Throughout history, the arts have always been at the forefront of social change recording it, urging it along, sometimes even sparking it. Broadway and the theatre industry-at-large are tackling opportunities to invoke advancement in our own present cultural climate. In a time marked with hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, arts industries are not only responsible for documenting the world around us, but to also create awareness, bring forth discussion, and affect change—all to create a more conscious and equitable society. And for many theatre organizations, it’s women who are leading those changes.
Here are just a few of our industry’s great women whose leadership, advocacy, and activism are creating a theatre world that is more inclusive, diverse, and welcoming to all artists and audiences.
As president and CEO of the American Theatre Wing, Hitchens oversees a myriad of programs that encourage growth in the performing arts. During her tenure, she has tripled the budget at the Wing, allowing for program expansions and increased financial and educational support for creatives. Hitchens also created the Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative, designed to advance diversity in the theatre through grant funding for arts programs in under-resourced public schools and university scholarships for theatre studies.
Charlotte St. Martin
As the commercial theatre industry’s national trade association, The Broadway League is behind the business of Broadway. Initially formed in 1930 primarily for contract negotiations between theatre owners and theatrical unions, the League’s purview has expanded greatly. St. Martin joined the League as president in 2006 and in the past three years has led the industry through arguably the most difficult situation in its almost-100-year history: the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. With St. Martin at the helm, the League mobilized, quickly forming task forces and working with the government for support and for a safe return to live performances—with new COVID protocols in place and new contracts that allowed for more swings and understudies.
When Shindle assumed the presidency of Actors’ Equity Association in 2015, she became the labor union’s youngest leader and only the third woman to hold the elected title. Since then, she’s led AEA through numerous contract negotiations, and was instrumental in the union’s first-ever presidential endorsement in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. Shindle’s reelection during the pandemic allowed her to advocate to Congress for workers’ aid during the industry shutdown. A long-time AIDS activist, she also holds a spot on the boards of both Broadway Cares and The Entertainment Community Fund.
When Stitt struggled to put together an all-female band for the 2017 Off-Broadway production of Sweet Charity, she knew something had to be done. Maestra Music was formed. With initiatives—including educational seminars, mentorship programs, technical skills workshops, and networking events—the non- profit aims to advance equality of opportunity, and to promote visibility and support for female-identifying and nonbinary musicians in the theatre industry.
Julia Jordan, Marsha Norman, and Theresa Rebeck
When three award-winning playwrights team up to say something, people listen. The Lillys began in 2010 as the Lilly Awards, honoring women’s achievements in American theatre. The organization later partnered with the Dramatists Guild for the triennial study, The Count, a demographic study that highlighted the gender disparity in works produced by not-for-profit theatres nationwide. Other programs include the Lorraine Hansberry Initiative, which provides scholarships for women and nonbinary BIPOC dramatists in graduate school, and the Family Residency at SPACE on Ryder Farm, a retreat for playwrights and their children.
Black Theatre United ostensibly started with a tweet from LaChanze, in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Conversations among friends quickly became the advocacy organization, whose founding members are some of Broadway’s most famous Black artists. Following a summit with theatre industry leaders, BTU notably authored “The New Deal,” a set of reforms which establishes industry-wide standards regarding equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging. LaChanze currently serves as president for the non-profit. And that’s not all. This season, LaChanze has become a powerhouse producer, advocating for new work and diverse work on Broadway—she has received two Tony nominations as a producer on Kimberly Akimbo and Topdog/Underdog.
One of this year’s recipients for the Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre, Bailey has led the Theatre Development Fund as executive director since 2001. With its mission to eliminate barriers to attendance, TDF cultivates broad and diverse audiences for live theatre and dance performance through a variety of programs. During her tenure, Bailey has been instrumental in launching the Autism Theatre Initiative and has seen a 100 percent increase in New York City high school students served by TDF’s educational programs.
Producers not only have a large say in what stories are brought to Broadway each year, but also who gets a hand in telling those stories. With more women each year taking lead producing spots, a visible difference is being made in gender parity and racial equity in creative team hires—from directors and playwrights, to designers to stage managers. And more diverse stories are making their way to the stage each year.
This season, Second Stage Artistic Director Carole Rothman brought Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play to the Main Stem, the first work by a Native American woman on Broadway (directed by Rachel Chavkin). Cindy Tolan led the producing team of the revival of Death of a Salesman starring an all-Black cast (and directed by Miranda Cromwell). And Manhattan Theatre Club Artistic Director Lynne Meadow brought Martyna Majok’s Tony-nominated play Cost of Living to Broadway, directed by Tony nominee Jo Bonney and starring Tony nominee Katy Sullivan, who is disabled.
Representation matters at every step of the process, but having women of color in leadership positions is especially important. As one of Broadway’s only Black full-time producers, Alia Jones-Harvey of Front Row Productions has been on the producing teams for The Piano Lesson, Ain’t Too Proud, and Eclipsed, to name a few. Erica Jensen of Calleri Jensen Davis is one of the city’s few BIPOC casting directors, advocating for actors of color from the other side of the casting table. This season, Playbill introduced readers to its first ever BIPOC Editor in Chief, Diep Tran, guiding the publication towards thoughtful journalism in covering the industry as it grapples with new, sensitive issues.
The past few years have also seen a number of new positions created specifically to address disparities and social safety in live theatre. In 2019, Claire Warden became the first Intimacy Director on Broadway for the revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. She has worked eight additional times on the Main Stem, guiding actors safely through physical moments. A new slew of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion positions have been hired for organizations and for productions, both in full-time positions, like Chief Diversity Officer Gennean Scott for The Broadway League, or in consultant capacities, like Christina Alexander, who serves as culture strategist for Kimberly Akimbo and director of social responsibility for Wicked.
With these women and more guiding the industry, Broadway is making strides to become a much more inclusive, equitable, safe, and welcoming arena for all theatre artists and audiences.