Why Broadway Has Too Few Female Directors—and Why It Needs More

Special Features   Why Broadway Has Too Few Female Directors—and Why It Needs More Of about 30 new productions announced for Broadway this season, only six have female directors. But here’s what they’re bringing to the table.
Josie Rourke, Tina Landau, Kathleen Marshall, Rachel Chavkin and Pam MacKinnon
Josie Rourke, Tina Landau, Kathleen Marshall, Rachel Chavkin and Pam MacKinnon Monica Simoes/ Joseph Marzullo/WENN/Amy Boyle Photography

Female directors provide singular perspectives while developing Broadway shows. Theatre needs as much diversity as possible, especially when it comes to the voices at its lead. Of approximately 30 announced new Broadway productions for the 2016–2017 season, only four musicals and two plays are being directed by women, despite the strong female protagonists at the center of multiple stories. Though the directors behind some of this season’s biggest shows prefer to be known as “directors who happen to be female,” they all agree that Broadway would benefit from more diversity in the chair.

“Directors have, through all times historic, been predominantly male and white. I would hope that the stories we tell in the theatre speak to the widest audience possible, and that we’re able to give voice to the previously voiceless,” says Tina Landau, director of The Spongebob Musical. “You want Broadway shows to look like our world, and they don’t.”

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Janet McTeer in Les Liaisons Dangereuses Joan Marcus

While many credit theatre as the most progressive arm of the entertainment industry, Broadway still reflects society’s failure to put women’s voices on equal footing with those of men. “The place in which misogyny really does play a part is in how much success it takes for a female to prove to the captains of industry that she is worth trusting with millions of dollars,” says Rachel Chavkin, who makes her Broadway directorial debut with the highly anticipated Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. “You have to be better than your male counterparts.”

Landau points out that women have historically been stereotyped as “not as good at handling money as men. There is a large economic component [to directing], and producers need to trust that the person leading this endeavor is responsible for handling many-million dollars,” she says. “Perhaps much of the unconscious weariness about trusting women in that role has had to do with that, rather than creative issues.”

Josie Rourke, the first female artistic director for London’s Donmar Warehouse and making her Broadway directorial debut with the sexy drama Les Liaisons Dangereuses, agrees that much of the disparity between the number of women and men that direct Broadway shows has to do with money. But Rourke is quick to point out that women have proved themselves time and time again. “I did this huge piece with James Graham during the U.K. general election called The Vote, and it had 50 actors in it, and it went live onto network television on the night of the general election,” she says. “Although it was an incredibly artistic endeavor, it wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t understood the financial endeavor of it as well, and how you forward a company of that size.”

“Broadway is a tough club to break into sometimes,” says Kathleen Marshall, one of the few female veteran directors in the industry. She shepherds Broadway’s first a cappella musical, In Transit, to Broadway this season. Marshall began work as a choreographer Off-Broadway, where there are many more women directing shows. Her Main Stem directorial debut came with Wonderful Town, a transfer from City Center Encores! “It’s a little bit of a Catch-22, you want somebody to helm a multi-million-dollar musical who you have the confidence can handle that responsibility, but how can you prove you can handle that responsibility if you’re not given the opportunity to do it?” Because most producers look to seasoned directors there is little change, at least when it comes to the Great White Way.

Phillipa Soo in <i>Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812</i>
Phillipa Soo in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 Chad Batka

Chavkin says that Broadway needs more female directors, but not because they’re expected to do anything radically different. “We need more directors of color, too. The goal is to speak to as wide a population as possible, so you need people who are willing to put a priority on that kind of popular storytelling, while also continuing to push at the bounds of what we constantly accept as being commercial.” She reaffirms that this can come from a straight, white, cisgendered male, as much as it can come from an African American female.

So what does Chavkin bring to Great Comet of 1812? “This is not because I am a woman, specifically, I think it’s just me: the fact that I come from an experimental world, and a world that values an authentic experience, and my creating a genuinely visceral experience where things are actually happening, instead of just acting like things are happening,” she says. “That’s an enormous facet of what people respond to so strongly about Comet. We are genuinely creating chaos in the room, and an invitation to celebration and community is embedded in the DNA of that show. I think that comes from the fact that [scenic designer] Mimi Lien, [music and lyrics writer] Dave Malloy and I all come from this ‘downtown place.’”

For Amélie director Pam MacKinnon, her perspective is singular in the room. “My writing team is all male, and the protagonist is female,” she says. “These are men with mothers, daughters, girlfriends, and dear friends who are women—but they are still men…. As a woman I step into the development of this story with sensitivities that are deeply personal and help in the creation of telling the story—because of the [male-dominated] room that I’m a part of.” On the flip side, director Rebecca Taichman makes her Broadway directorial debut with the just announced Indecent by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, which she co-created, about two women in love set in 1907 Poland, and Taichman’s female perspective will no doubt speak volumes onstage.

Sutton Foster (center) in Cole Porter's Anything Goes.
Sutton Foster (center) in Cole Porter's Anything Goes. Joan Marcus

Marshall points to the advantage of a female perspective when it comes to vintage musicals, such as Anything Goes. When you’ve worked on new productions of definitive musicals that were written by men and usually directed by men, of course you’re going to sort of see it not only through a contemporary eye, but also through a woman’s perspective,” she says. “It’s especially important in looking at the female characters and making sure that they are equally taken care of, which might not have been the case when those productions were originally done. The women in those shows sometimes had different functions.”

She points to The Pajama Game as a prime example. “There’s a character in The Pajama Game, Prez, who in the original production was a married letch who chases after women, and the only one who acquiesces is a round girl,” she recalls of how her own stamp on the direction of the 2006 revival was influenced. “These days, unwanted sexual advances and singling people out for their body type—not so funny.” Marshall says that she and her team adjusted the characters so that Prez became a nerdy fellow lacking confidence. In Marshall’s production, the girl with whom he gets together is shy and tomboyish at first; when they find each other, they blossom. “[Because of my changes] it was still delightful and funny with no cringe factor.”

Landau believes her gender reflects in her tendency towards inclusivity on Spongebob. “This show benefits from me, not because I am a woman, but because I have been very aware of inclusivity in terms of writers we’ve asked to contribute and in terms of how we’ve cast the show [with a variety of] genders, races, and ages,” she says. “I’ve been very aware that there aren’t a lot of developed female roles. In developing Spongebob, I definitely wanted to boost up and integrate more strong female characters. I don’t know if a man would do that too, but I have done that, and I happen to be a woman.”

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Danny Skinner, Lilli Cooper and Ethan Slater Joan Marcus

Hopefully the increase in visibility of female directors on Broadway will beget more female directors on Broadway and throughout theatre. “I remember distinctly the night when I watched the 1998 Tony Awards when Garry Hynes and Julie Taymor won,” recalls Landau of the year when two women took home Best Direction prizes, Taymor for a musical with The Lion King and Hynes for a play with The Beauty Queen of Leenane. “No woman had ever won a directing Tony before. I thought, ‘It’s possible!’ Until that moment I hadn’t thought that would happen.” As in so many things, seeing is believing.

What’s more, as women enjoy more opportunities to direct Off-Broadway and regional productions, talents like Chisa Hutchinson (Second Stage’s upcoming Somebody’s Daughter) and Erica Schmidt (The New Group’s upcoming All the Fine Boys) and others could enter the proverbial club by the year 2018.

“There’s a growing momentum of confidence in the ability of women directors to deliver good work,” says Rourke.

“It has been an interesting year, especially with the election and trusting a woman with a lot of responsibility and power,” says Marshall. “We have a candidate who happens to be incredibly qualified, who also happens to be a woman. I think the same can be said of directors. There are plenty of women who are capable of handling the artistic, creative, and financial responsibility of directing a Broadway show, and just need to be given the opportunity to prove that they can.”

Iris Wiener is an entertainment journalist. Her work appears on Playbill.com and in TheaterMania, Long Island Woman and Long Island Herald, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @Iris_Wiener or visit her at IrisWiener.com.

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