Female playwrights, directors find home at Chautauqua amid dismal national figures

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Cast and crew members of Chautauqua Theater Company’s New Play Workshop Dairyland, directed by Heidi Armbruster, reads through the script July 7 at Brawdy Theater Studios.

In the United States, women make up less than a quarter of both produced playwrights and those directing productions.

This season, incongruous with the status quo, Chautauqua Theater Company will produce four works by women, and women will direct half of the plays produced by the company.

CTC’s next work, The May Queen by Molly Smith Metzler, opens 8 p.m. Friday in Bratton Theater.

In the words of Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch, “Only Shakespeare is invited to the party” — and his invitation is mailed every year. This year’s The Tempest is the only male-written production of the season.

A Raisin in the Sun written by Lorraine Hansberry; Dairyland, written by Heidi Armbruster and directed by Lisa Rothe; The May Queen, directed by Benesch; The Guadalupe by Carol Carpenter; and The Tempest, directed by Jade King Carroll, feature in CTC’s woman-powered season lineup.

Though Benesch and Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy said the company’s leadership focused on quality artistry above all in selecting plays, the results of their planning are noteworthy based on statistics concerning the industry at large.

“They were the best plays that we read,” Benesch said. “The fact that they are women is an added plus because I’m so committed to producing more women’s voices. Those two things, when they go hand-in-hand, make me very proud as a producer.”

In the 1994-95 theater season, only 17 percent of playwrights and 19 percent of directors were women in off-Broadway and regional productions. Among the 1,900 member Theater Communications Group productions in the 2000-01 season, women directed only 23 percent of plays and only 20 percent of the productions had women on the writing team. Numbers fell back to 16 percent directors and 17 percent playwrights in 2001-02.

“Being a woman director, the statistics are sad,” Benesch said. “I don’t feel like we’re breaking a glass ceiling anymore. But I feel like we’re just beginning the journey.”

If a glass ceiling did exist, CTC would be shattering it this season. Despite the dismal national figures, CTC’s year features several new plays, a commissioned work and an American classic — all by female playwrights.

Metzler, who CTC commissioned to write The May Queen, with support from the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, said she is excited at the chance to collaborate with Benesch and about the makeup of the season as a whole.

“It’s nice to work with a lady,” Metzler said. “It’s fantastic that it’s a female artistic director, it’s her 10th year celebrating and it’s a female season. Everyone in the country should do that. It’s great. I’m honored.”

Carpenter, author of The Guadalupe, said though she had not thought about the large presence of female voices produced at Chautauqua this summer, she was similarly impressed.

“I think if it happened by chance then we’ve come a long way, and if it’s intentional, my hat’s off to Chautauqua,” she said.

Planning a predominantly female lineup was inadvertent, according to Benesch, but she said she and Corporandy have consciously focused on creating equitable spaces in theater through the company’s work.

“When you start to get into a position of leadership, you feel a sense of responsibility of, ‘What is it we’re communicating to people about what our priorities are?’ We’re starting to create space in our planning to ask those questions of ourselves,” Corporandy said. “We’re making more deliberate decisions and having these discussions. But we don’t have all of the answers yet.”

The two have reached some conclusions: both said of equal importance to including women is focusing on other diversity measures, and making sure men still have space within company ranks.

“I don’t want to make the men feel like we don’t appreciate their spirit and who they are and what they bring to the table,” Corporandy said. “It means great things for women, and they have a voice in our company — but men have a voice in our company, too, and new artists have a voice in our company, too, and veterans have a voice in our company, too. It comes full circle to us really putting a focus in this next phase of CTC on diversity.”

The company has made strides in several measures of diversity this year, including a conservatory that is more than half non-white, as well as the high number of women working within the company and on its productions. These steps forward, along with Benesch’s 10-year anniversary as artistic director, have encouraged thoughts about how the company will progress in upcoming seasons.

“It’s informative to where we might want to go in the future and it certainly is a priority,” Corporandy said. “As we’re starting to dabble more in education and talking more to young people about what we do, it’s important for us that they can look at our company and see that there’s diversity in race, in sex, in age.”

Benesch agreed a large part of the company’s mission will be inspiring younger members of the field. Though the director said many male directors influenced her during her training, she also sees the importance of female mentorship.

“Many of my lifetime mentors are amazing women and I feel very blessed about that,” Benesch said. “I feel a huge responsibility as a woman director and producer to empower and encourage the next generation [of] men and women.”

Still, Benesch said the company has improvements to make. She hopes CTC will begin to include more women of color and continue focusing on creating egalitarian forums for diverse voices.

Corporandy said “this season was a discovery” for CTC and sheds light on hopes for the company’s future.