Carissa Dixon (Brenda DeVita)
Clockwise from top left: Brenda DeVita, Jessica Lanius, Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Heather Renken, Sarah Marty.
When Forward Theater Company announced that all of the plays in its 2016-17 season were written by women, many people may not have realized the potent symbolism. Even the person most responsible for that decision, Forward’s artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray, admits she didn’t set out to correct a historical wrong.
But here’s why it matters: Less than a quarter of plays produced in the United States are written by women.
My favorite quote on the topic comes from an article by the playwright Marsha Norman, “Why the Count Matters,” in The Dramatist: “If life worked like the theatre, four out of five things you had ever heard would have been said by men.”
But the reasons for this imbalance are complicated. The canon is most certainly dominated by white men. In many cases, men are also the ones in artistic leadership positions, making decisions about which plays are produced. Theater companies receive many more submissions from men than women, which, sadly, could indicate girls don’t grow up thinking they can become playwrights. And a fascinating 2009 study showed that female artistic directors were less likely to want to add a play to their season when they thought it was written by a woman than by a man.
Here in Madison, a grand experiment is being carried out. Most of our professional and community theater groups have women in positions of artistic leadership.
There are lots of reasons why that’s happened. UW-Madison has a great theater department, and this city boasts an outsized amount of artistic talent. Because we’re a livable city, lots of creative folks want to stay around to make theater here. Some stay to raise families; others want to work where they feel collaboration and creativity are more important than commercial success. Quite a few found New York City to be inspiring for a time — and regularly scout for shows there —but feel Madison is a better place to put down artistic roots.
I talked to 10 women who run theater companies in and around Madison. They collaborate and consult with each other and form a tight-knit support network. At the same time, they are active in reaching out to new people and populations. I learned about behind-the-scenes planning meetings and exciting co-productions where the strengths of one company build on another. I heard plenty of legitimate complaints about the lack of arts dollars in Wisconsin — we currently rank 48th in the nation for state arts funding.
But I heard no griping about competition for monetary resources and audience. “I think it’s important that we put out in the world that women like each other,” says Brenda DeVita, artistic director of American Players Theatre.
What emerged from all these conversations was a picture of a thriving theater ecosystem, where every company fills a niche. From intimate black box theater at TAPIT/new works and Broom Street Theater to big-ticket musicals performed at Overture and the Wisconsin Union Theater, the women running theater organizations are rooting for each other.
The following profiles are excerpts from broad-ranging conversations I had with the women responsible for bringing stories to the stage.
Artistic director, Children’s Theater of Madison
I spoke to a remarkably calm Roseann Sheridan just hours before the opening of one of the biggest shows of her season, To Kill a Mockingbird. The production in Overture’s Playhouse, which she directed, showed off CTM’s strengths: a strong multigenerational, multiracial cast and a stunning design evoking the steamy back porches of Alabama. It was prefaced by an excellent preshow talk by the African American actors in the cast.
Sheridan, who moved here from Virginia 30 years ago, has taught at UW-Madison and spent 17 years working her way up the ranks at American Players Theatre. She was hired at CTM in 2007 during a time of turmoil for the company and has been rebuilding it ever since. With Sheridan at the helm, the 50-year-old company’s annual budget has grown from $500,000 to $1.6 million.
Sheridan has seen a lot of companies come and go in Madison. Some of them, she believes, didn’t tap into what local residents want to see: “We like things that are meaty, juicy — that speak to us about the human condition and aren’t real showy and self-indulgent.”
She also credits the progressive political environment and the UW for laying the groundwork for a thriving arts culture. “This is a place where experimentation is welcome,” says Sheridan.
She says Madison’s strong history of feminism and LGBT activism helped build a foundation for strong women’s leadership. “In the ’80s, we had Fallen Women Productions and GALVANIZE marches,” says Sheridan. “That sort of percolated a lot of ideas and actions that feed into the idea that this is a place where you can connect with other people and you can come up with ideas and try things out.”
Artistic director, American Players Theatre
When Brenda DeVita arrived in Spring Green 21 years ago to work as APT company manager, theatergoers used port-a-potties and she worked out of a trailer. All the directors were men. But she credits former artistic director David Frank for offering her a seat at the table. “I’ve never really felt the marginalization here. There wasn’t a question about my gender.”
DeVita believes women in artistic leadership positions are making a difference for audiences and artists. “It’s our time, right? I think everything has a season, and I feel like we’ve been watching and waiting and working and learning,” says DeVita. “We’re seeing a huge spurt in the number of women in charge, and I think that’s leading the way to the conversation about greater inclusion.”
DeVita took over the artistic reins from Frank in 2014, and her experience is particular to running a classical theater company, largely Shakespearean. “The written-down history unfortunately has been chronicled by men, and white men, and we are committed to classical work,” says DeVita. However, she adds, “Shakespeare, being a genius, wrote some of the most beautiful and incredible female roles.”
Still, she estimates the Bard wrote five male parts to every female, so APT has experimented over the years with gender-blind casting, most recently casting Cristina Panfilio and Kelsey Brennan as the twin servants in The Comedy of Errors.
In the 200-seat Touchstone Theatre, which opened in 2009, the 36-year-old company is pushing boundaries and presenting more modern works by diverse authors. “How do we have a stake in what is considered classic 100 years from now?” asks DeVita. “A woman in that room having that conversation is essential.”
Stories are what animate DeVita, a poetry lover who grew up on a farm in Iowa. In college, she met and later married James DeVita, who has become one of the nation’s most respected classical actors. They moved to Spring Green in 1995, where they have raised two children, son Gale, 20, and daughter Sophia, 17.
“When I hear my daughter talk about the world, the only world she knows is one with a black president where her mom runs a theater company. It’s an incredible privilege that my mother, with 16 kids, didn’t have.”
DeVita says she plans to create an inclusive space for those who have historically been left out of the power structure for theater. “I want to invite the people and I want to learn from them, because human stories will never be done, and telling those stories from one point of view is not appropriate, not interesting anymore.”
Ryan Michael Wisniewski
Artistic director, Broom Street Theater
Heather Renken has plenty to be proud of. This summer two shows (both written by women) that originated at Broom Street hit stages in the prestigious New York International Fringe Festival: Malissa Petterson’s The 800th Annual Salvation Swing-Off, about a dance-a-thon set in Purgatory’s Laundromat, and Held, a fantasy musical by Kelly Maxwell with music by Meghan Rose.
Incubating new voices has animated Renken, the first woman to lead the tiny theater, which has operated for most of its 47 years in a renovated garage on Willy Street.
Renken graduated with a theater degree from Butler University, a small liberal arts college in Indianapolis, where she honed her performance skills and learned all the aspects of technical theater. When her husband’s job brought them to Madison in 2002, she volunteered to run lights on a Broom Street show titled Candyland, You Slut. “If a company’s good to their technicians, it’s probably a good place to work,” says Renken. “If they’re lousy to their technicians, it’s easy to extract yourself.”
It wasn’t long before Renken attended The Man Who Loved Sex, a show about Alfred Kinsey, written by the theater’s iconoclastic founder, Joel Gersmann. She went back five times. “ I’d never seen anything like that,” says Renken. “I was hooked.”
She loved Gersmann’s experimental, physical approach and the way he blended Eastern and Western influences. In late 2003, she acted and danced in Gersmann’s final play, The Ballerina and the Economist.
But before he passed away in 2005, Gersmann encouraged Renken to write a play about her experiences living in the South. She wrote and directed Oh God, There’s Baptists at the Door!
When Renken took the reins from Callen Harty in 2010, the theater was still transitioning from Gersmann’s insular approach to a DIY performance hub where you can see original, local plays most weekends, classes, improv, live music and sketch comedy shows.
Many Broom Street alums have gone on to distinguished careers in television, Hollywood, Broadway and off-Broadway. Renken says that’s because the company takes risks. “Not to say that you won’t see polished shows in our space,” says Renken. “But you might see something by a first-time writer, and you can see the seeds, see the spark of something that could be miraculous.”
Danielle Dresden and Donna Peckett
Producing artistic directors, TAPIT/new works
Anyone looking for a model of women forging their own creative path doesn’t need to look further than Danielle Dresden and Donna Peckett. Dresden (a playwright from Long Island) and Peckett (a tap dancer from Florida) met while performing in Joel Gersmann’s Houdini: The Jew from Appleton, at Broom Street Theater. They both spent years working at Broom Street before striking out on their own in 1985 to form TAPIT, which has an educational mission and produces plays with political/social commentary (and sometimes tap dancing).
The two bought a small storefront in the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood back when the neighborhood was dicey and the Barrymore was a porn theater called the Eastwood. “It was a bad neighborhood,” says Peckett. “They were showing Bodacious Ta-Tas there.”
They needed a space, primarily because “tap dancers bust up floors,” says Dresden. Peckett needed a place to teach tap, and by living upstairs, they could afford to stage plays downstairs. Since then, Dresden has written an astonishing number of plays — 34 at last count. All are complete originals. The latest, Ben Franklin & Baron von Steuben vs. the Paine County School Board, featured Peckett and Dresden in drag as Founding Fathers.
The company has managed to stay afloat, even though grant money has slowed to a trickle under Gov. Scott Walker. “To take the Wisconsin Arts Board and cut it by 66% — this has a huge impact on people,” says Peckett.
“The arts are always dealing with scarcity,” adds Dresden, “and scarcity can lead you in two chief directions: to grab and hold onto what’s mine or to say, look, we’re all in this together and there’s not enough, so why don’t we share and support each other as much as we can?”
Artistic director, Four Seasons Theatre
For her senior thesis at UW’s Bolz Center for Arts Administration, Sarah Marty wrote a 75-page business plan for a nonprofit musical theater company. Eleven years later, Four Seasons Theatre has become a staple in the Madison scene — a company with an ambitious outreach program that produces lavish versions of classic musicals with full orchestras. Four Seasons’ next production is Monty Python’s SPAMALOT, Aug. 5-7 at Wisconsin Union Theater.
Marty was part of a small group that launched Four Seasons in 2005 with a clear goal to showcase local talent in big musicals. “We feel it’s really important to highlight the talent that’s here,” says Marty, who became the company’s artistic director in 2010.
In the last decade, Marty has seen the theater scene explode. In February, while preparing a speech for the Madison Rotary Club, she counted 38 area theater companies. “We’re all competing for the same resources. We’re all applying for the same grants, we’re competing for actors, we’re competing for carpenters, electricians,” says Marty.
Despite this, Marty has been a part of a blossoming collaborative ethos. She spent a few years working for Forward Theater Company, and while planning a season, she likes to meet with Meghan Randolph of Music Theatre of Madison to try to avoid competing for actors or designers. “It’s really unusual,” says Marty. “Does that happen in other cities? Probably not. There’s a lot of conversation happening between companies.”
Executive director, Music Theatre of Madison
Meghan Randolph was fresh out of college when she landed a dream job on a North American tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster, Cats. That was 2004-05, and even though she “hated it,” the experience helped her decide what she wanted to do with her life. She would return to Madison — where she spent most of her high school years — form a musical theater company, and pay performers.
“I was looking around [for work in the theater] after the tour, and there was literally nothing,” says Randolph “I was surprised that there wasn’t even anything that was going to pay me 50 bucks.”
In 2006, MTM staged its first performance, an outdoor showing of Hair (“a disaster, actually,” she says). Since then, the company has made its mark doing lesser-known shows, including new works and Midwest premieres. In recent years, Randolph has been experimenting with site-specific venues to great success: Arlington, a one-woman musical told from the perspective of a military wife, played at Lakeside Street Coffee House, and La Cage aux Folles played at Five Nightclub. Randolph is now gearing up for the July 8 Madison premiere of A New Brain, a trippy semi-autobiographical musical by William Finn (Falsettos and 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), who has been diagnosed with a brain disorder.
“Doing lesser-known musicals was kind of the wagon that I hitched my star to, and it worked,” says Randolph. “I just want to do musicals, and I want to pay people, and that’s it. And I want people to come, and I want people to like it.”
Jan Levine Thal
Artistic director, Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre
Jan Levine Thal, founder of the Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre (KRASS), knows enough about theater’s gender gap to fill several TED talks. She launched the shoestring budget theater in 2009 explicitly to address the imbalance; KRASS works only with female directors and plays written by women.
Levine Thal says she had often commiserated about the lack of opportunities with the theater’s namesake, a gifted playwright, actor and stagehand who died in 2007.
Levine Thal’s day job is managing editor of an economics journal, and she spent years as a political activist — “a foot soldier” — in the pro-choice and workers’ rights movements. “It didn’t make me happy,” says Levine Thal. “I came to the point where I wasn’t enjoying it, and I had nothing creative in my life.”
She began studying acting in Madison and then spent five years in New York, taking acting classes and bankrupting herself seeing shows. “I went thousands of dollars into debt seeing plays,” says Levine Thal. “I was interested in stuff that was more edgy. I was interested in what people like me could do in the theater.”
A fan of Caryl Churchill, the British feminist playwright whose genre-busting plays explore sexual and power dynamics, Levine Thal hopes KRASS will provide more opportunities for women while dispelling any misconceptions that “women’s theater” is not as tough or challenging as productions written and directed by men.
KRASS recently joined the consortium of theater organizations presenting shows at the Bartell Theater, and will be focusing on producing 21st-century playwrights. The company has secured rights to Detroit ’67, an award-winning play set during the riots in Detroit by African American playwright Dominique Morrisseau.
Maureen Janson Heintz
Jennifer Uphoff Gray
Artistic director, Forward Theater Company
If you’ve been in the audience of a Forward Theater show, you’ve seen Jen Gray. She’s greeting patrons outside the Overture Playhouse, and she stays around to facilitate talkbacks with enthusiastic theatergoers after every performance. This audience-driven mission is key for Gray, who has been artistic director of Forward since the professional company formed after Madison Rep folded in 2009.
Born and raised in Madison, Gray went to Harvard as an undergrad and worked as a freelance director in New York for 12 years before moving back here in 2005 with two small children (she’s since had a third). “We moved here for family as well as career reasons,” says Gray. “I didn’t feel like we were contributing anything in commercial New York theater.”
Part of her enthusiasm for the art form has to do with the exciting inroads women playwrights are making. Rattling off a list of female playwrights Forward has already produced or hopes to produce, she says she was thrilled when Forward’s seventh season was taking shape and the strongest contenders were written by women.
Two of Forward’s recent plays, The Flick and Mr. Burns, took nontraditional approaches, but Gray says she thinks the Madison audience is ready for challenging material. “We’re in dialogue with the audience,” says Gray. “We really listen to them, and they’ll tell us. Are we out on a limb or are we dangling?”
Gray says she’s excited to direct Forward’s first commission, an adaptation by APT veteran Jim DeVita of Learning to Stay, a novel by Madisonian Erin Celello, about an Iraq War veteran who returns home to Madison with PTSD.
Artistic director, Theatre LILA
Jessica Lanius is driven to collaborate. “I am fed by connecting with other people,” says Lanius, who co-founded Theatre LILA in New York in 2004 and moved it to Madison in 2014. “That’s everything; that’s my drug.”
Lanius is getting her fix. She choreographed An Ideal Husband, which just opened at APT. Last year, she helped created a breathtaking, kinesthetic steampunk version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at CTM. And in just a few short years since bringing LILA here, she has directed material that put the company on the map — No Child, Suitcase Dreams and Trash — all critically acclaimed original shows featuring diverse actors embodying Lanius’ “physical theater” approach.
The Prairie du Sac native spent her undergrad years at UW-Stevens Point and moved to New York after getting an acting MFA from Rutgers. She brings together multimedia elements, music and dance in collage-like forms called “inventions” rather than plays. “I was constantly dancing and looking at ways to merge dance and theater,” says Lanius.
Lanius says bringing her training and approach back to the Madison area has felt like a natural progression. “In some ways it’s been a breath of fresh air. It feels like I can do this,” says Lanius, adding that New York is “saturated and financially burdening” for artists. She also feels that actors and audiences here are eager for the type of inventive, visceral theater she’s committed to creating.
In the future, she wants to bring the approach to more young people. “I think it’s cool for young people to see how music and dance and visuals can tell a story,” says Lanius. “I want it to be something you haven’t seen. Something like when you go to a sports game or a rock concert and the music hits you, and everything kind of adds up to be this experience.”