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Book Review, Vol. 33 No. 1

Contemporary Women Stage Directors

Contemporary Women Stage Directors: Conversations on Craft. Paulette Marty. London; New York: Methuen Drama, Bloomsbury Collections, 2019; Pp. 292 + viii.

Contemporary Women Stage Directors: Conversations on Craft presents an ambitious compilation of interviews with twenty-seven contemporary women stage directors, while archiving and reflecting on relatively underrepresented women stage directors in the US and the UK. Tracing the past two decades, Marty notes that few published books focus on female stage directors. She points to two volumes by Anne Fliotsos and Wendy Vierow as rare examples. Marty distinguishes her project by focusing on mid-career women stage directors—who she argues are not featured enough by Fliotsos and Vierow. This volume provides readers the rare chance to hear disparate, highly-active women directors’ reflecting in their own words about their experiences, insights, styles, labors, and vision. Based on her experience working both as a theatre researcher and practitioner (dramaturg/director), Marty also provides a window on the contemporary theatre industry, opening far beyond how gender intersects with artistic lives.

What makes this book unique in structure is that Marty directs, in effect, her book. Interview-based books deploying question-and-answer structures often feature a handful of interviewees in a chapter or section. Instead, she divides chapters, as if splitting beats, and places quotes and excerpts from her interviewees in each chapter according to its theme, as if casting speakers in dynamic dialogue. She aligns thematic chapters like scenes that build into a larger narrative: this journey of women directors pursuing their careers begins with incubating projects and concludes with each director’s own vision of today’s theatre. Although the book’s organizational structure does not provide a clear, holistic profile of each individual director, as Marty acknowledges in the introduction (9), this thematic approach instead distinctly guides readers to respect a director’s role and labor. Marty also provides a series of inspiring models, amplifying the influence of women directors working at an array of theatre venues in the US and UK.

In the first two chapters, Marty sheds light on the directors’ incubating process. Chapter 1 opens by laying out how individual directors choose a particular piece of work. For example, Lear deBessonet, the founding director of the Public Theater’s Public Works project, explains that she stages classics since “no one is the authority” (24) which thereby opens up collective imagination. Marty also considers how varied directors and artistic directors actually scaffold their work: finding their niche, planning seasons, choosing collaborators, and mounting their plays in a theater. Chapter 2 demonstrates her subjects’ labor of engaging with scripts and ideas prior to rehearsals. She emphasizes each director’s signature style of analyzing the play, for instance. Further, she expands our grasp of the directorial role by examining how her subjects collaborate with playwrights, play multiple roles besides that of a director, prepare for rehearsals, and communicate with audiences.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on how these directors shape performances, starting from conceptualization of the visual and acoustic, and then moving into the rehearsal room, and, ultimately, the stage. Chapter 3 highlights how the chosen directors envision theatrical worlds visually and acoustically, collaborating with designers. Here, Marty approaches relationships between directing and designing theatre horizontally. Inspired by her subjects, she analyzes spectacle and sound beyond servers of directorial messages, conveying a comprehensive picture of the theatrical process to readers. In Rachel Chavkin’s words, it is a director’s process of “discovering the world with designers and actors” (99).True to the volume’s subtitle, Chapter 4 presents a “conversation on craft,” guided by these leading directors’ invaluable experiences and advice on the rehearsal process.  Using quotes, Marty covers the practical process of rehearsal: casting actors, setting the tone for rehearsals, empowering actors, shaping the process, and using research in rehearsals. For instance, Maria Aberg, who is known for “her innovative, feminist productions of Shakespeare and other classics at the Royal Shakespeare Company” (2), introduces points she considers in the casting process when she changes the gender of a character. Readers will find many gems and tips.

In the final chapters, Contemporary Women Stage Directors focuses on how each of these experienced directors develop their careers and navigate the US and UK theatre scenes. Chapter 5 considers how the directors sustain their projects, dealing with concerns such as “financial security, community, quality of life, and relationships” (159). Pursuing the theme of work-life balance, Marty places quotes from Leah Gardiner, Kimberly Senior, and Lucy Kerbel together to cover issues such as motherhood, labor and pressure. In particular, Kerbel explains that “the loop of visibility” (190) exposes directors to critics’ attention which sustains their projects. She elaborates on gendered inequality in the field by mentioning how maternity leave easily drops women directors from that loop. If Chapter 5 extensively covers their individual lives and career arcs, Chapter 6 specifically focuses on their diverse experience with systemic challenges tied to their gender, racial and/or ethnic identities in the theatre industry. The 6th chapter analyzes obstacles and disparities in the field through her array of case studies, integrating an intersectional perspective. For instance. Leah Gardiner, Paulette Randall, and KJ Sanchez tell their stories of experiencing misogyny and racism in the field. Importantly, Marty pays attention to how these women directors navigate systemic obstacles. For example, Roxana Silbert and Nadia Fall emphasize that diversity opens up more diversity and brings an alternative gaze to the field, which is dominated by white male directors. Marty concludes her book with the directors’ insight on theatre today and their expectations as working professionals.

In the conclusion, Marty summarizes her interview research in two categories: what she did not find and what she did. What is notable here is her picture of a director as a relationship builder. Marty explains that “the director’s role is to build and facilitate relationships, specifically (1) between a play and an audience and (2) among members of the collaborative team” (288). Likewise, Marty, as the director of this book, builds a relationship between these women directors and her contemporary readers. She creates a bridge for these mid-stream women directors —who struggle for their comparatively underrepresented stories and insights to be heard— bringing their voices and methods as accomplished practitioners to readers, both artists and scholars. By providing many substantial examples of brilliant, motivating women stage directors from the US and UK in the early 21st century, this significant study will benefit theatre researchers and our future generation of women (and other) theater directors, artistic directors and, one hopes, producers.

Dohyun Gracia Shin
The Graduate Center, CUNY

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 33, Number 1 (Fall 2020)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2020 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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