Female Directors Start to Break Through in Theater, but a Long Road Lies Ahead

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Marcia Milgrom Dodge has never been one of the usual suspects.

She's toiled for decades in the quasi-anonymous vineyards of regional theater, directing an "Anything Goes" here, choreographing a "South Pacific" there. The gigs have been pretty steady, and most of the time she's had a blast. But not until she got the out-of-the-blue call to come to Washington to direct and choreograph the Kennedy Center's centerpiece revival of "Ragtime" was she given a bona fide crack at a careermaker.

It's been a pretty heady several months for the garrulous 54-year-old director, who has not only scored a personal breakthrough -- the critically praised, $4.4 million production is selling out the Eisenhower Theater and has sparked serious negotiations for a move to Broadway -- but also broken a barrier. She happens to be the first woman to direct a major musical produced by the Kennedy Center.

It might be surprising that in 2009, women are still having to grope their way to the power seat in an artistic field such as theater. And the helm of a musical, with its complex and expensive working parts, is perhaps the most difficult and challenging position the theater has to offer. Yet for all the successes of a Julie Taymor ("The Lion King") or a Susan Stroman ("The Producers"), women even today only occasionally receive the assignment to direct a big-budget, big-showcase musical.

Although the ranks of choreographers are chockablock with women, the lineup of female directors snaring the coveted top behind-the-scenes job is substantially thinner. Of the 15 musicals that opened on Broadway this season, for example, only two have been shepherded by women: Diane Paulus of "Hair" and Kristin Hanggi of "Rock of Ages." They join a fairly exclusive sorority of female directors with a show currently running on Broadway. Taymor, Phyllida Lloyd ("Mamma Mia!") and Francesca Zambello ("The Little Mermaid") are the others.

Dodge has been in the business long enough to have found some peace with her status. "I'm generally off the radar," she says with a laugh, as she sits at a back table of a Broadway watering hole, a few dozen blocks from the Upper West Side apartment she shares with her husband, Tony Dodge, a writer, and their 11-year-old daughter, Natasha. It is a few days after "Ragtime's" opening, and she is back in Manhattan for the first time in a long while.

"But I'm really lucky. I work. I rarely call myself an artist, but I strive to achieve art. Even in summer stock, we were able to make a little art." She adds: "I would like, though, more opportunities for a bigger project."

Paulus, the newly installed head of the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., is making her Broadway debut with "Hair." "It's a huge pinch-me moment," she says. Both she and her acclaimed revival, first presented in Central Park by the Joseph Papp Public Theater and now at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, are Tony-nominated.

The 42-year-old Paulus says she's hopeful that things are loosening up gender-wise: "Hair's" music director, production stage manager and choreographer, she notes, are also women. Yet parity does seem a ways off.

"Theater remains a pretty small club at the top of the pyramid," says Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage, where she's directed several big musicals.

"So if you look on Broadway or in the commercial theater, you will find that women are still wildly underrepresented as playwrights, as producers. And if we look at musicals, they are the most male."

Smith, who's never directed on Broadway, thinks major directorial jobs go predominantly to men in part because of a prevailing mind-set about leadership. "When I direct a musical, it's more like being a general than it is when you work on a straight play," she says. "It's a more complicated piece of machinery. There is more risk, especially in a commercial production, so probably what happens is people manage that risk by going to experience."

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