Celebrating International Women's Day: Five Fierce Females Who Made Theatre History

The question of gender parity in the theatre is a matter that has long been explored within our community. While recent Broadway seasons have taken encouraging steps toward better female representation, both on and offstage, the question of gender equality within the theatre continues to be a hotly debated issue across the theatrical sphere.

The most recent statistics provided by the Broadway League note that sixty-seven percent of Broadway audiences are female. Despite the fact that women make up roughly two thirds of audiences, other studies have revealed a staggering dearth of opportunities for women in roles that would allow them to shape the stories delivered to these predominately female theatregoers.

Since a study of the 2012-2013 Broadway season revealed some shocking statistics for women in leadership roles on Broadway, female artists have taken the reigns in a huge way and made theatre history both onstage and behind the scenes.

In 2014, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori became the first female writing team to take home Tonys for their soaring score for Fun Home. The same year, a woman of color, Audra McDonald, won a record 6th Tony Award for her work in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill. Last season,Waitress and Eclipsed, sported all-female creative teams, with the latter being the first all-female, all-black creative team on Broadway.

The 2015- 2016 season also saw a rise in roles available to women of color, with the women of Hamilton, Shuffle Along, Waitress, Eclipsed, The Color Purple, Allegiance, and On Your Feet! taking center stage, bringing with them a stunning array of talent and positive ethnic representation.

But while we celebrate these notable advances for female voices on Broadway, the point remains that there is still more progress to be made as women, particularly women of color, queer, and trans women still struggle for visibility and representation in all facets of the arts arena.

Yet as we look to our future, we must consider our past, where women have been and continue to be vital to the advancement of the arts in all capacities. Since overcoming the stage barriers of the Shakespearean era, women have pushed boundaries and broken glass ceilings in all facets of the theatre, making our own advancements possible today.

As we celebrate International Women's Day, let us remember the courageous souls of past and present who have transcended gender, race, religious beliefs, and sexuality to help push the female cause forward and expand the definition of what it means to be a woman in the arts. Here are five of those women. Just a few names among the countless contributors to the legacy of female artists of past and present, and the legacies of all the women to come.


Celebrating International Women's Day: Five Fierce Females Who Made Theatre HistoryEllen Stewart

Ellen Stewart is the founder of LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club and is one of the leading pioneers of the Off-Off Broadway movement. Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, Stewart came to New York to work in fashion design. Beginning her career in the lingerie department of Saks Fifth Avenue, Stewart was drawn to theatre by her foster brother, Frederick Lights, a burgeoning playwright who was having difficulty getting his scripts produced at the time. Spurred on by her excellent work ethic, in 1961, she founded Cafe LaMaMa at 321 East 9th Street to stage the work of up and coming theatre artists.

Helping to support countless careers of future theatre luminaries including, but not limited to, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepherd, Harvey Fierstein, Liz Swados, Tom O'Horgan, Tom Eyen, Bette Midler, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro, Cafe LaMaMa became the destination for artists to workshop and produce new works without external interference.

In 1969, Cafe LaMaMa moved to its current home at 74A East 4th Street (between Bowery and 2nd Avenue). With the help of the Ford Foundation, the space was transformed into a 99-seat theater, the First Floor Theater, with a cabaret space, The Club, on the building's third floor. In 1974, Stewart acquired a second building on the same block which would become home to the Annex, a 295-seat theater, which was renamed the Ellen Stewart Theater in 2009.

Over a span of 50 years, Stewart, who received no formal theatre training, achieved a lasting legacy that included directing and writing an enormous body of work, producing the work of International Artists, and pioneering community building efforts.

In 1992, Stewart was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and was the first Off-Off- Broadway artist to receive this distinction. In 2005, Stewart was presented the Stewardship Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards by playwright Tom O'Horgan. She is the recipient of Distiguished Services to Art and Culture Award in the Ukraine as well as having been appointed an officer of the Ordre de Arts et des lettres of France.

In its 56 years of operation, La MaMa has been honored with over thirty Obie Awards, dozens of Drama Desk Awards, Bessie Awards and Villager Awards. Today La MaMa is a world renowned cultural institution located in 4 buildings. La MaMa's campus is currently home to four theaters, an art gallery, a six-story rehearsal studio building, a visiting artist dormitory, commercial and not for profit office spaces, and an extensive archive documenting the history of Off-Off Broadway. In 2011, following her passing, New York City renamed East 4th Street, "Ellen Stewart Way", to celebrate the legendary contributions of this pioneering artist.


Celebrating International Women's Day: Five Fierce Females Who Made Theatre HistoryEva Le Gallienne

Eva Le Gallienne was British- American stage actress, producer, director, translator, and author. Best known for pioneering the American Repertory movement that would give way to the off-Broadway scene, Le Gallienne made her stage debut in Paris at the age of 15, appearing in a minor comedic role in Maurice Maeterlinck's Monna Vanna, for which she received excellent reviews.

The following year, the young actress made her way to New York City, performing in a few unsuccessful shows and being fired from one out-of-town tryout. After spending a season traveling and performing in summer stock, Eva made her way back to Europe before returning to New York again to begin her career on Broadway, starring in several plays and gaining star status.

An ardent devotee of the "art of the theatre" as opposed to the "show business of Broadway", Le Gallienne was consumed by her drive to uphold the quality of the dramatic arts (even once rejecting a young Bette Davis from her company, describing her attitude as "insincere" and "frivolous"). As a pioneer of the American Repertory movement, Le Gallienne ran the Civic Repertory Theatre and managed Broadway's 1100-seat Civic Repertory Theater (better known as The 14th Street Theater) over a span of ten years, producing 34 productions before disbanding the group at the height of the Great Depression.

Shortly after the great crash of '29. Le Gallienne appeared on the cover of TIME magazine. As part of FDR's New Deal, she was offered a directorship at the National Theatre Division of the Works Progress Administration, but turned it down expressing that she preferred to work with "true talent" as opposed to nurturing struggling artists.

In the late 1930's, Le Gallienne, who was a lesbian, became involved with theatre director Margaret Webster, and with the aid of Cheryl Crawford, the three founded American Repertory Theater (no relation to the still operating A.R.T. in Massachusetts) which operated between 1946- 1948.

With a career that spanned over 50 years, hundreds of performances, three films, a handful of television appearances, and with an estimated 85 Broadway credits to her name, La Gallenne was lauded for her varied and expansive career. She received an Oscar nomination for her work in the film, Ressurection, and won an Emmy award for her appearance on the hospital drama, St. Elsewhere, in 1984. In 1964, Le Gallienne was presented with a special Tony Award in recognition of her 50th year as an actress and in honor of her work with the National Repertory Theatre. The National Endowment for the Arts also recognized her with the National Medal of Arts in 1986.


Celebrating International Women's Day: Five Fierce Females Who Made Theatre HistoryShakina Nayfack

A native of Orange County, California, Shakina Nayfack is the Founding Artistic Director of New York City's Musical Theatre Factory. She is a trans activist, author, star of two hit one-woman shows, and has served as director, choreographer, producer, and performance artist of countless cabarets, concerts, and new works.

As one of the stars of Hulu's hit series, "Difficult People", Shakina is perhaps best known for her work as Lola, the radical trans waitress who is credited with delivering one of the most iconic lines in recent television memory ("F*** you, Marcy!").

Born Jared Allen Nayfack, Shakina's work as an activist began during a turbulent adolescence during which she endured much bigotry and bullying within her community. A heightened sense of outrage and action led her to early organizing, and protest efforts, which would ultimately result in her being expelled from school. At the University of California, Santa Cruz, Shakina worked with GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) to develop training and sensitivity workshops for youth all over the country and to help expand the definitions of campus discrimination to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

After making her way to New York, in 2014, Shakina was given the keys to the back room of an old porn studio just blocks from the theatre district. With the help of friends, she converted the studio into the Musical Theatre Factory, a volunteer-based organization dedicated to helping musical theatre artists develop and present new work in a collaborative atmosphere free from the pressures of critical or commercial success. In its first 18 months, 900 volunteers worked 15,000 cumulative hours on more than 80 new musicals.

Following the inception of MTF, Shakina began a very public campaign to honest gender representation. Having spent most of her youth identifying as a gay man and grappling with gender identity, Shakina began her path to transition by starting a "KickStartHer" campaign on social media to fund gender-confirmation surgery. After traveling to Thailand to complete gender confirmation, Shakina chronicled her journey in two musical one-woman revues, One Woman Show and Post-Op, shedding an honest and important light on the realities of trans issues and experiences for theatre audiences.

As an activist and performer, Shakina has made incredible strides for the trans community both onstage and on screen. She is the first transgender woman in history to receive a Lilly Award for contributions to the American theatre. The Drama League has also recently named Shakina the Beatrice Terry Artist in Residence Fellow for 2017, an honor which will enable her to write and direct a reading of Chonburi International Hotel and Butterfly Club, a story inspired by Edna Ferber and George S. Kauffman's Stage Door.


Bianca MarroquinCelebrating International Women's Day: Five Fierce Females Who Made Theatre History

Bianca Marroquin is a Mexican musical theatre actress, singer, and dancer. Best known for her work as merry murderess, Roxie Hart, in the Broadway musical Chicago, Bianca is the first Mexican actor to portray a leading character in a Broadway musical.

Born in Monterey, Mexico, Marroquin began her stage training studying ballet, tap, jazz, and flamenco dance at Bellas Artes Academy. After studying Communications at the Tecnologico de Monterrey, one of Mexico's finest universities, she made the choice to move to Mexico City upon winning a spot in the company of Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Remaining in Mexico City for some time, she performed in musical theatre classics like RENT and Phantom of the Opera before winning the role that would ultimately change the trajectory of her career, Roxie Hart in Kander and Ebb's Chicago.

From her work in the Mexico City production, she was invited to reprise the role in the United States touring company of the show, before being invited to join the Broadway cast at the Shubert Theatre, marking the first occasion that a Mexican actor would star in a Broadway musical. Since August 2006, Bianca has performed in the show on and off, most recently rejoining the cast for a brief run in the summer of 2016.

Her Broadway credits also include a stint as Daniela in Lin- Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and the hit 2006 revival of The Pajama Game. Her impressive career also includes a turn as magical nanny, Mary Poppins, in the first Spanish-language mounting of the titular Disney classic and an album of solo material, El Mundo Era Mío (The World Was Mine), released May 13, 2014.

She is a five-time winner of Mexican Critics Association awards, including Best Actress. In 2004 she earned a Helen Hayes award for Lead Actress in a Non-Resident Production for her work as Roxie Hart on the national tour of Chicago. In 2014, she was named the first ambassador for Viva Broadway, the Broadway League's audience development partnership with the Hispanic community, which helps bridge the world of Broadway with Latino audiences around the country.


Celebrating International Women's Day: Five Fierce Females Who Made Theatre HistoryTisa Chang

Tisa Chang is a Chinese-American actress, director, and the founder of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.

Born in 1941 in Chongqing, Tisa moved to New York at the age of six with her family. The child of China's appointed consul general, Tisa showed an interest in the arts from a young age, Raised with an appreciation for opera and drama, Tisa produced her own works as a child for nannies and family members before going on to study formally at the High School of Performing Arts in New York, and then at Barnard College.

After finishing school, Tisa began her stage career first performing in smaller shows as a dancer before moving on to Broadway plays and musicals, appearing in shows such as Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, and Pacific Overtures. In addition to her impressive stage resume, Chang also made onscreen appearances in both film and television.

After years of performing, Tisa decided to take on her next challenge, directing. Of her career change, Chang noted: "it was a chance to work on projects that resonate deeply and personally and highlighted my world [...] of coming from a divided China that was still in the throes of revolution but steeped in culture and history. As a director, I had more autonomy in choosing projects, and felt I was contributing to American theatre with stories drawn from China's vast literary legacy. I had been acting and dancing professionally for 10 years on and off-Broadway, so I had a very good immersion into mainstream theatre. With directing, I can help shape what the audience experiences and walks away with."

Beginning her directing career in 1973 (with the help of another female pioneer on this list, Ellen Stewart) at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. She was appointed director of Stewart's Chinese Theatre Group and produced plays such as A Midsummer Night's Dream and A Servant of Two Masters, both of which incorporated multilingual elements. Her first directing opportunity came when Stewart allowed her to helm a Peking opera, The Return of the Phoenix, which was very well received and was lauded by Richard Shephard of the New York Times.

In 1977, utilizing the talent and passion she found at Chinese Theatre Group and frustrated by the lack of opportunities for Asian actors, Chang established the Pan Asian Repertory Group. The mission of the company, as stated by Chang, was to "promote opportunities for Asian-American actors to be seen in context of who we really are and what we are capable of achieving as artists."

Pushing back against stereotypical portrayals of the Asian community onstage, many wondered if the audiences would respond to The New Group. Chang has noted, "because we were considered a curiosity or something very new and unique, people did come." In 1981, TV Times wrote that Pan Asian was "the most respected experimental theatre group in New York City."

Pan Asian is currently one of the world's largest producers of Asian American theatre and has been lauded for its efforts to expand opportunities and break down stereotypes of Asian-Americans onstage.

In 1988 Chang was awarded a Theatre World Special Award for her direction and the establishment of Pan Asian. Other awards include the 2002 Lifetime Achievement Award from Organization of Chinese Americans, the 2001 Lee Reynolds Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women, the 1993 Chinese American Cultural Pioneer Tribute from New York City Council Andrew Stein, and the 1991 Barnard Medal of Distinction. She is currently a part of the executive board of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.



Related Articles

From This Author Alexa Criscitiello