Theater in WNY / Women on the Buffalo boards
From left: Meg Quinn, Paulette Harris, Candice Kogut, Lorna Hill, Mary Kate O’Connell, Lara D. Haberberger, Victoria Perez, Loraine O’Donnell, and Kelly Copps
Photo by Stephen Gabris
In theaters across the country, seventy-two percent of artistic directors—the people who make decisions as to what shows are produced and who will direct and perform in them—are white men. In Buffalo, that number was probably on point until recently. Changes over the past five years or so have created a quiet revolution; today, we can count at least nine theaters with women in charge.
Theatre of Youth (TOY) and Paul Robeson Theater (PRT) have each existed for more than forty-five years and have had Meg Quinn and Paulette Harris leading them for decades. Later, women founded and continue to run Ujima, O’Connell and Company, Raices, Second Generation Theatre (SGT), and Brazen-Faced Varlets. This past year, Loraine O’Donnell became executIve director at Kavinoky Theatre (serving in both the artistic and managing director roles) and Candice Kogut was named AD at American Repertory Theater of Western New York (ART). It’s a sea change that one hopes will lead to gender parity in selection of playwrights, directors, and performers.
Lorna Hill, who founded Ujima Theatre in 1978 believes that the feminine has played a role throughout her company’s history. “Ujima has always been a woman-led company,” she says. “It’s connected to being mothers. We can build an empire and nurture the troops simultaneously.”
Several of the women who have taken the leap of faith to start their own theaters did so to serve underserved niche audiences including African Americans, millennials, Latinx, women, and lesbians. Others saw a void in programming, were not getting work from established theaters, or did not see themselves represented onstage.
“Because I cast only women, I look for variety—all ages, all body types, all ethnicities,” explains Lara D. Haberberger, artistic director of Brazen-Faced Varlets. “You will see the same young lady get part after part at several different theaters, and there are so many women who do not have that opportunity. I love giving other women opportunities.”
“Every woman in our ensemble has had opportunities they would not have had anywhere else,” concurs Victoria Perez of Raices Theatre. “Now they are starting to work at other places and that fills my heart with pride.”
A new direction
Female directors are also set to lead a number of exciting productions in 2018-19. Susan Drozd (My Fair Lady and Violet) is shepherding Musicalfare’s Fun Home to the Shea’s 710 stage and Lynne Kurdziel Formato—who directed last season’s The Producers and Mamma Mia!—will direct Spamalot at the Kavinoky and Nine for Second Generation Theatre. Kyle LoConti, fresh off her Artie Award-winning turn directing Stellaluna at TOY, directed Much Ado About Nothing this past summer at Shakespeare in Delaware Park and will take on To Kill a Mockingbird at the Kavinoky.
This season at American Repertory Theater, half the directors are women. Kogut is making her directorial debut with Heathers, Catherine Burkhardt is doing the radio play Meet Me in St Louis, and Kelli Bocock-Natale is directing Fool for Love.
Bocock-Natale lived through the long drought and is delighted by this turn of events. “For the longest time, it was me and Meg Quinn,” she says. “If it weren’t for Buffalo United Artists and New Phoenix, I would not have gotten to direct at all, because the big theaters traditionally have not used women directors. I want to make sure we have female directors at every theater, and not just for women-themed plays and female ensemble projects.”
To help develop the next generation of directors, Second Generation Theatre recently appointed Kate Boswell as dramaturg to oversee public readings. “This will give us a chance to see how directors work and to hear things out loud,” explains Kelly Copps, artistic director of SGT. “There is so much theater in Buffalo and lately, as with actors, it can be that your first and second choice directors are booked.”
At Kavinoky, plans are already underway for the 2019-20 season, the first programmed by O’Donnell. “A Season of Inclusion” will include a collaborative production with Jewish Repertory Theatre of Paula Vogel’s Indecent, to be directed by Kristen Tripp Kelley. “I had an inquiry from a director I love,” O’Donnell shares, “but I explained to him that I really thought a woman should direct this show.”
At a special event held soon after Kogut was named to her new post at ART, a man asked her, “So, now is it going to be only chick shows?” She was floored but had a ready response: “Would you bat an eye if I had a season of all male directors and all male playwrights?”
Even with leadership and director positions going to more women, women’s words still struggle to find homes on Buffalo stages. The national average percentage of female-penned productions is in the low twenties. “As Marsha Norman likes to say, ‘do you want to live in a world where four out of five words you hear are from men?’” asks Donna Hoke, Council Member and New York State regional representative for the Dramatists Guild. “Sadly, Buffalo theater falls well below even that minimal benchmark—and community theater fares far worse—which means most plays you see here represent men’s voices.”
A quick review of 2018-19 shows announced by press time included a handful of shows written by women, including Pinkalicious at TOY. ART is producing Brooklyn playwright Caitlin Saylor Stephens, whose work has never been produced in WNY before, and Brazen-Faced Varlets, which, as a feminist company, has always actively sought works by women, has set The Taming by Lauren Gunderson. Road Less Traveled will produce Gunderson and coauthor Margot Melcon’s Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley at Shea’s 710 and Laura Eason’s The Undeniable Sound of Right Now, while Irish Classical presents Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility and Jewish Repertory Theatre premieres Shirl Solomon’s The Strudel Lady. Women are also part of the creative teams of one musical each at Alleyway and MusicalFare, and, of course, MusicalFare’s production of Fun Home at 710 has a two-woman creative team.
With eighteen full-length works to her credit, two-time Artie Award-winning playwright Donna Hoke has seen her plays produced around the world and has been recognized with numerous national awards, yet only two Buffalo theaters—Road Less Traveled Productions and Buffalo United Artists—have produced her full-length plays. Her most recent local production, Once In My Lifetime: A Buffalo Football Fantasy, was, ironically, commissioned by a California producer.
In addition to her Dramatists Guild involvement, Hoke is also a member of the International Center for Women Playwrights (ICWP), an organization founded in Buffalo in 1984 by, among others, Buffalo playwrights Anna Kay France and Kathleen Betsko Yale. Each year, Hoke seeks to nominate local theaters for ICWP’s 50/50 Applause Award, which celebrates any theater company that produces a season with at least half of the plays written by women.
“In the four years I’ve been nominating, regionally, only Paul Robeson Theatre has received the award each of those years,” Hoke laments, noting that with its mission to promote female artists, Brazen-Faced Varlets is ineligible for the award. “Road Less Traveled has qualified once and the three-show-season Jewish Repertory Theatre twice—once for a season comprising three shows by the same playwright. No amount of Facebook shaming seems to move that needle. And I’m not even advocating for my own plays. Any produced plays by women benefit all of us, and for those who say—and they are out there—that there aren’t any, or there are ‘just more plays by men,’ I’d be happy to find you some female playwrights with plays that fit your mission.”
“The majority of [produced] plays are written, directed, and acted in by men. Women often have to play up to the male ego to get their play produced, or to direct it or act in it because opportunities are skewed toward men in the theater. With me, they do not have to do that,” says Haberburger. “With a woman at the helm, women feel freer to express and explore in a way they might not with a man in charge. In all honesty, when a man enters the room, onstage and offstage, the dynamic in the room changes.”
Paul Robeson Theatre artistic director Paulette Harris celebrated thirty years at the theater last year—its stellar fiftieth anniversary season, which earned PRT more Artie Awards than any other theater in town in the 2017-18 season. Harris has initiated several practices at the Robeson, including the theater’s signature receiving line, in which the cast lines up in the lobby after each show to meet and thank the audience.
“I go to New York a lot and people are outside in the cold waiting outside for actors,” she says. “They have spent so much money and the actors sometimes don’t even come out. I introduced our famous receiving line, recognizing the importance of that extra personal touch with the audience. You don’t have to wait for the actors here; when you come out, the actors are waiting for you—to thank you. I am the last person whose hand they shake. I don’t know if a man would do that.”
Several of the women articulated what they believe to be a female advantage: the training in multitasking and organization that enables them to balance work, family life, and art. “Because we are running households and often a family, we are accustomed to doing more with less, stretching a dollar, and using all resources at our disposal,” elaborates Kavinoky’s O’Donnell.
Several also said they see their theaters as extensions of their families, which makes them eager to create welcoming, safe, nurturing environments. At Ujima, that was deliberate, explains Hill. “One of the things that influenced us was that a number of us were young mothers, and we raised our children in the theater,” she says. “We were in our twenties, and when we established rules, we wanted to be the ideal family—not the family you were born into, but your family of choice.”
As one might expect at a theater committed to children and families, Theatre of Youth has a unique perspective on actor-parents. “If, in order for you to be in a play at TOY, your child has to come to rehearsal or performances, we will make it work,” explains AD Meg Quinn. “I remember giving Tammy Hayes’ son Gabe his bottle in the office while his mom was onstage. Many children have grown up in this theater, and some have taken their part in the process very seriously. The Jakiel girls spent a lot of time at TOY growing up as their mom [Mary McMahon Jakiel] did a number of shows here, and I often asked for their input.”
SGT’s Kelly (Jakiel) Copps credits her childhood days at TOY with her career choice. “I always say I blame Meg Quinn,” she explains. “At SGT, we strive to make sure our performers are having the best experience possible. We would love to be able to pay people more so it has been important that we respect everyone working with us and for us and make sure they have a great experience and want to work with us again.”
Paulette Harris agrees: “At Robeson, you will have an experience—we have fun. People look forward to rehearsals because they are going to have fun and I am not going to work them to death. We are as professional as anyone else, but we have a different philosophy. We don’t just eat, we break bread. It’s more engaging.”
Mary Kate O’Connell has seen the women who participate in her long-running Diva by Diva: A Celebration of Women form a powerful sisterhood. “We have had members who have experienced great loss in their lives, and their fellow Divas were the ones who embraced them and got them through it.”
Serving the audience
In the United States, seventy-three percent of all theater tickets are purchased by women. That does not come as a surprise to these artistic directors. “That really became apparent to me when I started doing the curtain speeches at each performance welcoming the audiences,” says O’Donnell. “I looked out and saw so many women and realized we were not really programming for women.”
In the case of TOY, ticket buyers are moms and teachers whose thought process is something Quinn thinks about a great deal. “What’s on the minds of children? What is happening that we can best help them respond to?” she asks. “We have to go through the gatekeeper. First, we have to think about the adult who is determining whether this is something their child or student needs.”
Harris has a different take, suggesting that more men should buy tickets. “I tell my nephews and students, “Take a lady to the theater and she will love you! Forget the movies, bringing her to a cultural event wins more man points for you. Take her to a play and then to dinner to talk about the experience,” she advises. “‘You will blow a woman’s mind with that!’”
With Diva by Diva, O’Connell & Company is not content to have an audience full of women; Mary Kate O’Connell wants to put them onstage. The longest running production in WNY theater has been inviting women from all segments of the community to be part of the show for eighteen years, and O’Connell has seen the benefit of breaking down barriers.
“It has helped women discover confidence and gives supporters of theater a chance to see the other side of the footlights,” she says. “It empowers people in the audience to see people they know—doctors, teachers, lawyers, moms, elected officials—trying something new and taking risks. If we level the playing field, it makes everybody better.”
“We have done women-centered feminist theater at Ujima for the forty years since we have been founded,” says Hill. The theater has produced her own play, Yalla Bitch, three times, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf twice, and, most recently, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzier Prize-winning Ruined.
Several musicals that speak to women are featured this season. As traditional musicals tend to favor male leads, these shows are marching us in the right direction. At Shea’s 710, MusicalFare will present the winner of five of Tony Awards, Fun Home, by the first Tony Award-winning female writing team, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron. Second Generation chose the musical Nine to showcase some of the powerhouse female talent in Buffalo. “There are fourteen to fifteen women in this show, some of whom will be new to audiences,” SGT’s Copps shares. And O’Connell & Company is doing an all-female version of 1776.
Paying it forward
At the encouragement of new D’Youville College president Lorrie Clemo, Kavinoky wants to prioritize community and theater outreach and opportunity. Diane Almeter Jones has already seen this in action. The longtime Kavinoky props mistress becomes emotional when relaying the story of O’Donnell allowing her to hold the premiere of her first play Forget Me Not, at the theater. “I sat there in stunned silence,” Almeter Jones says. “It was like she was saying, ‘How can we help you achieve your dreams?’”
Quinn was mentored by TOY founders Rosalind Cramer and Toni Smith Wilson and found it invaluable. “Being older, I love seeing women and younger women making things happen,” she says. “I try to support them, to reach out, see their shows, and be available to listen. I think about closing out my career when others are just starting out. The things we had to know—starting a business, a theater, a nonprofit. Nowadays, it is an even more challenging undertaking. I try to relay information if I can help.”
Perez elaborates: “All of my mentors are female—smart, reflective, wonderful human beings. I often find myself asking, ‘What would Meg do? Or Mary Kate? Or Lorna?’ They paved the way, and I hope to continue the work that they started. These women have given me a tremendous amount of opportunity. If somebody else believes in me, I have to live up to it. I have to do this right. Especially if it is a woman who sees that in me. I have to fulfill that.
“Just the other day, I saw Meg Quinn and shared the gratitude I feel that these women have just poured out their brains and their hearts to me,” Perez continues. “She hugged me and said, ‘We have to be there for each other. It’s a small club.’”
Thanks to these women, it’s getting bigger.
Summer camps and educational programming make it possible for young Western New York women to try theatrical careers on for size.
Clockwise from top right: Claire Nabozny, who participates in summer camps at Springville Center for the Arts and Theater of Youth; Josephine Millen, (also shown on the cover) has acted in multiple plays at Roy B. Kelly Elementary School, Palace Theater and the Taylor Theater; Cecilia Millen (also pictured on page 70) has acted in multiple plays at Roy B. Kelly Elementary School, Palace Theater and the Taylor Theater; and Sophia Emilie Fokin, a company member at Future Dance Center.
Photos by kc kratt