In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Suzan Fete (right) directs "Reasons to be Pretty" during a rehearsal. Stage manager Lillian Tillson is on her right. Photo by Sarah Kriger Hwang

In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Gerard Neugent (left) and Bill Theisen are Laurel and Hardy. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Female directors take their place in Milwaukee theater

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.

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Talkbacks

Akoma | Jan. 9, 2011 at 2:42 a.m. (report)

You appear to have missed one of the most exciting additions to the "Sisterhood of Directors", Sherri Williams Pannell. Sherri received her Master of Fine Arts in Theater and Drama-Directing, from the University of Wisconsin in 2009. Sherri is probably one of the few African American female directors in the nation. She lives in Milwaukee and is directing the play "Most Valuable Player" A Tribute to Jackie Robinson, an American Hero, for the Children's Theater of Madison. The play will be presented February 19 - 27th. Sherri is a brilliant woman, a great performer and has demonstrated her commitment to her field through the years of hard work and sacrifice that it took to get her MFA.

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