Young girls have been inspired for years by stirring acceptance speeches for best actress, but this year’s Tony Awards might motivate more of them to choose the path of director rather than performer.
For the first time since 1998, women won both of the awards for best direction: Diane Paulus for the revival of “Pippin” in the musical category and Pam MacKinnon for the revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” for a play.
And to top it off, Cyndi Lauper was the first solo woman to win for best score. It was also her first time working on Broadway.
You can count on the fingers of one hand now the times women have taken home the American Theatre Wing’s Tony Award for best direction of a play or musical. Not only was 1998 the first year for a female to take Broadway’s top prize for directing, but women won in both categories: Julie Taymor for the musical “The Lion King” and Garry Hynes for “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”
Since then, the only woman to win a directing award has been Susan Stroman in 2001 for “The Producers.”
“Creativity is a form of knowledge,” Paulus said in her inspiring acceptance speech, quoting Harvard President Drew Faust. She dedicated the award to her family. “To my parents, who gave me the best gift a daughter could ever hope for… the encouragement to do what you love with your life, which for me was the theatre.”
MacKinnon had a tough act to follow. “So Vegas got this one wrong, and uh, Diane Paulus’ speech was fantastic,” MacKinnon said. “So that’s where my head is.”
But she continued with a line that’s already being quoted in the world of social media: “All shows close eventually, and this production will live in my memory for a very long time because of my cast of actors.”
Ironically, Antoinette Perry, for whom the Tony Awards are named, was not only an actress but one of the first female directors on Broadway. She turned to producing and directing after a stroke in 1927 paralyzed one side of her face, ending her career as an actress.
Her most famous work was Mary Chase’s comedy, “Harvey” in 1944, which won the Pulitzer that year for best play over Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” Hollywood later immortalized the story of “Harvey” with James Stewart.
Actress Helen Hayes called Perry “one of the best directors the American theatre has produced.”
During World War II, Perry co-founded the Theatre Wing of Allied Relief, which operated the famous Stage Door Canteen in New York, offering entertainment to troops, and later evolved into into the American Theatre Wing. A year after Perry’s death in 1946 from a fatal heart attack, the American Theatre Wing gave its first awards for excellence at a dinner in New York. Perry’s former partner, producer Brock Pemberton, dubbed the prize a “Tony” and that was that.
But few women have followed Perry’s path as a director. “For years, directing has been such a boy’s club,” Stefany Cambra, a 2013 graduate of Drury University’s theatre program in Springfield, Mo. She’s producing and directing a play there this summer and then plans to move to Chicago where she hopes to start a theatre company with other Drury alums.
There’s more interest in female directors now from graduate schools and internship programs, Cambra told me.
In the end, though, it really shouldn’t matter whether a director is male or female, Cambra believes. “A director is, essentially, a story teller and gender has nothing to do with a talent for telling stories.”