Band’s Visit

Broadway premieres seem to be Sarah Laux’s style. The costume designer made her Broadway debut as a costume designer when Stephen Karam’s drama The Humans transferred to Broadway with Laux’s designs dressing the cast of struggling middle-class Americans. After styling Jesse Tyler Ferguson for his one-man tour-de-force Fully Committed, Laux contributed the period-perfect wardrobe as the Associate Costume Designer for Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2. Following the Broadway transfer of Itamar Moses and David Yazbek’s critically acclaimed musical The Band’s Visit, Laux will dress the residents of Bikini Bottom as associate costume designer of Spongebob Squarepants.

Daryl Roth

Profession: Producer
Known for: Indecent, Kinky Boots, The Humans, Clybourne Park

Daryl Roth has produced both Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, her roster including everything from classic musical revivals, like Hello, Dolly!, to realistic new works, such as The Humans. Her productions include the Pulitzer Prize-winners Clybourne ParkAugust Osage County, and How I Learned to Drive. An Off-Broadway theater was even named after the producer, who made headlines for extending the run of Paula Vogel’s Indecent. After posting a closing notice for June 25, the show received an outpouring of support and Roth extended its run through August 6.

Paula Vogel

Profession: Playwright
Known for: How I Learned to Drive, Indecent, The Baltimore Waltz

The daring and prolific dramatist Paula Vogel made her long-overdue Broadway debut with Indecent, an examination of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. Vogel told the story—which is about the staging of Sholom Asch’s God of Vengeance on Broadway in 1923—with an ensemble cast and onstage band. She guided the audience through a lesson in history that left it gasping with surprise and sorrow.

Her activism isn’t limited to the stage. After Indecent’s closing notice was posted, she took to Twitter, writing of the city’s major critics, herself and fellow playwright Lynn Nottage (below): “[Ben] Brantley& [Jesse] Green 2-0. Nottage&Vogel 0-2. Lynn, they help close us down,&gifted str8 white guys run: ourplayswill last.B&G#footnotesinhistory.” She also gave interviews to several papers, sharing her thoughts on the limited number of minorities produced on Broadway. “We have to say the truth,” she said.

Madeleine George

Profession: Playwright
Known for: The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, Precious Little, The Zero Hour, Hurricane Diane

A founding member of 13P (Thirteen Playwrights, Inc.), Madeleine George tackles expansive subjects like climate change, robotics, and the relationships between humans and animals. A Pulitzer Prize nominee for The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, George is also a Fellow for Curriculum and Program Development at the Bard Prison Initiative at Bard College.

Danai Gurira

Profession: Actor, playwright
Known for: Eclipsed, In the ContinuumFamiliar

AIDS, sexual slavery, and cultural identity are among the subjects Danai Gurira writes about—and that’s when she’s not fighting zombies as Michonne on The Walking Dead. Born in the United States and raised in Zimbabwe, Gurira achieved the distinction of having one play, Eclipsed, running on Broadwaywhile another, Familiar, was in performances a few avenues west at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons. The creator of strong roles for women, Gurira earned a place in theatre history when Eclipsed opened—it was the first Broadway play to feature an all-female and black cast and creative team.

Lynn Nottage

Profession: Playwright
Known for: Ruined, Sweat, Intimate ApparelBy the Way, Meet Vera Stark

A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner—and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice—Nottage has explored social concerns through her gripping dramas. Sweat, her most recent New York production (and Pulitzer winner), depicts the lives of small-town factory workers whose livelihoods and well-beings are being eroded, leading to emotional and physical violence between longtime co-workers and friends. Widely considered the first Broadway show that gives a voice to Trump voters, Sweat marked Nottage’s Broadway debut It received three Tony nominations, including Best Play.

Toni-Leslie James

Profession: Costume designer
Known for: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Scottsboro Boys, Jitney, Come From Away

Toni Leslie James has clothed characters from many different time periods: the 1930s in The Scottsboro Boys, the 1970s in Jitney, the 1980s in Lucky Guy and early the 2000s in Come From Away. James has designed costumes for everyone from Cheyenne Jackson to Tom Hanks. The two-time Tony nominee has also designed for Encores!, Lincoln Center Theater, The Public Theatre, The Vineyard Theatre, Second Stage and Playwrights Horizons.

Wendy Orshan

Profession: General manager, producer
Known for: The Heiress, Sunday in the Park with George, Dear Evan Hansen, Eclipsed, Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Co-founder of 101 Productions, Wendy Orshan, along with her business partner Jeff Wilson, has brought daring new productions to Broadway, including the recent Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen, the history-making play Eclipsed, and the beloved groundbreaking musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Her more recent productions have been politically charged: Michael Moore’s The Terms of My Surrender and John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons.

Valerie Lau-Kee Lai

Profession: Actor, director, stage manager
Known for: Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, Mary Poppins, Wonderful Town, Broadway Cares/Broadway Bares

Valerie Lau-Kee Lai has worked as an actor, stage manager, director, and producer. A the producing director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS she is a driving force behind Gypsy of the Year and Broadway Bares, an annual striptease fundraiser that brought in more than $1 million in June 2017.  

Diana Oh

Profession: Singer-songwriter, actor, activist
Known for: {my lingerie play}, Kimchi Mamas and the Dirty Disco, Hot Sauce Water

Diana Oh has taken to the streets to protest slut shaming, street harassment, and the objectification of women with my lingerie play (subtitled underground performance installations in lingerie staged in an effort to provide a saner, safer, more courageous world for women, trans, queer, and non-binary humans to live in). The series of performance art installations has been staged in public spaces since 2014., The ninth and final installation—{my lingerie play} 2017: Installation #9: THE CONCERT AND CALL TO ARMS!!!!!!!!!—premiered at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in September. Oh is also a member of the band U.S. Open and on the developing team of Baby No More Times, a feminist take on a pop concert.

Rebecca Taichman

Rebecca Taichman after the 71st Annual Tony Awards | Stephen Lovekin/REX/Shutterstock

Profession: Director
Known for: Indecent, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, The Oldest Boy, Stage Kiss, Orlando

Rebecca Taichman had directed Off-Broadway productions that included everything from meditation and reincarnation to a New Year’s Eve orgy before she made her Broadway debut on Indecent. Taichman, who has helmed seven productions by Sarah Ruhl as well as many Off-Broadway and regional productions, knew the number of Tony-winning female directors was low. It was only after she gave a stunned acceptance speech that it really dawned on her she was only the sixth woman to take home the trophy.

“I think I only knew after stepping off the stage that I’m the sixth woman because one woman won twice—and that’s just too small a number!” Taichman said.

“The main thing is women need to be hired more on these large stages in order to be given that opportunity,” said Taichman, elaborating on her hopes that women will win more directing Tonys soon. “I’d never been on Broadway before, and it was a very hard thing to make happen… I think it’s important to give women artists the opportunity to take something and start on the big, huge stage with it.”

Reflecting on the challenges of female leadership, Taichman recalled: “I do think it was very easy as a young woman…to fall into either being perceived as a raging bitch or an indecisive mess. I felt there was a very thin line that I had to walk to not fall into either of those camps.

“I think there’s an extreme inequality that needs to change,” she said of the disparity between male and female directors. “It feels like the more we, the community of people in the arts, stand up and keep creating dialogue and consciousness about it [the more things will change for the better]. And not just [in] regards gender inequality, but racial inequality, too. We should be a more diverse group of people trying to represent lots of different points of view.”

Gaye Taylor Upchurch

Profession: Director
Known for: Animal, Our New Girl, Bethany, Harper Regan, Top Girls

Women find themselves center stage when directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who has overseen many new works featuring female protagonists. The former associate artistic director for The Bridge Project, Upchurch assistant-directed the 2008 revival of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, a piercing examination of how success is defined. She more recently directed the Off-Broadway productions of Harper Regan and Our New Girl and directed Rebecca Hall in Animal, an explicit look at postpartum depression.

Rachel Chavkin

Profession: Director
Known for: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Preludes, Hadestown, Small Mouth Sounds

Rachel Chavkin burst onto Broadway in 2016, directing the innovative immersive musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Transferred to Broadway from a custom-designed downtown venue, Chavkin’s staging transformed the Imperial Theatre, placing Broadway audiences smack in the middle of a rowdy nightclub. The visionary director had been working in New York for years, as the founding Artistic Director of the TEAM, an ensemble dedicated to creating new work about the experience of living in America today. Chavkin’s pragmatism and imagination have been put to use in other immersive works, like the almost silently staged Small Mouth Sounds and the minimalistically produced musical Hadestown.

“There is a very real opportunity gap for women and artists of color,” Chavkin says, reflecting on her experience in the industry. “The ways in which sexism both as an overt and a subliminal bias plays out is you just don’t know what rooms you’re not being invited into, and what jobs you’re not being invited to interview for or be considered for.

“Take a chance on someone who has done incredible work on a small scale and give them opportunities to create work on a big scale,” she urges. “Skills are transferrable, and I think a lot of producers and artistic directors get it in their brains that someone needs to fund something on a big scale before they can take a chance on someone [new].

“I think probably a lot of institutions and commercial producers can and should set up a system where they feel like [a director] is cared for, not just send them out on a raft and say bring back a show.

“I think it’s [about] being willing to take a risk,” Chavkin concludes.

Mimi Lien

Profession: Scenic design
Known for: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Smokefall, Preludes, The Oldest Boy

Co-founder of the performance space JACK and the first scenic designer to be named a MacArthur Fellow, Mimi Lien has created environments that encompass everything from a 19th-century nightclub to a Tibetan monastery. Audience members who received a kiss on the cheek from the handsome rake Anatole in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 can thank Lien for that thrilling moment. Her background in architecture invites audiences to experience, rather than simply watch, the plays they are attending.

Martyna Majok

 

Martyna Majok | © Startraks Photo/REX/Shutterstock

Martyna Majok | © Startraks Photo/REX/Shutterstock

Profession: Playwright
Known for: Ironbound, Cost of Livingqueens

Subjects like immigration, racism, and economic uncertainty pulse through Martyna Majok’s scripts, which plunge beyond depictions inspired by stereotypes and prejudices. Drawing from her mother’s experiences as a Polish immigrant, Ironbound illustrates the challenges of a woman attempting to break free from circumstances that bind her, while The Cost of Living depicts the lives of disabled people played by cast members who themselves have disabilities.

Julia Jordan

Profession: Playwright, activist
Known for: Storyville, Tatjana in Color, Boy, Sarah, Plain and Tall, The Lilly Awards

Julia Jordan has been writing plays for over a decade. She co-founded the Lilly Awards along with Marsha Norman and Theresa Rebeck. And she is raising children and dogs.

Along with The Count (a comparative gender study of active American playwrights) and the different grants and apprenticeships that the Lilly Awards help fund, Jordan is determined that it be easier for female artists to raise their children. She devotes much of her work to helping fund and facilitate child care for women in theater. The Lilly-Ruhl fund, created by the Lilly Awards and playwright Sarah Ruhl, reimburses child care expenses for playwrights working onsite at the New Dramatists and for readings, writing retreats, and productions outside of New York. The Lillys also support the Space at Ryder Farm, which provides artists the opportunity for a fully subsidized week-long residency.

“Yes, I’m going to get more work done if I’m spending 24/7 writing my plays and eating and sleeping as opposed to writing my plays, eating, sleeping and taking care of kids. But if you’re taking care of kids, you don’t have an option,” Jordan says of the importance of child care at summer residencies.

“You have to be able to afford a nanny. You’re not just putting off women, you’re putting off especially women who don’t have money, which is already a huge problem in the theater. It effects race, and it effects women doubly because they are primary child caregivers and they make less money and they have less employment even in the fields of theater and TV. You’re basically doubling down on all the reasons why the numbers [of women playwrights] aren’t going to go up.”

Notable progress has been made regarding parity and child care, Jordan notes, but she makes it clear there is more work to be done. “I would like to see boards of theaters raise money specifically for child care. I think people need to understand that we’re moving in the right direction, but it’s about stepping up, not falling back. I would love to see people take child care seriously. I think that’s going to give us the biggest dividends.”

Susan Bernfield

Profession: Playwright, founder and producing artistic director of New Georges theater company

Having produced more than forty new plays in New York, Susan Bernfield has been a driving force behind many successful playwrights. At New Georges Theater Company, she is known for her adventurous attitude when taking on new productions. Recently, New Georges presented (NOT) Water, a collaboration by playwright Sheila Callaghan and director Daniella Topol at 3LD Art & Technology Center as part of the 2017 Works on Water Inaugural Triennial exhibition. Her projects also include Sizzle Sizzle Fly, a play about Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the first woman engineer to work at NASA Mission Control.

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith | © Carl Timpone/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

Anna Deavere Smith | © Carl Timpone/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

Profession: Actress, playwright
Known for: Notes from the Field, Let Me Down Easy, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Fires in the Mirror,The Arizona Project

A Tony and Pulitzer Prize nominee, Anna Deavere Smith interviews countless people, whom she then embodies in her documentary-style theater. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 chronicled the racial unrest in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict through monologues spoken by people connected to the events. In Smith’s play Fires in the Mirror, she addressed the Crown Heights Riots of 1991. Both plays are considered trailblazers in a genre that has become known as verbatim theatre.

Deavere Smith has also examined the relationships between women and the justice system (The Arizona Project), life, death and physical health (Let Me Down Easy) and the morality of the American Presidency (House Arrest).

For both her artistic achievements and devotion to civil rights, Smith has been honored by the MacArthur Foundation and President Barack Obama, among others.

Kellie Overbey

Kellie Overbey | © Gregory Pace/REX/Shutterstock

Profession: Actor, activist
Known for: A is For, Fair Wage Onstage, The Coast of Utopia, Love and Information

A is For co-founder Kellie Overbey is a passionate activist for women’s rights. But her devotion to justice extends far beyond gender issues: she was also a driving force behind Fair Wage Onstage, a movement devoted to advocating for a living wage for Off-Broadway performers.

“It was rank and file members getting together to challenge the way things have been done,” Overbey recalled. “[Saying], ‘You know what? The status quo is not good enough.’ We’re a community in crisis. Actors are leaving the business. We’re declaring bankruptcy. We can’t afford to live on these wages. We don’t want to close theaters, [but] there are so many theaters that can be paying more and they should be. So we’re asking for what’s fair.”

After releasing a video campaign and obtaining more than 1,000 signatures on a petition, Actors’ Equity Association and the League of Off-Broadway Theaters and Producers reached an agreement with wage increases ranging from 32% to 81% over the five-year contract. They ran eight people for Equity council—and seven were elected. Overbey herself is a representative of the labor union. “I’d like to help actors feel comfortable advocating for themselves,” she says.

Her activism moves from backstage to onstage as well. Reflecting on the lack of substantial roles for women her age, Overbey says, “The male gaze just doesn’t see middle-aged women for what they really are, which is fully realized human beings with a million wonderful stories that we’re not telling. And it really frustrates me.” With this in mind, Overbey is also pursuing writing.

Wendy Goldberg

Profession: Director, artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, program director of the National Directors Fellowship
Known for: IndecentThe Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, Deathbed, Master Class

Wendy Goldberg has brought national acclaim to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, a non-profit in Waterford, CT. The center even won the regional Tony Award in 2010, becoming the first organization devoted to education and play development to win such an honor. Having overseen the development of more than 90 stage projects, Goldberg has recognized and nurtured new voices and works such as Jennifer Haley’s The Nether and Lindsey Ferrentino’s Ugly Lies the Bone. She keeps parity in mind while she’s doing it: “I just hired six female directors out of eight for the summer. It was intentional. I think if we just had more people being intentional in their decision-making, we’d all be better for it.”

Goldberg’s vision comes from experience. She recalls: “My entire career I have had to deal with ageism and a lot of assumptions and jealous vibes from people much my senior who I have always tried to learn from and be respectful of going through this journey. Now that I’m over forty and a mother, a lot of that has gone away and it feels liberating, but I am so aware of how damaging all that can be.”

But it hasn’t slowed her down. Outside of the O’Neill’s Connecticut campus, Goldberg has directed at The Guthrie, Denver Center, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and Arena Stage, where she served as Artistic Associate for five years. Next up is the first regional production of Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman’s Indecent.

Winter Miller

Gloria Steinem, Winter Miller, Amanda Siegfried, The Penetration Play | © wintermiller.com

Gloria Steinem, Winter Miller, Amanda Siegfried in The Penetration Play | © wintermiller.com

Profession: Playwright
Known for: No One Is Forgotten, Look at Us, The Penetration Play, The Arrival, Seed: A Vaudevillian Cabaret, Amandine, In Darfur, Spare Rib 

A playwright and founding member of the Obie-recognized collective 13 Playwrights, Winter Miller has tackled challenging and controversial subjects, including genocide and abortion, in her work. After traveling to the refugee camps along the Chad-Sudan border with Nicholas Kristof, Miller wrote In Darfur, a fictional account of lives affected by the Sudan genocide with a female protagonist named Hawa. After premiering at the Public Theater, In Darfur played a standing-room only performance in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater—it was the first play by a woman to have that honor.

Miller is currently working on Spare Rib, a lengthy, non-linear, somewhat comic play about abortion. Its audiences watch members of the Jane Collective working to help women in need of abortions, discussions amongst female goddesses, and listen to the thoughts of a fetus in utero.

Miller maintains a sharp awareness about the lack of parity – gender, racial and sexual – in the industry. “When men are willing to cede power and share opportunities and take an active role in including women, people of color and trans artists, we will see change,” Miller says.

“The artistry is layers deep among us, no shortage of massive talents. I understand that men in charge—with a few exceptions—don’t want to share their thrones, and statistics show they’re likely to support and commission the artists who reflect the world they’re familiar with,” she continues. “If we all take a look at our unconscious biases and choose to act in a way that reflects conscious inclusivity and we change our pattern, the faces of theater will change.

“It stands to reason that the art itself will actually be higher caliber because there are more and diverse artists vying for these slots,” Miller adds, reflecting on the importance of diversity. “Some white men make incredible art, but a majority do not, yet still get greater opportunities, larger theaters, and budgets and pricier advertisements. In place of what is frequently viewed as mediocre work by a single population, we have the opportunity to seek and call in incredible works by a spectrum of artists who have been overlooked. This is win-win for artists and audiences.”

Unafraid to take on—and devote hour after hour—to a subject that so many avoid or speak of in hushed tones, Miller says, “I take care to write the plays I want to see in the world, and I’m mission-driven. I want audiences to be entertained and challenged. I feel rewarded when someone says, your play meant a lot to me.”

Part One of 50 Women in New York Theater You Should Know About: 1–25 can be found here.