When Rachel Chavkin picked up the Tony Award in 2019 as best director of a musical for Hadestown, not only was she the only woman nominated in the category, but she also was the only woman directing a musical on Broadway that season. In her acceptance speech, Chavkin said, “There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment too. This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be. So let’s do it.”

Dramatics has been keeping track of gender diversity on Broadway since the early 1980s, when we published a summary of prospects for women directors. As this throwback demonstrates, while there has been modest improvement (in the 2018-19 Broadway season, 13 percent of shows were directed by women), there’s still a long way to go to achieve equity in the field.

HERE’S SOBERING NEWS for female theatre students who are interested in a directing career: Of the 261 plays produced on Broadway in the past five seasons (1977-1982), only nine of them — about three percent — were directed by women.

It’s no secret that women are underrepresented among Broadway directors. The question is why. Many answers can be found in a report recently published by the League of Professional Theatre Women.

The LPTW report is based on two previous studies that documented employment discrimination against women playwrights and directors. The first, Action for Women (1976), investigated hiring practices in nonprofit theatres, and found that very few women moved beyond assistant-level positions, even though many had exceptional training and had worked with highly regarded male directors. Women Directing in Theatre: A Study to Investigate the Hiring Patterns of Women Directors (1980) corroborated those earlier findings with detailed indexes of theatres that do and do not use women directors and lists of all the women who directed in the U.S. in 1978-1979.

To find out what prevents women from getting Broadway directing assignments and other well-paying theatre jobs available to their male counterparts, the LPTW sent a questionnaire to 47 established women directors. (A companion study is being done among women designers.) The women directors were asked about their previous jobs and training, their career goals, their perceptions of themselves and their careers, and how others, especially prospective employers, viewed and treated them. An “overwhelming majority of (respondents) felt that lack of trust in women’s leadership and traditional male domination in the field” were the main stumbling blocks for women trying to climb the career ladder. Specific manifestations of this “unarticulated negative attitude toward women as directors” took many forms. 

  • Discrimination during early training in both liberal arts and professional theatre programs was reported by 60 percent of the respondents. Most had been encouraged to pursue acting instead of directing.
  • Male networks or cliques from which women directors feel excluded were cited as a major area of concern. These networks, common in other male-dominated fields like politics, are informal circles of acquaintances and school chums that are very useful to young directors looking for work.
  • Tokenism — the practice of using one woman in a highly visible position as an example for not hiring others — is a common problem. The women who responded to the survey said the tactic of using a single token woman director is especially prevalent in high-paying regional theatres.
  • Agents and producers generally offer choice scripts to men, often because more men have previous Broadway experience. This suggests that the reluctance to hire women directors is a self-perpetuating problem: As one respondent put it, “How do we get a track record if we’re not called in, and how do we get called in if we don’t have a track record?”
Director Rachel Chavkin (left) in rehearsal for Hadestown with Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada.
Director Rachel Chavkin (left) in rehearsal for Hadestown with Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada. Photo courtesy of Hadestown.

Under-representation often results in excessive pressure on women to excel. The report observes that “a woman’s failure is seen as reflecting on all women, while a man’s failure reflects only on the individual. If a woman has a failure in a large commercial venture, that failure is held up as an example why a producer shouldn’t hire a woman director. No one would notice a male director’s flop on Broadway, since 252 plays in the last five seasons were directed by men. However, if a woman had a flop, it would be noticeable, since nine productions in the past five seasons were directed by women.” One respondent stated flatly: “I think that women have to be better than the men around them. Consistently. Women are still not allowed to fail. And until women are given that right, the risks they take on a risky show are much bigger.”

Perhaps the most disturbing finding of the LPTW report is the existence of job discrimination by women against other women. Although women are generally more helpful to women directors than men are, many women in hiring positions are not hiring women directors. One successful director reported, “A woman playwright told me that though she thought I was the right person to direct her play, she could not hire me because I was a woman. She was afraid that a play written by a woman, with two women in the show, then directed by a woman, would exclude men and might hurt its commercial chances.” Another respondent felt that “the only way for progress to be made is by confronting the women in this business who have clout — they could go a long way to make women directors and set designers a common occurrence on Broadway.”

The established methods of seeking employment as a director often put women at a disadvantage. According to the report, “The most commonly used method was personal contact and the second, initiating projects. Both involve meeting potential employers in a semi-social setting. Women feel themselves to be less skilled at mixing social events with business dealings, perhaps due to their lack of experience at it, but they also related it to their own socialization. The question is, how does a woman ‘sell’ herself?” Many respondents commented on the “classic double-bind” women encounter when trying to get a directing job: “If we come on strong and confident and have the answers, some men, especially the insecure ones, are scared and threatened. If we come on low-key, quiet but confident, then they might think we are not competent or skilled. It becomes a sort of juggling act to ‘psych out’ where the guy is coming from and how well he deals with or does not deal with women.”

Despite all the difficulties women directors experience in finding employment, many felt that once they had obtained a job there were distinct advantages to being a woman. The report summarizes these in the words of one director who wrote, “I feel I have sensitivities that males are not encouraged to develop in our society, and that I’m not ashamed to express them and to encourage actors to express them in their work. I also have a patience and compassion that often accrue to mothers, and a tenacity that comes with deep commitment. I’m not unwilling to use honest charm to expedite a difficult situation, and I’m entirely able to admit both my vulnerability and my fallibility: The production time that is saved in doing so is invaluable. I feel blessed by my gender, especially in my work. That’s fortunate, since I certainly don’t feel blessed by riches of a more material nature!”

This story appeared in the November 1983 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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