Julia Miles, the trailblazing founder of WP Theater in New York City, passed away March 18 after a long illness. The news was shared online by WP Artistic Director Lisa McNulty.
Miles founded WP in 1978 as the Women’s Project Theater, an organization dedicated to combating the under-representation of women artists working in the American theatre. Since, its mission has remained constant: develop, produce, and promote the work of women artists (and now female-identifying and trans artists) at every stage in their careers. More than 600 Off-Broadway productions later, the theatre has fostered the careers of such noted theatre makers as Billie Allen, Anne Bogart, Pearl Cleage, Eve Ensler, María Irene Fornés, Pam MacKinnon, Dominique Morisseau, Lynn Nottage, Joyce Carol Oates, Diane Paulus, Sarah Ruhl, Anna Deavere Smith, Rebecca Taichman, Rachel Chavkin, Quíara Alegria Hudes, Tanya Barfield, Leigh Silverman, Anne Kauffman, and many more.
READ: How WP Theater Ensures The Future is Female
Miles began her career in the early 1960s as a co-founder of the Theatre Current in Brooklyn Heights and as an assistant manager at The American Place Theatre, where she later became the associate director. During this time, she noted the lack of plays written by women that were being produced at the theatre, in comparison to those written by men.
Under a grant from the Ford Foundation, Miles created The Women’s Project in 1978 under the umbrella of The American Place Theatre, where, for the first nine years, WP staged its productions in the basement. WP Theater’s first production was Choices, a one-woman show that was adapted from the works of Colette, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Joan Didion, and others. It was conceived by writer Patricia Bosworth and adapted by Bosworth, director Caymichael Patten, and actor Lily Lodge.
As she continued to build WP, Miles and a group of forward-thinking women at a theatre conference in San Diego, came up with the idea of a League of Professional Theatre Women. Incorporated in 1986, she was the League's founding member and first chair. “[Our purpose] is to get the commercial Broadway theatre to know about non-profit women playwrights and directors so that we could get them some work," reads a quote from Miles on the LPTW website, "to bring commercial interests together with nonprofit interests so they could benefit from each other.”
In 1987, Miles' Women’s Project Theater left The American Place Theatre and became an independent organization (now known as WP). It found its first permanent home, The Julia Miles Theater on West 55th Street, in 1988; after selling the venue in 2011, the company has since been in residence at Off-Broadway houses, The Cherry Lane, beginning in 2012, and the McGinn/Cazale, which is its current home on Broadway and 76th Street.
"Julia made all of us. The debt all of us women who make theatre owe her can never be repaid," shared McNulty. "We must take her example and do our best to make spaces for artists who aren’t given space, and to shout loudly for those who aren’t given a voice. If we can do that, we will give back a fraction of what we’ve been given."
WP is communicating with Miles' family to find a time to celebrate the founder's life and legacy, likely to be once closures and restrictions have been lifted.