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Originally published Saturday, April 2, 2011 at 7:00 PM

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Stage sisterhood: More women in Seattle are running the show

Seattle has gradually become the home of many professional women theater directors of note, shaping local stages in their own way. The Times talks with six of them about running the show.

Seattle Times theater critic

You may not know it, but a quiet revolution (or is it an evolution?) has been unfolding in Seattle theater. On stages and in rehearsal halls, more and more women directors are running the show — and, in many cases, the theater too.

At Seattle Center, Kate Whoriskey calls the artistic shots at Intiman Theatre. Stephanie Shine soon ends a long run at Seattle Shakespeare Company; Jane Jones and Myra Platt lead Book-It Repertory Theatre. And an inspiration to them all is internationally admired director Linda Hartzell, head of Seattle Children's Theatre for over 25 years.

You'll find more female artistic honchos at Seattle Public Theater and Teatro ZinZanni, and with fringe theaters Live Girls!, Macha Monkey, Washington Ensemble Theatre, Satori Group, SiS Productions, Stone Soup Theatre, and other troupes.

This shift away from a solidly male-dominated profession to a more gender-balanced one did not happen overnight by a longshot.

There were women mounting plays and at the artistic helm here at least since director Florence Bean James co-created and ran the influential Seattle Repertory in the 1920s. Another director-trailblazer, Margaret Booker, created Intiman Theatre in 1972.

And now the trend is reaching critical mass in Seattle, where a woman director is no longer a novelty at any size or kind of theater (the big musical houses excepted), nor an affirmative-action statement. They are power players, turning out a wide range of productions — including some of the best in the region.

Just as striking is how many women are guest-directing at the bigger playhouses. Half of the eight shows in Seattle Repertory Theatre's current 2010-11 season, for instance, are being staged by women.

In the Rep's 1990-1991 season, all eight shows had male directors.

Apart from striking a blow for gender equality, what (if anything) does this shift signify, artistically and otherwise? Are there any special challenges women still face in this extremely competitive game? Anything special they bring to the field?

We recently gathered a half a dozen local female directors, some established and others emerging, around a table at Intiman Theatre to discuss their experiences and views on the subject.

A Seattle renaissance?

Finances are leaner for theaters lately, and chances to earn a living wage as a director are fewer now than in the 1990s. But our participants nodded with an opening remark by Allison Narver.

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"There's an extraordinary pool of women directors in Seattle right now, and it's a very deep and rich pool," declared Narver, former head of Empty Space and Annex Theatres, now directing at ACT Theatre, Seattle Rep and elsewhere. "Back in the day when I ran Annex, we sort of had to haul women writers and actors to the stage, and beg them to direct."

"I first came to Seattle 10 years ago to do a show at Intiman," recalled Whoriskey, a longtime regional and New York freelancer. "It felt like a great place to be a woman director, far more inviting than a lot of places I'd been."

"There's such a variety of theaters in Seattle, small and large and fringe," added Erin Kraft, a young director who has helmed shows for Live Girls! and other troupes. "Once a job got me in the door, from that I got another job, and another job, and now I really feel part of the community."

Kraft and others her age acknowledge their debt to older women directors for breaking down gender barriers. But now, says Arlene Martinez, a native of Puerto Rico who directed in London before moving here recently, "For me the 'woman' part doesn't matter one way or another. It is all about doing good work."

Martinez says she, like any man, has had to be aggressive to get breaks. That's led her to a directing gig at Stone Soup Theatre and a position with the new Latino troupe Ese Teatro. Both companies, incidentally or not, are headed by women.

One of the boys?

Sisterhood wasn't always powerful for theater artists. "An older woman director I respect once gave me some advice," Whoriskey recalled. "She said if I want to move ahead I should only work with male designers, because you won't be taken seriously if you have a bunch of women around you.

"I realize for her that strategy worked. Her generation was afraid of being marginalized. But I think women now have the freedom to make different choices."

It can, these days, be an advantage to be part of the "new girl network." Explained Valerie Curtis-Newton, artistic head of the Lorraine Hansberry Project at ACT and director of "All My Sons" at Intiman, "Now that I'm in a position to decide which playwrights get commission money, and who directs a show, it's important to me who is in the room — and that includes some women."

She also admitted to "counting the women directors when theaters put out their season brochures. And I'm still often disappointed the numbers aren't larger."

Yet is there any difference to having women in the room — as the boss? Yes, it was agreed. But it isn't so easy to pinpoint, or quantify.

Commented Kraft, "Who I am as a person and as an artist is inseparable. You can only come to the work with how you see the world. And I do come to it with my 'lady lens.' "

Curtis-Newton said she's been very conscious of critiquing men she directs in ways that "lower the bitch quotient." And Shana Bestock believes that "directing is all about talking about relationships. And women do that in a different language than men, not better or worse. Just different."

The women in the room

Nationally, the number of women playwrights getting works produced is not generally higher in the larger theaters that are run by women.

However, in Seattle, the number of female-penned plays on the boards has grown considerably in recent decades — on main stages, and in a plethora of public readings and workshops of new scripts; in the annual Hedgebrook Women Playwrights Festival; the Live Girls' "Quickies" series of short works by women. And women frequently direct them.

Curtis-Newton seeks out and stages worthy texts by African-American women for the Lorraine Hansberry Project, like "The Mojo and the Sayso" by Aishah Rahman. Whoriskey has creative ties with several lauded women dramatists, including Lynn Nottage (whose play "Ruined" was a hit at Intiman last year) and Julia Cho (who has a play in the 2011 season).

Bestock, meanwhile, frequently introduces up-and-coming women writers to Seattle audiences — like Julie Marie Myatt (author of Seattle Public's current show, "The Happy Ones").

But restricting work to women-only? No thanks.

"I remember going into artistic-director offices and being asked, 'We've got this play by a girl, and that one by a girl; which do you want to direct?' " Whoriskey said. "I just wanted really, really good material. I don't care who wrote it."

"I often don't get considered as a director of what we call 'the dead white guy' plays," Curtis-Newton added. "Which makes me all the more militant about wanting to do them!"

Mommy vs. director

One thing has not changed much for women in theater: the challenges of balancing family and career.

"I remember being in a panic when I found out I was pregnant," revealed Narver, the mother of a young daughter. "I called the two women directors in the country I knew at the time with small children, and said, 'Help! How do I do this?' They said, 'There's no road map.' "

Whoriskey, who has a 2-year-old son, agreed. "Inherently, directing is a full-time, round-the-clock, all-consuming job when you're rehearsing a show. If you have kids, you need to be fully prepared for that. And then trust your impulses."

Though the younger directors at the table professed interest in future parenthood, they were leery. "I certainly think it will be challenging and I'll have to be editing my work choices," said Kraft. Noted Martinez, with a wry laugh, "Every woman mentor I had as a director is divorced. I thought, 'Will I be, too? Can you only do this alone?' "

Bestock's response: "This conversation is challenging a little bit what I believe — that given the demands of my job, there's no way I can have a family and do it."

Women like Narver prove otherwise — but with some sacrifices. "You have to make choices," she stressed. "I've turned down tons of jobs because I will only go out of town to work once a year. I love to direct but don't want to shortchange being a mother."

One thing is for certain, however. Childless or not, single or attached, women directors are playing a major role in shaping the direction of theater — in Seattle, and throughout the country. They've come a long way, baby. And they're here to stay.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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