Virginia Repertory Theatre Scenic Charge Emily Hake working on the set of “Airline Highway” (Photo by Chet Strange)
Annie Colpitts, managing director of TheatreLab, loves recounting the announcement of the group’s 2016-2017 season. Last year, artistic director Deejay Gray explained to the crew the dedication of the entire mainstage lineup and second-stage Cellar Series to female playwrights, to be directed by women and featuring primarily women in the casts and one-woman shows. The company’s then-associate artistic director, actress McLean Jesse, remarked, “All of you men in this room a little disappointed right now? Yeah, that’s how that feels. Just so you know.”
Gray laughs. “I fired myself from directing one of the shows because I wanted to be a good feminist, not a fake one.”
Cadence Theatre Co. Director of Education Laine Satterfield (center) with “Airline Highway” actors Anthony Wright and Emma Orelove (Photo by Chet Strange)
When TheatreLab planned its female-centric season last year, the political climate hadn’t yet put issues of gender equality, among many others, in such sharp relief. What struck Gray, when he sat down to think about the “Women at War” series, was how often he watched his theater peers competing for the same three opportunities. “And if there is anything we can do to address that situation, that would be exciting for us as an organization,” he says. “Politically, it seems even more important now.”
The commitment required a conversation with Colpitts. Her job is to make sure that shows stay in budget and that there is variety to keep the interest of the audience. “Nobody wants to produce a line of tearjerkers, and having some shows with intermissions so we have bar sales, and those kind of details that we look at. That’s the point where it becomes a collaborative conversation,” she explains.
Her contribution, she says, is more about logistics and efficiencies. Colpitts’ background is in business and Gray is artistic, but they both are copacetic about what the theater means to them.
“I want to help produce work I also believe in,” she says.
Prior to Jesse’s departure to further her classical theater studies at George Washington University, the resilient theater professional Katrinah Carol Lewis, who grew up outside the District of Columbia, assumed the post as TheatreLab’s new associate artistic director. In that role, her first responsibility became melding the Cellar Series with the mainstage season.
TheatreLab Managing Director Annie Colpitts (left) with "Grand Concourse" director Chelsea Burke (Photo by Chet Strange)
SETTING THE STAGE
In the early 1990s, there weren’t many women in leadership positions around Richmond. In 1993, actor and director Carol Piersol, a New York transplant, co-founded the Firehouse Theatre Project as its artistic director. Vickie L. Scallion headed her HatTheatre. Somewhat earlier, Keri Wormald co-directed the Shadowcast Co., which produced independent shows in various locations and, for a brief time, a repertory comedy troupe called Richmond: Out of Stock in an upstairs cabaret space of what is now the Pearl Raw Bar restaurant. Jennie Brown, with her husband, Larry, managed the School of the Performing Arts for the Richmond Community (SPARC).
Amy Perdue, an actor, director and choreographer, in 1996 came into leadership of the county-sponsored Henrico Theatre Co. (HTC), and in that role she’s organized the One Act Play Showcase, which passed its 30th anniversary in 2016. For the current season at HTC, three of the four shows have women directors.
The rise in female participation throughout the Richmond theater community is noted by Philip Crosby, managing director of Richmond Triangle Players. He’s a veteran theater administrator who’s worked in various capacities here and elsewhere since the late 1970s, including six seasons at the then-Theatre Virginia and, during the 1990s, at the Richmond Ballet.
Crosby observes that in the recent past, women were usually found in the costume department and as stage managers, and if in the scene shop, usually as painters. When it came to directing and artistic directing, though, there were fewer.
In terms of theater leadership, during that early 1990s time here, Piersol at the Firehouse Theatre Project broke the mold. “There’d been women in theater leadership here before, but they’d not had the endurance; a cohesive 20 years of leadership is somewhat unprecedented.” Stoner Winslett, artistic director of the Richmond Ballet since 1980, is the nearest analogy; Piersol continues working under the 5th Wall Theatre banner.
During the past decade, women have ascended here. Crosby notes, among others, Anna Senechal Johnson of Cadence Theatre Co., writer, director and teacher Debra Clinton of the Weinstein JCC’s Jewish Family Theatre and almost all of the Chamberlayne Actors Theatre’s executive board and board of directors. He observes that at the Richmond Theatre Alliance, of which Crosby is president, the representatives of the various theaters around the table are usually women. He sees this as a national trend.
“Like across the country, these positions have been often occupied by old white men,” he says. “That changes as the community changes.” Women are gaining these positions because of recognized experience.
‘A KIND OF GIMMICK’
While Richmond stages haven’t wanted for talent, the presence of women behind the scenes was notable enough that they received special notice. Virginia Repertory Theatre lighting designer Lynne Hartman recalled that when she worked in a similar position at the late TheatreVirginia, someone noticed that one show featured an all-female creative team. “And they used it as a kind of gimmick,” Hartman says. “We didn’t think anything of it, so that was kind of strange.” The technical landscape has changed, where women are concerned. Today, it’s more usual than remarkable that the design group for the recent “Airline Highway” was majority female.
Jan Powell, artistic director for the Quill Theatre, recalls how, about a decade ago at a Shakespeare theater conference, she sat on a panel about “women directors.” “We all hated being on a panel titled that,” she says. “We didn’t think of ourselves that way.”
TheatreLab Associate Artistic Director Katrinah Carol Lewis (Photo by Deejay Gray)
When Katrinah Carol Lewis received the opportunity to become TheatreLab’s associate artistic director, “It took me aback,” she says. Lewis has built a solid résumé in her decade of work here, with dazzling and praised performances in lavish musicals, solid dramatic pieces and a gritty portrayal of late-career Billie Holiday in TheatreLab’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” In addition, at Colonial Williamsburg, she acts, writes and directs pieces pertaining to African-American life in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods.
‘LOOKING AT THE BIG PICTURE’
When Lewis came to Richmond in 1998 to study theater at Virginia Commonwealth University, she didn’t expect to find her artistic home here. She found a collaborative community and she worked for companies with women artistic directors and in plays directed by women. TheatreLab offered the platform to tell meaningful, contemporary stories.
“It’s a space where my creative vision can be established. The Cellar Series is [produced on] a small budget, [with] short runs [and] minimalist design, really providing an opportunity for actors and designers who are in the earlier part of their careers.”
Her career is built as an actor and that, she says, won’t change. “Acting informs my work as a director and I see directing as an expansion. Onstage, I’m one part of a larger whole; as director, I’m creating context for the story. That’s a challenge: Looking at the big picture.”
The four piece, one-woman Cellar Series shows women coming to terms with their identities, and political and philosophical stances, amid domestic conflict and war. Lewis reflects that the productions are concerned about how to create peace in a world where agreement on almost anything seems a distant notion.
Lewis this month takes on Anna Deavere Smith’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” a theater documentary directed here by Addie Barnhart, about the riots in Los Angeles after the assault on Rodney King. The piece requires her to become 30 different people. “It delves into the climate of racism and police brutality,” she says. “Among the challenges is, well, this was 25 years ago, and the more I delve into it, what these people were saying then is largely what they’re saying now.”
‘SAY WHAT YOU KNOW AND SHUT THE F--- UP’
Chelsea Burke directed TheatreLab’s production of Heidi Schreck’s “Grand Concourse,” the story of Shelley, an emotionally frazzled Bronx soup kitchen manager who’s come to view her efforts to relieve suffering as vain and fruitless. When Emma, the new wide-eyed girl arrives, Shelley’s last nerve, and her faith, are strained. Burke knew the territory. “I come from ex-Catholic hippies and I know how it is when the bloom comes off the altruistic rose.” In addition, she’d worked before with powerhouse Dawn A. Westbrook and wanted to “get back in the room with her.”
She’s also the director for the Richmond Triangle Players’ Spectrum LGBTQ youth outreach program. Burke, who started out as a performer, directed two small Richmond fringe shows prior to “Grand Concourse.” She’s worked on productions with other directors here — Powell of Quill, Kerry McGee and Maggie Roop. “They’re just fantastic and I’ve learned so much just watching them,” she says. One piece of collaborative theater advice that has stuck with her came through Les Waters from the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky, whom she met while at the Kennedy Center. “Never be the smartest person in the room,” he advised. It is best to bring in people that have expertise from across the disciplines. “Say what you know, and shut the f--- up. You can get further in the process by listening rather than telling people what to do.”
The set of Virginia Repertory Theatre's "Airline Highway" (Photo by Aaron Sutten; scenic design by Kate Field)
Laine Satterfield directed Virginia Repertory Theatre’s early 2017 production of Lisa D’Amour’s “Airline Highway,” about the last day of a dying New Orleans burlesque queen. Satterfield’s portfolio of some 25 years of theater experience is globe-girdling and involves award-winning performances, direction and choreography, as well as the less glamorous, but necessary, back-office logistics.
“I studied classical and ended experimental,” she says, referring to a 25-year arc of theater that started in dance, swung to the Tisch School of New York University, touched on commedia dell’arte in Italy, and finally bent to her directing SPARC’s statewide New Voices for the Theater, and to becoming education director for Cadence Theatre Co. While she’s directed hundreds of young people in SPARC shows, “Airline” is the largest mainstage production she’s led.
“I was pleasantly surprised to get asked,” she says. The now-retired artistic director of Virginia Rep approached Satterfield after her direction of Cadence’s “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s speculation on Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night, which co-starred Lewis and Jerold E. Solomon.
“ ‘Airline’ [had] a great team. It’s a jazz piece. A challenge is so much overlapping dialogue. Lighting became important to direct audience attention to who you need to listen to.”
To assist in creating the environment of a rundown New Orleans motel, Satterfield counted on the expertise of lighting designer Hartman, whose work encompasses, by her own count, 120 shows for both mainstage and children’s productions since 1993. Prior to that, she worked on staff at TheatreVirginia, which closed in 2003. She’s also freelanced for a variety of groups. During the 1980s, she ran the lights for the venerable “The Lost Colony” outdoor drama, where she met the ground breaking designer Nananne Porcher. “I always put ‘Lost Colony’ in my bio because it’s like a fraternity. So many people have gone through that show.”
LIGHT ON THE SITUATION
Hartman started out as a dancer interested in French at then Mary Washington College. A theater class led to volunteering and an interest in electrics. “It just made sense,” she says. “The circuiting, everything.” The design and effects of a lighting plot fascinated her and she switched and continued studies at the University of Maryland before returning to Richmond.
Looking through her experience, Hartman estimates that gender-wise, her master electricians have been split one-third women to two-thirds men and crew members about half and half.
To give the hotel set a convincing color scheme, head scenic artist Emily Hake tackled the task of providing a worn, sun-bleached patina. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania, native, from a banking family, came to Richmond by way of Madison, Wisconsin, and Austin, Texas. Hake enjoys the collaborative aspect of ascertaining the director’s vision and how her work will look under stage lights. She’s helping to give reality to a physical illusion. “Sometimes I just sit back and say, ‘I get to do this?’ I’m super lucky.”
If fake brick looks real, then her job is done. “I know I’m successful if you don’t know that I did anything,” she says.
THEIR KIND OF WORK
Jan Powell spent most of her life in professional theater, starting in Portland, Oregon. Powell feels what matters is that you show up and do the job well, and that’s the expectation. “In theater, people tend to embrace each other no matter their age or gender or whatever.” That said, she doesn’t think that women necessarily possess a specific directorial style. She takes issue with a generalized notion of women directors as more collaborative or organic in their process. “I mean, some women directors can be absolute dictators.”
She chuckles, remembering a Richmond interview after the formal announcement of the union of Richmond Shakespeare and the Henley Street Co., both led by women, Cynde Liffick and Jacqueline O’Connor, respectively. The question came: So, what’s it like to be an all-girl theater? “We didn’t think about it that way,” Powell says.
Her unscientific assessment, though, is that women tend to start companies based out of a desire to shape work toward a vision. She founded her Tygres Heart company in Portland to produce a Shakespeare she wasn’t seeing — “to make it immediate and understandable, vital,” she says. This philosophy has followed through to Quill, which mixes classic with contemporary work, often with period settings.
Tawnya Pettiford-Wates is another Upper Northwest transfer to Richmond, in her case, from Seattle. She didn’t intend to start a company focusing on social justice, using theater to spark often difficult conversations — nor did she envision doing so in Richmond.
Conciliation Project founder and playwright Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Photo by Dave Parrish Photography)
GETTING TO WHAT MATTERS
Pettiford-Wates’ career, in a way, began after the legendary director of the New York Public Theater, Joe Papp, answered her telephone call. On a dare from a friend, she’d dialed after seeing the Broadway production of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.”
“I was transfixed,” she says, “I basically saw myself in that show.” She was right out of Carnegie-Mellon and landed a position at the Pittsburgh Theater and went to New York just to see shows. Instead, casting director Rosemarie Tichler told her to come in immediately. A cast member had suddenly dropped out and Tichler wanted someone she’d not seen before. After Pettiford-Wates hung up to dash out, she realized she didn’t even know the audition’s location. She found it, got in the show, and toured.
She eventually went into teaching at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, and ran the theater department at Seattle Central Community College. It was there in 2001 that she re-imagined “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” without an African-American in the class. She chose to approach the play as a minstrel show, using both painted black and white faces. “People played cross gender, cross race, nobody was playing who they were,” she says. At the play’s end, the 28-member cast unmasked before a surprised audience, which often thought there were black and white actors.
“The dialogue out of this was spontaneous, deep and nuanced beyond what I’d ever experienced before,” she says. From the community response, Pettiford-Wates formed the Conciliation Project, which she moved, along with herself, to Richmond in 2004.
“We always said that we needed to come South, where minstrelsy flourished and where the Uncle Tom troupes toured,” Pettiford-Wates says. “And [then we came] to Richmond, where the history provides a perfect environment.”
Recently, the Conciliation Project assisted in the development of “The Top of Bravery” for Quill and is presently developing “The Gun Show,” about the history of American violence. “PIC,” short for “Prison Industrial Complex,” is headed for a spring production, perhaps in Washington.
Theater in this way is used as a fine tool to open up the current situation and examine the underlying causes. Richmond is fortunate to have a host of talented professionals, onstage and off, male and female, each fulfilling an ancient promise of theater: to reveal what is not seen by shining a light in a dark place.
Pettiford-Wates says, “Theater is life. Film is art and television is furniture. Theater is living, growing and evolving.”
Ladies Lead the Way
A common thread runs through the narrative of women in leadership positions in Richmond theater: They have made it their mission to create opportunities for themselves and for other women. In a city that has gained a national reputation as having fertile and welcoming ground for the incubation of new ideas, this entrepreneurial and collegial spirit among women in theater has wrought a vibrant scene where the contributions of women are as valued and appreciated as those of men. Similarly, the commitment of women in theater to educating the younger generation in Richmond has inspired girls to believe that they can produce, write, direct or design sets and lighting. Here are some of the women moving Richmond’s theater community forward. —Vanessa Del Fabbro
ANNA SENECHAL JOHNSON, founding artistic and managing director of Cadence Theatre Co., was also one of the founders of Firehouse Theatre Project. It was at Firehouse that she got her start as a director. She left Richmond for 13 years and then returned to help found Cadence.
“I don’t think that women are underrepresented in positions behind the curtain or in leadership positions in Richmond,” says Johnson. “I know several female artistic directors, directors and designers. Our goal [at Cadence] is to produce meaningful theatrical works that uplift the human spirit, challenge the mind and honor both our individuality and shared humanity. Although we don’t intentionally select works written by female writers, we did win a 50/50 Applause Award last year from the International Centre for Women Playwrights for producing women playwrights 50 percent or more of the season.”
KERI WORMALD, director and founder of The Women’s Mercury, an organization that provides writing, directing and performance opportunities to women, recalls a day, “somewhere around 1987,” when she sat on a panel called “Women in the Director’s Chair” on the stage now known as the November Theatre. “I was one year out of graduate school and had produced three shows professionally for my own company, the As Yet Unnamed Theatre Co., somewhat successfully. I was the young upstart then and one of a couple of women directors working in Richmond. And I remember back then thinking, ‘Why is it necessary to think of myself as a woman director? I’m a director.’ ” She believes there are not a lot of plays in Richmond with women taking up a majority of characters in the play. “That leads to a male view and that leads people to hire a male director.
I think that it starts with the writing.”
LUCINDA MCDERMOTT PIRO, director, actor, musician, playwright and teaching artist, has recently returned to Richmond after years away and taken up a new position as director of education at Richmond Performing Arts Alliance (the new name for Richmond Centerstage).
Piro believes theater in general has a bias against women and always has. “Statistics show that in the number of roles available for women.” However, in Richmond, more than a bias against gender, she has found an age bias and she says, “There is a definite bias against someone new coming into a place.”
She believes in creating opportunities for herself, as she has done with her one-woman show, “O’Keeffe!”, which she wrote and performs. In her position as director of education at RPAA, she also intends to create opportunities for others. “For me it all has to do with community.”
AMY WIGHT, who has produced Richmond’s annual red carpet theater awards gala, the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Awards, since 2009, says she has seen a significant movement toward gender parity in leadership roles in theater in Richmond over the past decade.
“While there remain fewer female directors, several talented individuals— Laine Satterfield, Anna Johnson, Debra Clinton, Patti D’Beck, Maggie Roop and Jan Powell to name a few — have emerged as leaders in the field. In terms of leadership positions, when you look at the artistic directors and managing directors of Richmond’s professional theater companies, women are well represented.”
The same is true, she says, of the officer positions in the RVA Theatre Alliance, an association that is dedicated to raising the profile of Richmond’s professional theater companies by pooling tangible resources, performing and technical talent, and marketing and business management capabilities.
“Gender parity in the workplace is a challenge in every industry,” says Wight, “but the RVA theater scene is well on its way to achieving a sustainable balance and creating opportunities for a variety of voices and perspectives.”
MARGARETTE JOYNER runs the theater program at Virginia Union University and is the founding artistic director of the Heritage Ensemble Theatre Co. The mission of Heritage Ensemble Theatre is to preserve African-American stories through performances and workshops, to provide an ongoing opportunity for black artists to perform, and to give Richmond’s African-American community a chance to attend productions that are a reflection of their lives.
Joyner believes that black women are underrepresented in leadership positions in Richmond theater, although she doesn’t think this is intentional. “I think that part of the reason that I don’t direct more outside of my own company,” she says, “is because the other theater companies in Richmond have not been to see my work. If I had not created my own avenue for work, I don’t think I would be directing at all.”
ERIN THOMAS-FOLEY, senior director of education at SPARC (School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community), is the creator and director of Live Art, an inclusive arts education program that culminates in a concert featuring nationally recognized musicians and students from multiple arts organizations and schools in the Richmond community.
“I think we have an abundance of amazing women in leadership positions working hard to make theater and performing arts happen here in Richmond and they have inspired me every day,” says Thomas-Foley. “I think that people would be surprised at the number of women who have been designing sets and running crew — and that is usually a male-dominated area. There is an abundance of amazing female directors in Richmond. I don’t think there are as many women playwrights. There are not many women like Irene Ziegler, the playwright who inspired me.”
CAROL PIERSOL was the founding artistic director of the Firehouse Theatre Project and is now founding artistic director of 5th Wall Theatre.
“We have a lot of women in Richmond who run theaters,” says Piersol. “There are plenty of women who are artistic directors. We have women costume and lighting designers.”
Rather than a lack of gender parity, she says her greatest challenge is finding space to produce her vision. Billed as theater beyond boundaries, 5th Wall produces plays that are provocative; people talk about them long after they leave the theater, and this, says Piersol, makes venue owners cautious about offering space. “There are many spaces in Richmond, but they don’t let you do the kind of material we do.”
Piersol teaches adult acting classes and is also the drama sponsor for Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, where, she says, female students are involved in all aspects of theater, both in front of and behind the curtain.