When the Tony Awards were presented earlier this summer, female directors took top honors in both the play and musical categories for the first time in this century (Pam MacKinnon for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Diane Paulus for Pippin).
And it was only the second time in the history of those coveted theater awards, which began in 1947, that women had been so honored.
Despite its rarity, the double distaff victory surprised no one in the theater world. It was the logical outcome of the continually increasing number of women joining the ranks of theater directors — a quiet revolution that is apparent not only at New York awards ceremonies, but also on Tarrant-area stages.
Some of these women move from a well-worn spot on the stage to the director’s position. Some mix their acting with their directing by choice. And others take on directing chores because the structure or economics of their home theater demand it.
Among the women who have been particularly impressive on the west side of the Metroplex in recent seasons are Krista Scott, Robin Armstrong, Dana Schultes and Emily Scott Banks.
They all come at their directing duties from slightly different directions. Armstrong, who teaches at Collin College in Plano, and Scott, who is on the theater faculty at TCU, combine directing with academic chores.
Schultes is a well-established actress who also has handled a number of administrative duties at her home base, Stage West. And Banks, who acted and directed coming up in Austin, is becoming more active as a director in this area after 13 years here as a busy performer.
But there is one common thread among these trend-representing female directors: They are all doing dynamite work.
Is the playing field level?
There is certainly nothing new, or even unusual, about seeing a woman’s name under the director’s credit of a playbill in North Texas.
Take, for example, Sharon Benge, a former Casa Mañana administrator, founding director of Fort Worth’s Shakespeare in the Park and an extremely active theater professional who now also teaches at Texas Woman’s University. And Susan Sargeant, a near local legend who has served as producing artistic director at Dallas’ WingSpan Theatre since it began in 1997.
They have directed more shows and mentored more aspiring actors than almost any of their male counterparts you could name. They are but two of an ever-growing number.
Still, “I would venture that probably less than 40 percent of the directors [in DFW] are women,” estimated Banks, who has worked with a wide range of theaters in the area.
Not until 1998, when Julie Taymor took home a Tony for directing The Lion King, and Garry Hynes, for directing The Beauty Queen of Leenane, had a woman ever earned theater’s top prize for stage direction. The national trend of mostly male directors historically has been mirrored on the local level, as well.
“But I think more women are realizing that they would like to give [directing] a shot. So they are finding their voices,” said Armstrong, who has done several shows at Circle Theatre and recently directed her first show at Stage West.
Here’s a closer look at the leading ladies of local theater direction.
Scott, who will open her next show, Exit, Pursued by Bear, on Thursday at Circle Theatre, said that she has rarely experienced gender bias in her pursuit of directing jobs.
“I can’t think of anything specific I ever encountered here,” she said. “But I taught at Ole Miss [the University of Mississippi] for two years. And there was a good-ol’-boy system there that was even evident in the male students.”
Scott said she thinks more women are becoming directors for a variety of reasons, including the inspiration of a growing number of female playwrights.
“I think more women are writing, and there are more workshops and play readings and things like that. That has something to do with it, too — that there is a woman’s voice in the play,” she said. “The director should be the person who is able to understand or promote what that female playwright has to say.”
And the comedy Scott is currently directing, which was written by a woman (Lauren Gunderson), offers an example of the type of things she thinks female directors in particular can bring to the table.
“It’s just a funny little play about domestic abuse,” she said.
Scott will be marking her directorial debut at Circle Theatre with the show.
Exit, Pursued by Bear is set in rural north Georgia, where an abused wife, Nan, has had enough from her abusive husband, Kyle. But before she walks, she wants to teach her loathsome spouse a lesson. Once he is too drunk to notice, Nan hogties him and, with the help of a stripper friend, she uses some creative means to try to start Kyle on the road to rehabilitation.
“It’s a very theatrical, dark comedy. But it is so crisp and so funny. It is one of the rare ones where I laughed out loud as I read it,” said Scott, who specializes in the speech and vocal aspects of theater. “But there’s also poignancy there because it deals with domestic abuse.”
But perhaps the most important thing about Scott’s involvement with this show is the perspective she brings to it.
“I got married too young and to a man who was not too nice, either,” she said. “So I understand it.”
A string of impossibly fast-paced and guffaw-laden comedies have earned Armstrong a sterling reputation as a director of farces (although it should be emphasized that she has distinguished herself with more dramatic fare, as well).
She comes by her command of physical comedy honestly. Before becoming so widely admired as a director, Armstrong was known for her abilities as a teacher of stage combat. She said transitioning from performer to director was an “absolutely natural fit” and that she encountered gender bias in only one particular part of her theater career.
“I had been doing stage combat for so long, which is a serious boys club, but I never had any trouble in that area,” said Armstrong, whose next show will be the comedy Too Many Cooks, opening at Circle Theatre in October. “The place where I found the most gender bigotry was in improvisation. I heard the phrase ‘girls aren’t funny’ more times than I care to think about. I have been told, ‘You gave us the best audition we have ever had, but because you’re a girl, you probably wouldn’t be comfortable with the backstage talk of the men.’”
But Armstrong said she feels she has always been able to cope with working in what many consider to be the man’s world of comedy direction for a simple reason.
“I have five brothers,” she said. “I blame my family [for my comedy chops]. My dad and brothers are really funny. If I can get my family to laugh, then I’ve done good.”
As one of the primary performers and administrators at Stage West, Schultes came to directing largely out of necessity.
“When we realized, a few years ago, that Stage West was going to have a nice bright future, we also saw that, if I was going to take a leadership role here, it was going to be a necessity for me to learn how to direct,” said Schultes, who has the title of co-producing director at the theater. “From that point, we’ve always looked for one show each season that I can direct. I would probably do more if there were not the complication of being a mom. And being a little selfish, I want to spend more time with my daughter.”
She directed her first show for Stage West in 2007. But just because the task of directing was thrust upon her, it does not mean Schultes does not relish the opportunity.
“When I get to be head of all of that, and I get to see how a good story has a personal effect on an audience, it’s very satisfying to me,” she said, “because I want to have the power to have an effect on people’s lives in some way, whether it is to make them think, or just to make them laugh. It makes me so happy to translate a story.”
Schultes will be taking Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, a show she previously directed at Stage West, to WaterTower Theatre in Addison starting Aug. 18.
And Schultes said she is aware that she is in a unique situation at Stage West.
“I will always be the odd man out when it comes to the three people who have been running this theater, Jerry [Russell], Jim [Covault] and myself,” she said. “And sometimes it does feel like the boys are quashing the girl’s voice, without a doubt. But once I step back from that heightened emotional place of feeling like that, I am fully able to respect that they have been doing this 40 years longer than me, and it really isn’t a case of gender.”
Her most recent directing effort at Stage West was the drama 4000 Miles.
She said the general environment for female directors has improved in recent years.
“To me, it feels like it is finally leveling out some. Women are finally as respected as men,” she said. “I bet we are going to have more guest directors [at Stage West] next year and, most likely, some of them will be females.”
Emily Scott Banks
“I didn’t really stop to think if I was qualified for this. I just jumped in,” said Banks about her initial forays into directing while still an undergrad at the University of Texas at Austin. “I don’t know, but maybe men don’t question as much if they are ready. They tend to just jump in. But feminine traits dictate that we wait and hold back until we feel like we are absolutely, totally, completely ready and viable. That’s how we are programmed. And sometimes that is simply not in our best interests.
“Sometimes it’s best just to get in there and flail around.”
Banks has worked primarily as a performer since moving to North Texas. But, earlier this year, she directed Scott in a highly lauded production of the powerful drama Wit at Theatre Arlington. And she will return to that theater to direct Doubt next year.
“I must act. I am just not myself and not where I need to be if I don’t act,” she said. “But directing is becoming more important for me, because I get to use more of my storytelling abilities. I get to play with all the crayons in the box. As I mature, I need balance. I don’t want to do just one or the other.”