The Legacy Project: Pioneering Women Producers
Presented by the League of Professional Theatre Women & CUNY Grad Center
Monday, May 14, 2012
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue
The women who precede us mark the lives we lead in ways we sometimes never discern. In politics and in theatre and in life, many of these women have filled my recent days. Last week I thrilled to a performance piece about the suffragette activist Alice Paul, one of the foremothers who fought in the early 20th century for the voting rights and responsibilities American women have today. She is part of the history that we continually must claim and reclaim, through writings, readings, theatre, conversations. And Monday May 14, 2012 the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW) held a few panel discussions, screened a film, and generally honored the work of women who wrote, directed, managed, acted, and produced theatre in the twentieth century. This event joins several others LPTW has been holding all year to honor the 30th anniversary of its own founding, Women in the audience, women on the screen, women as parts of the stories being told. Let us celebrate.
First up: a screening of the 2005 film Sweet Tornado about Margo Jones — part standard issue biography (images, text, interviews with people who knew her) and part a kind of two person play featuring the delectable duo Judith Ivey as Margo Jones and Richard Thomas as Tennessee Williams. Margo Jones — Broadway and regional theatre trail blazer, early champion and director of Tennessee Williams, and an early proponent of an American national theatre featuring nodes across the country. Her vision was not a central single institution in DC or New York but a “dramatic map of America” with theatre in every town, every region. For her art was life, and art was a force for salvation. Margo saw the theatre in her judge father’s courtroom (a little jolt of recognition for me this day as I share this observation and live this law-theatre connection), and looked for the theatre on stages everywhere. An inspiration.
The balance of the afternoon and early evening program is filled by the animated crowd at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center and the wisdom and joy in the lives of several theatre women, introduced and discussed by women dramaturgs and historians and academics who have written books about each. Wendy Smith discusses Cheryl Crawford (her book Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940 will find its way to my bookshelves soon). Cheryl left work at the Theatre Guild, as Smith notes, because “Lee (Strasberg) and Harold (Clurman) seduced my mind.” Helen Sheehn shares observations about Margo Jones (in the film and as a panelist in person) and about the delectable and brilliant actress, director, artistic director, and translator Eva Le Gallienne. Alexis Greene provides background and anecdotes about the wealthy patron of off Broadway Lucille Lortel. (A foundation and theatre and archives and award ceremony in her name continue to support and honor the work of theatre artists in smaller New York theatres.) Wendy Vierow discusses the American Repertory Theatre co-founder, actress, and director Margaret Webster. J. Ellen Gainor provides tempting tidbits about the life and career of playwright Susan Glaspell. And Susan Quinn presents pieces of the inspiring story of Hallie Flanagan, director, writer, and director of the Works Progress Administration program the Federal Theatre Project from 1935-1938.
Stories of these women inspire generally. And I find that several stories inspired and informed my life specifically. Margo Jones was inspired by the theatre of law courts, just as I have been personally and professionally. She watched cases in her father’s courtroom and she facilitated explicitly court-influenced theatre — she was instrumental in the life of Inherit the Wind, the great courtroom drama based on the Scopes Monkey Trial. Eva Le Gallienne has touched me from afar — I saw her on Broadway in the 1970s revival of The Royal Family and gave me memories of stage moments that can generate emotional responses to this day. And I have in my possession a copy of her 1940 memoir At 33 inscribed to my paternal grandmother, the context for which has always been a kind of family mystery for me. This day Ms. Greene gives me the key to this little mystery with her remark that Le Gallienne penned the memoir and traveled the provinces to raise money for her theatrical enterprises. For Grandmother Hermine this “province” was Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the context a meeting of a women’s literary club, and the prize is in my possession.
Ah, family stories enhanced. Ah, personal stories connected. Ah the women. Ah, the women. Thank you.
© Martha Wade Steketee (May 17, 2012)