The five plays that make up the 2016 season at the Mark Taper Forum are set across three centuries and two continents. They tackle race and religion, war and family strife, broken hearts and long friendships. But they do have one thing in common: all five plays have a woman playwright and/or a woman director behind them.And perhaps what’s most extraordinary about this fact is that it’s, well, not entirely extraordinary. “This is the paradigm in American theatre,” said Center Theatre Group Artistic Director Michael Ritchie. “The new reality is that there are a lot of talented women playwrights and directors across the country, and we’re lucky enough to work with six of them at the Taper this season.”
Jo Bonney, who is directing Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) at the Taper through May 15, 2016, sees this as part of a larger shift, though one that’s still in the making. “There’s no doubt that the professional landscape for women playwrights and directors has substantially improved over the past several years,” said Bonney, who has been directing plays for over three decades, and who received a 1998 Obie Award for Sustained Excellence of Direction. “Although I have to say that this season at the Taper is certainly not yet the norm; it’s a role model for other theatres.”
The Taper season is full of strong female characters, from the mothers and daughters of The Mystery of Love & Sex (written by Bathsheba Doran) and The Beauty Queen of Leenane (directed by Garry Hynes) to Penny, a slave on a West Texas plantation in Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) (written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Bonney), the successful artist and lawyer of Disgraced (directed by Kimberly Senior), and the famed eponymous singer of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (directed by Phylicia Rashad).
Yet none of these plays are strictly about women’s issues, nor are any of them aimed at attracting female audiences. Kimberly Senior believes that this is to her, and the play’s, advantage. “I kind of work best when I’m doing work that’s not my experience, so I can bring this other perspective,” said the Disgraced director. “We don’t hire a serial killer to play a serial killer. Part of our work as artists is to have empathy to step into someone else’s shoes. Let’s expand what kinds of stories we think women are capable of telling.”
A number of the women at the Taper this season have spent their careers doing just that. They have over 175 years of theatre experience among them, and have directed a broad range of shows all over the world. They have also amassed a number of impressive awards while breaking various boundaries. In 1998, Garry Hynes became the first woman to win a Tony Award® for Best Direction, for the original Broadway production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane. In 2002, Suzan-Lori Parks became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. And in 2014, Phylicia Rashad became the first African-American woman to win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.
But while there are fewer and fewer boundaries left to break, there is still more change to come. “So much of it is a question of mentorship for female artists of all kinds,” said Senior. Until now, women in theatre didn’t see other women directing and women writing, and didn’t have role models—much less mentors—in whose footsteps they could follow. But Senior is hopeful that things will be different for the next generation. “We want to raise up artists of excellence and authenticity and experience, and that takes time,” she said.
Bonney hopes “that this conversation becomes redundant. That the issue of gender is a non-issue, and that the question of which plays are chosen to be produced in a season and helmed by which directors will simply be about vision and creativity.”
At the Taper, and in all of Center Theatre Group’s work, this is already the case. “We never look to a director or a playwright to represent a particular group or fill some kind of quota,” said Ritchie. “We produce stories that are fresh and relevant, from the voices we think our audiences will find most compelling. It doesn’t matter to us if those voices are male or female, and we don’t think it matters to our audiences, either.”