By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Sep 30, 2010 at 9:03 AM

Theater would not appear to be an industry that needs to have its knuckles rapped for sexism. Women buy many more tickets than men, and aren't stages abundantly populated with actresses?

Well yes, but what about the people who write and stage the plays? In a patchwork of national statistics that have remained about the same in the past 20 years, roughly 15% of dramatists getting their work produced and 15% of directors getting hired for professional productions are females. That's about the same as the 17% figure women have in that ol' boys club, the U.S. Senate.

Milwaukee theater is different. In a quiet revolution that has gone almost unnoticed, a growing group of established and emerging directors are females who began their careers as actors.

Furthermore, they have provided almost all of the new directing blood in the city for more than a decade. And their work has been outstanding.

Consider this. The production of "Laurel and Hardy" the Milwaukee Rep opened last Sunday in its Stackner Cabaret was directed by Laura Gordon, who has been a member of the Rep's resident acting company since the mid-'90s. She continues to act at the Rep and will direct "Speaking in Tongues" in the company's Stiemke Theater in January.

Renaissance Theaterworks begins its new season Friday with Neil LaBute's "Reasons to be Pretty," staged by Suzan Fete. A Renaissance co-founder, Fete acted with the Boulevard Ensemble in the '80s before establishing herself as being particularly adept at directing edgy and provocative plays.

The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's next production, the small musical "Main-Travelled Roads," opens Oct. 15 with accomplished actress and musician Molly Rhode at the helm. This is Rhode's first professional directing job, but she has previously served as an assistant director on several projects, and she is also a choreographer, a position that often leads to directing. She will stage "Miss Nelson is Missing" for First Stage Children's Theater next spring.

The Chamber opened its season in August with Tami Workentin directing "Jeeves Intervenes." It was her second professional directing job.

Mary MacDonald Kerr and Angela Iannone are two more veteran actresses who also direct here. Both are currently acting, MacDonald Kerr in Next Act Theatre's "Four Places" and Iannone in the Rep's production of "Cabaret."

The female director trend began in 1986, when actress Jenny Wanasek, who used the name Jenny Lerner then, was asked by Theatre Tesseract founder and artistic director Sharon McQueen to stage a production of the comedy "Greater Tuna." Tesseract was a forerunner of Next Act Theatre.

"Sharon noticed my contributions during a process when a director was letting the actors 'direct by committee,'" Wanasek recalls. "She took a risk and gave me a show." Thus began Wanasek's long and successful directing career.

Renaissance Theaterworks, founded in 1993 by women to give women theater opportunities, appears to be a strong catalyst for the unusual development of female directors here. The longterm stability of the stage community in Milwaukee, with theater artists choosing to sink roots and make careers here, is also a factor. Talent is recognized and rewarded.

Gordon received her first professional directing job from Renaissance in 2004, with its production of "Skin Tight." Iannone's first job directing professional actors -- she previously had directed college students -- was in Renaissance's 2002 staging of "Trojan Women."

Workentin, whose acting credits include Renaissance, the Chamber Theatre and Next Act, became a professional director with Renaissance's production of "Barney & Bee" in 2009.

Virtually all of the local women find different rewards in directing and acting. "I often say, it's getting on top of the train wreck and steering," Workentin says of directing. "I love connecting the dots that make it all come together and hopefully move you or make you laugh."

"I lose a lot more sleep as a director," Gordon says. "I also have to say, it is really easy to take a compliment as a director. If someone likes a play I've directed, I'm thrilled, and can accept the compliment because I am so aware and so proud of the work that everyone has put into it.

"It's more difficult for me to do that as an actor."

MacDonald Kerr has an interesting way of differentiating the rewards offered by acting and directing. "I find the satisfaction in acting to be more on a physical level, literally feeling the events of the story, the joy and the pain -- riding the rollercoaster. The shared experience with the audience is quite wonderful -- bringing them with you on the rollercoaster for the first time.

"The satisfaction of directing is more intellectual, figuring out the puzzle, building the piece, unlocking the doors with the actors."

All of the women think their directing experience has made them better actors. "You look at a play more holistically, you pay more attention to structure, you notice how your character serves the entire story, and you become a problem solver," Rhode says.

"I'm more understanding of the demands made on the director," Wanasek adds. Iannone has a slightly different take on being an actor who also directs. "I've enjoyed the directors I've been working with the past few years.

"That wasn't always the case. I'm able to hear and understand them in a different way now, and it's incredibly fun."

"I come back from (rehearsal) break right away," Fete says with a smile.

Gordon's "Laurel and Hardy" runs through Nov. 14 in the Rep's Stackner Cabaret. Fete's "Reasons to be Pretty" opens Friday and continues through Oct. 24 in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. Rhode's "Main-Travelled Roads" will be staged Oct. 15-31 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center.

Speaking of "Laurel and Hardy"....

Not long after actor Gerard Neugent graduated from Marquette University in 1997 he made plans to move to New York. At the last minute, C. Michael Wright, who would later become the artistic director of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, persuaded him to stay in Milwaukee. Wright argued that Neugent would have a much more fulfilling career here.

Local audiences have been the beneficiary of Neugent's decision, none more than the people who will see the Rep's production of "Laurel and Hardy." His portrayal of comic actor Stan Laurel is so incredibly spot on, it must be seen to be believed.

That takes nothing away from Bill Theisen's very authentic impersonation of Oliver Hardy. The performances in this two actor piece, which also includes onstage accompanist Paul Helm, make the show.

Written by the late Scottish poet and playwright Tom McGrath, "Laurel and Hardy" contains too much exposition and lacks dramatic shape. The play's premise has the comedians recalling their careers from the afterlife.

But the piece is heavily larded with their old routines from silent movies and the early talkies, and Neugent and Theisen excel at reproducing the classic shenanigans. If you like slapstick, this show's for you.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.