[article originally published at The Clyde Fitch Report, February 18, 2016.]
Feature Image: Women Without Men By Hazel Ellis, directed by Jenn Thompson, presented by The Mint Theater Company at New York City Center. Photo by Richard Termine.
Women Without Men, the Off-Broadway offering from the Mint Theater opening Feb. 25, 2016 at New York City Center, offers an experiment among familiars: an all-female design team and all-female cast, most of whom have worked together on prior projects and often together at the Mint. Members of the creative team — director Jenn Thompson, set designer Vicki R. Davis, sound designer Jane Shaw, costume designer Martha Hally, and dialect designer and dramaturg Amy Stoller — all offered some of their perspectives on the experience.
In Hazel Ellis’ 1938 play, we encounter adult teachers and students in an early 20th-century Irish Protestant school for girls. This isn’t Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (though a bit of schoolgirl mischief is part of the plot), but rather a story about professional women from widely disparate backgrounds and futures who find a working rhythm together. A Glengarry Glen Ross in a teacher’s break-room, if you will, with different stakes. “It’s a wealthy school,” observed Shaw, “so these girls probably have a little bit more money than the women we’re watching in the faculty room. We’re watching a sort of generational hand-off of young girls coming into being women and making it in the world.” Thompson noted that Ellis’ play is something of a find: “This is the second and last play she wrote, and she was 27 when she wrote it. It wasn’t long after she wrote this play that she got married and basically took herself out of professional life.”
Theatrical rediscoveries, of course, are a well-known part of the Mint’s DNA. “I love the archaeology of creating a character where you’re reading the text over and over again to try to find clues about who the writer thinks these people are,” Hally said. “In this play that’s particularly true, because you have these eight women who are all joined together under one roof and they’re facing the same social economic deprivations at the same time, and yet they bring into this room different backgrounds and vastly different personalities.”
As director, Thompson must calibrate the actor-specific and geography-focused possibilities of Women Without Men. “It’s a really terrific actors piece,” she explained. “It’s just these ladies in a room. What you’re going to make of it is going to be the detail and the life that those actresses bring to it.” Indeed, the creative team worked to uncover and understand the social, economic and political limitations faced by these characters. “Part of the reason that these women are as unhappy and in the circumstance that they find themselves is that they don’t have any choices,” Thompson continued. “They’ve all sort of been emotionally amputated in some way, and that’s largely to do with the fact that their options are almost zero in terms of building a life. Their opportunities for self-expression in terms of sexuality, of professional achievement — there’s nothing, no movement for them. That’s what drives the behavior, and the behavior is driven from actual pain, and that is individual to the person and what they are facing, but it’s also societal. At first glance, you can take away from the play, Oh, it’s just a lot of ladies being awful to one another. But I really don’t think that’s what it is. I think there’s a lot of really excellent emotional reasons for what’s happening on stage that casts a really interesting light on that time.”
In this sense, Thompson concluded, having an all-woman cast and creative team resonates with the play itself:
“We thought [an all-woman team] would add something to the proceeding, and would add something to the storytelling, which is really what I’m interested in. If they’re not going to do something interesting to the story, then it feels like a trick and that’s not interesting to me. I thought this play would benefit from women creating an environment for women.”
Commitment from the Top
Jonathan Bank has been the Mint’s artistic director since 1995, and all the interviewees placed its track record, its choice to produce this play and the formation of an all-woman team at his feet. Thompson values how Bank invited her to consider the selection of the play before asking her to commit to direct it. “He was really interested in what I thought about the play,” she said. “It wasn’t like: ‘I’m doing this; do you want to direct it?’ It was: ‘What do you think about this play?’ We entered into conversations about the play, what the approach might be.”
The impulse to assign an all-woman design team also came from Bank. “You have to say: I’m going to fill this position with a woman, or with a minority, or whatever the goal is,” Thompson observed. “I think a lot of times, places and theaters have the best intentions and say ‘We’re open to that,’ but I think it takes more than just being ‘open’ to it… You want to make sure it’s the right personnel, it’s the right aesthetic for the show, all the criteria that come up anyway.”
Shaw underscored the importance, though, of support always coming from the top. Bank “finding the plays” of the Mint, she said, “is fantastic, but he’s also incredibly supportive as a producer and you always trust that he’s going to do what the production needs and what’s best and is going to support you in whatever, wherever your creative or the needs of the play takes you.”
Davis, the set designer, concurred, noting how “the Mint has always been inclusive. It’s the norm for us: there are women directors and women playwrights and designers in all aspects are often women. And so it’s not unusual.” The real difference is the rest of the world. “What’s been frustrating is how unusual it is in the greater field. Often the conversation you’re having in the lobby during tech is, ‘What’s your experience elsewhere? And it’s interesting to find how quickly we recognize that it’s different.” Hally, the costume designer, supported this point: “It’s unfortunate that it’s still an unusual situation. There really was nothing different about working with an all-female creative team than with a mixed gender team, except that it’s unusual. Collaborators are collaborators.”
Reflections on the Experiment
The reactions of the women working on this production ranged from “This feels not much different than my usual working arrangements” to “This defines what theater can be.” Those emotions, and everything in between, seemed worth a deeper dive.
For example, Shaw, as sound designer, underscored the essential role of Thompson in her inaugural directorial flight with the Mint. “She is fun and a hard taskmaster and intense,” Shaw said, “but at the end of the day trusts everybody. Her commitment to really figuring out this play is one of the reasons it’s where it is today. She didn’t sit back and let it happen. She went in there and wrestled it to the ground and brought in a lot of people she trusted. She was a great force to make this all happen.”
Underlying all of this in trust, borne of professional and personal familiarity built over years. “We all felt pretty connected going in,” Thompson offered. “That’s always nice because you end up having a shorthand.
“Ideally you want a mix; to surround yourself with people who you have a shorthand with, and you also want to infuse [the process] with new blood, too. And that absolutely happened, in both the cast and in the creative design aspect of things.”
Thompson also noted that “designers are designers, and the job has to get done, and I don’t think that sex or gender enters into that process.” When pressed, though, she expanded on that observation: “We stayed at the table longer, we didn’t set things in stone as quickly; we stayed in flux a little bit longer.”
Joy in the Layers
Since its 1992 founding, the Mint Theater has made the hiring of women directors, designers, stage managers and dramaturgs a priority, and focused very often on women’s stories on stage. Its mission is to “do more than blow the dust off neglected plays” and to “make vital connections between the past and present,” and nearly half the “close to 50 neglected plays” produced thus far have been by women. In the five full seasons tracked in the 2015 Women Count report covering major Off-Broadway theaters, the Mint’s track record can vary. In the first three of those five seasons (2010 to 2013), at least one woman playwright was produced, including the plays of Teresa Deevy sprinkled through several seasons; in the latter two seasons (2013 to 2015), only the work of male playwrights was presented. Other statistics: a single woman director in the past five seasons (in 2011-12); at least one woman set designer in each of the five seasons; at least one woman lighting designer in each of the first four, but none in 2014-15. Costume designers have been 100 percent women over the past five seasons. And there has been an extraordinarily consistent (and rare) dominance of women sound designers in each of the five seasons 2010-2015.
As a designer working in the theater, Davis noted that Women Count offers layers of lessons. When a number of individuals dominate any field, she wonders, do they prevent others from following behind? “When you actually look at the who and where, it’s an even gloomier picture than just the numbers,” she suggested.
“When you go into those percentages and realize that it’s two or three or six women who are consistently employed, you realize that opportunity either is or is not there. You feel like you’re not working enough, yet you have a large portion of what has been produced by women…. The opportunity is not there. It’s such a complicated thing. And there are so many factors to what makes it all work well.”
“It’s not that we can’t all work well together, or that we don’t have something to say about the other gender, or other races,” Shaw said. “That’s another thing we don’t like to talk about: are there are a lot of white people designing plays about people who aren’t white? And that’s a problem. We need more diversity in the design world, but we are also all contributing as much as we can.”
© Martha Wade Steketee (February 18, 2016)