Ever since the 10th Century German nun Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim began writing Latin plays inspired by romantic passion and religious devotion, women have been trying to break into theater, but even today the movers and shakers in the industry are 80% male. It’s one thing to enjoy success as an actor but there are still far too few successful female playwrights and theater directors, let alone producers. Some women, however, are making a difference, both through their own work and through their support for others. Look out for their work and you too can be part of making a change.
An impressive actor in her own right and the coach behind some of today’s biggest stars, Susan Batson was part of the original cast of Hair and went on to receive widespread praise for her successful Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Over the course of her career, which has also involved work as a writer, director, and producer, she has won an LA Drama Critics’ Award, a New York Drama Critics’ Award and an Obie. She’s a longstanding member of the Actor’s Studio.
A co-founder of the Jewish Women’s Theater in Santa Monica, Ronda Spinak is also a board member of the Alliance of Jewish Theaters and a member of the Dramatists’ Guild. She’s known for the long-running At-Homes Salon Theatre series and the festival Hit Oscar Wilde’s Wife. She also co-wrote Stories from the Fringe, bringing the stories of female rabbis to life in dramatic form, and produced Not That Jewish, for which she received an LA Drama Critics’ Award.
Coffee heiress Louise Gund has served on the boards of the San Francisco Opera and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is now a board member of the Berkeley Community Chorus. She has produced several Broadway plays that have received a total of four Tony nominations, winning twice, as well as three Drama Desk Awards and four Drama League Awards. Her work has also been nominated for several Outer Critics Circle Awards.
A successful producer of Broadway shows and successful off-Broadway plays, Margo Lion’s work has won 20 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Born in Baltimore, she got her break with the 1992 hit Jelly’s Last Jam and is best known as one of the producers of Hairspray and The Wedding Singer in their stage incarnations, and she served as co-chair of the President’s Committee on the Humanities and the Arts under Barack Obama.
Famous for putting on the long-running Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone, which won several Tony Awards, Jill Furman has also enjoyed off-Broadway success with In the Heights, which was named Best Musical in 2008. She was widely praised for engineering the 2009 revival of West Side Story. Born in New York, she now works internationally and is focused on developing material that has commercial potential but brings something new to the stage.
Carole Shorenstein Hays
Owner of the Curran Theatre and President of production company SHN, both based in San Francisco, Carole Shorenstein Hays has distinguished herself as the only Broadway producer to have won Tony Awards for two different versions of the same play (the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences). she also headed production on the Broadway production of Doubt, winning the Tony Award for Best Play in 2005, and she has produced a number of other award-winning Broadway shows.
A former board member at New York Stage and Film and a member of the Broadway League, Illinois-born Harriet Leve has headed up award-winning productions on both coasts and work with a series of A-list performers. Her career has included musical hits like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and La Cage Aux Folles alongside dramas like Of Mice And Men and The 39 Steps (which won one of her four Tony Awards), and she has recently been adapting the work of Sarah Waters.
She may be best known for her extraordinary television career and screen acting, but Oprah Winfrey has also dedicated a significant portion of her life to the theater, winning a Tony Award for her revival of The Color Purple. She’s worked hard to encourage other women in the industry and as a philanthropist she has provided opportunities for South African children to develop their skills in drama, doing her bit to help the next generation of creative talent.
What marks out this generation of women in theater as different is that they’re finally in a position to develop powerful networks and help other women get the opportunities that they have previously been cut off from. After a thousand years, we may finally have reached the turning point where women start laying claim to an equal share of the industry and the cultural influence it delivers.