She was a friend and classmate of Agnes de Mille, a colleague of Horton Foote, and a trailblazer on the Broadway stage. She was Mary Hunter Wolf, and she died Nov. 3 at age 95, after a life devoted to changing the idea of what a woman’s role in theatre could be.
In an era that has bred Garry Hynes, Julie Taymor and Susan Stroman, it seems strange to think of a time when the idea of women directing major Broadway production was almost absurd. But that’s the world Mary Hunter was born into. Rather than finish her studies at Wellesley College, Ms. Hunter was bitten by the directing bug and eventually moved to Chicago, where, according to the New York Times obituary (Nov. 13), she staged such plays as The Dreamy Kid, The Man Who Died at 12:00 and Plumes.
By 1931, Ms. Hunter had gotten a radio acting job (on “Easy Aces”) that led to a 14-year commitment and move to New York City. During that time, she co-founded the American Actors Company, a Stanislavsky-based training center, with Andrius Jilinsky. Students there included Agnes de Mille (who had already been a classmate of Ms. Wolf at the Hollywood School for Girls), Jerome Robbins and playwright Horton Foote. In 1944, Ms. Hunter would make her debut as a Broadway director, staging Foote’s Only the Heart. According to the New York Times, Ms. Hunter would go on to direct Carib Song, Out of Dust, Ballet Ballads and Sartre’s Respectful Prostitute, which did well enough to spawn a touring version, which Ms. Hunter also directed.
Her star seemed to be rising, but she learned quickly that Broadway wasn’t yet ready to welcome a distaff director to the grownups’ table. Before rehearsals began, Ms. Hunter was fired from the musical High Button Shoes, with George Abbott taking over. According to the New York Times, Ms. Hunter sued and won, with the New York Supreme Court agreeing that she was let go because of her sex. Whatever ill will came out of that grievance, Ms. Hunter apparently had no quarrel with choreographer Jerome Robbins, as she worked with him again as associate director on 1954’s Peter Pan.
When she wasn’t directing shows of her own, Ms. Hunter was busy helping other actors and directors learn their craft. She established the Professional Training Program of the American Theatre Wing, and she co founded the American Shakespeare Theatre (Stratford, CT) with Lawrence Langner. Married to Herman Wolf in 1955 and divorced ten years later, Ms. Hunter leaves behind two stepsons and a stepdaughter — and a Broadway that, though still hindered by racist and sexist tendencies, has at least shown more receptivity towards artists of different ethnic backgrounds and genders.
Librettist Eric Haagensen wrote to Playbill On-Line (Nov. 13) to share his recollection of meeting Ms. Hunter when his show, the John LaTouche-based musical Taking a Chance on Love, played at the York Theatre last season. "Mary was full of fascinating stories about `Touche,' and a joy to meet," Haagensen wrote. "Her words of praise for the show meant a great deal. After all, she was there."
— By David Lefkowitz