Amy Sherman-Palladino couldn’t have been more tickled to host a panel titled “Women in Theatre: Resetting the Stage.” The creative force behind Gilmore Girls and this season’s hotter-than-hot The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Sherman-Palladino co-produced the Broadway run of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Violet, and may not have fully recovered from the experience. Hence her appearance in a tight subterranean space hosting prominent women directors, among them Kathleen Marshall (Anything Goes), Leigh Silverman (Violet, Harry Clarke) and Rebecca Taichman (last season’s Tony-winning director for Indecent, though you wouldn’t have known it from the promotional material).
“Theater to me is everything and this to me is amazing and unbelievable,” Sherman-Palladino said.
“I don’t know if anyone’s heard,” she continued, “but in my TV-film world, there’s the creepy people written about recently and it seems like all the creepy people in the industry are on our side of the world, and I’m just wondering, do you ever have creepy people?” Theater, she went on to say, is like heaven, compared with Hollywood, where potted plants are among the victims of abuse. (“Give people too much power, they go nuts,” she said, “and suddenly there’s not a plant in town that’s safe.”)
“Theater has been, always been, all white male theater artists and we should be holding ourselves to a more realistic standard. Which is that we can and should be a place of inclusion and change, and we’re not. The theater’s not. And it’s a fantasy.” – Director Leigh Silverman
The panelists responded with determined restraint, not mentioning the growing number of prominent men in theater whose histories of sexual harassment and worse have been catching up with them with alarming regularity.
“We’re in a terrifying moment right now,” said Marshall, “where things are happening very rapidly – it’s fantastic, it’s a seismic cultural shift.” Theater differs from film and TV, she added, in that much of it happens in one space, with fewer opportunities for the kinds of one-on-one situations that have empowered some men to behave grotesquely.
“Is there a power-structure issue in theater for women?” Sherman-Palladino wondered. When she signed on with Violet, with Silverman directing, she said, “it felt like such a safe place to fail.”
“I think the way you describe theater is, astounding, Amy, and inspiring,” Silverman said, scattering her sentences with umms. “I also think that theater has been, always been, all white male theater artists and we should be holding ourselves to a more realistic standard. Which is that we can and should be a place of inclusion and change, and we’re not. The theater’s not. And it’s a fantasy.
Silverman has staged some of the most compellingly hard-edged shows in recent seasons, including works by David Henry Hwang and a revelatory revival of Sweet Charity. “If we as a theater community can take an honest and rigorous look at actually who we are,” she said, “I think we have a chance of being who you describe.”
If it was quickly clear that Sherman-Palladino’s single experience as a theater producer didn’t quite align with the lifetime of battles, humiliations, accommodations and, to be sure, triumphs of the veterans she was speaking with, it also was clear that she was determined to be a friendly interlocutor capable of rolling with the punches.
Marshall told one of the brief event’s noteworthy crossover stories. Nearly two decades ago, she said, The New York Times asked her to write something about the scarcity of women directors on Broadway, which she did. That same week, she recalled, her Disney production of the musical Once Upon A Mattress was shown on The Wonderful World of Disney. It was an all-star show with Tracey Ullman in the role that had made Carol Burnett a Broadway star, and Burnett herself in another role. The broadcast won rave reviews all around, including from the Times – which neglected to mention its female director even by inference, let alone by name.
Marshall, in telling her story, left out one significant detail: that review was by the Times’ chief TV critic at the time, Alessandra Stanley. Sherman-Palladino pursued the theme herself, saying that most of her mentors had been men, and wondering whether the directors had felt more or less supported by women colleagues. The response was inconclusive, though the moderator was happy to learn that some of our most prominent nonprofit theaters are run by women.
“There’s so much anger right now, and it is a moment to rise the f*** up,” Taichman said. “It’s so extreme what’s happening in our country, so shocking and painful and, hopefully, creates energy to topple the machine or somehow be heard. The question is how do we as a community attack this and all rise up against this and, in my mind, topple it.”
Whitney White, who served as assistant director of Marvin’s Room, told of looking at an Ibsen play and being asked by a teacher for her take on the play as a woman of color and thinking, “Oh yeah, my story’s valid, and maybe theater’s a way that I can explore these stories that don’t get a microphone.
Sherman-Palladino concluded with an unimpeachable appeal for more arts education, which drew a round of applause.