“To women in the theatre!”
Susan Stroman raises a glass to toast Diane Paulus and Rachel Chavkin. The three directors have gathered on a Thursday evening at the Russian Samovar in midtown to laud Chavkin, who is nominated for a Tony Award for best director of a musical for her work on Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. “We hardly ever get to do this, the directors getting together,” Stroman says. “So it’s really quite lovely.”
They are also keen to chat about what it means to be a woman working as a director of musicals on Broadway. And when it comes to the Tonys, Paulus has some very practical advice for Chavkin.
“Sometimes women get a little more ready than the men—you should bring some snacks,” she advises. “Stick some almonds in a bag. And think about your shoes!”
“I nixed the stilettos,” Chavkin assures her.
Paulus was Chavkin’s teacher at New York University, and both have their directing MFA from Columbia University; Paulus also produced Comet at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., where she is the artistic director. Stroman directed Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac in The Last Two People on Earth at ART, and Chavkin introduced the two at a benefit for her theatre company, the TEAM.
And the directors might have another thing in common next week: Paulus and Stroman, along with Julie Taymor, are the only women to win the Tony for best director of a musical, and Chavkin could join the ranks on Sunday night.
Below, they discuss starting out as a director, making a career in the field, and how far women have come—and how far they still have to go.
How did each of you get into directing and were there people who inspired you when you were starting out?
Susan Stroman: For me, it started through choreography to directing. When I was a kid, I watched the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies and just was so influenced by the music of those movies. But I think it’s that idea of having the total view of everything with music and dance, so it was always a goal to be able to create something as a whole piece and do it through dance and choreography. I didn’t start out as a performer. I started out wanting to direct and choreograph—even when I was little.
But you have one performing credit on Broadway.
Diane Paulus: Which one’s that?
Stroman: I don’t know. Whoopee!, was that it?
Yeah, that’s right.
Stroman: So I did come to New York as a performer so I could sing and dance, but it was only to be able to take over and create for the theatre. It’s so fulfilling when you’re in the back of the house and you see how an audience is moved by something you’ve created. There’s nothing better.
Rachel Chavkin: Had you known any women who were doing that before you?
Stroman: No. I admired Jerome Robbins, and that was someone who I really looked up to. I got a chance to work with Fosse on the tour of Chicago and he’s incredible, but he has that style that he sticks to. It’s like Picasso. But I think for me with Robbins, when anyone would dance, they would dance in that character, and so that’s what I was attracted to.
Did it cross your mind that there were no women doing what you wanted to do?
Stroman: Not when I was younger. Because I’ve been at it for over 30 years, and when I started, it never crossed my mind. Although I certainly would dress down, and I would certainly not go into an interview in a feminine way. Today, you would never do that. You go in looking the way you want to look. But 30 years ago, you would think about how you were perceived as a woman wanting to be in charge.
Chavkin: Right, right, right. And what power looks like—that power looks masculine. Was there a moment where you were like, “Oh I am a woman and this is an anomaly”?
Stroman: Moreso now, actually. Because in fact, this is odd to say, but I feel the criticism more now than I did when I was younger. I think women are criticized more now than I think they’ve ever been. Perhaps when I was young, I didn’t feel it; I just did it. But now you feel if someone would prefer to have a man in this position rather than you. I feel it today. So that’s not good news.
Chavkin: Why do you think that is?
Stroman: I don’t know.
Paulus: Our country!
Stroman: I’m not sure. I don’t have arguments with people in the theatre. I get on with folks, and it’s all good. But the times I have had problems, I am sure it is because I was a woman against a man’s opinion or decision.
Paulus: I sort of relate to that. Because I think when you’re starting out, it’s happening, and let’s say you get a break and usually it’s attached to a particular show. For me it was Hair. For you [Rachel], it’s Comet. But I think when you’re on the rise, it’s an exciting moment. It’s in the heat of a new talent hitting the scene. The journey to establishing yourself as a regular presence, I think is a harder path. When you’ve had one success, you’re the toast of the town. But to earn your spot as a regular, that is a different challenge.
Chavkin: So what choices did you face along that journey? I’m in that exact moment right now. I am enjoying it, and I feel like people are like, “Oh, it happened so fast for you.” And I’m like, “I’ve been doing this for 15 years.” I’ve been running my own company [the TEAM] and making my work downtown and in the U.K. for 15 years. I’m not the youngest Tony nominee. And then at the same time, I’m beginning now to navigate between the projects that I’ll do over the next few years. It’s just on my brain.
Paulus: It’s less impactful on the choices you make because you’re going to make choices based on your heart, your passion, your interests. That’s what you have to do to rightly justify the amount of time and energy making good theatre takes. I find it’s more about the way in which you can be perceived; it just shifts. Because you’re no longer the toast of the town or the fresh thing happening, and you’re in that nether zone. So you’re being evaluated in a different way. I always felt that for women, if you succeed once but fail your second time out, you can often be put in a box and never come out again. Whereas I feel that’s different for men.
Stroman: Women are criticized more. They just are.
All three of you have worked on both plays and musicals. Do you find it’s different for a woman directing a musical versus directing a play?
Paulus: I would just say that I always feel with musicals—especially musicals that are moving to Broadway—they are enormous, commercial business operations. I’ve always felt that to prove that as a director, it has nothing to do with me being a woman, that I’m aware this is a multi-million dollar investment and I’m going to be sensitive to that. I’m going to be aware and work responsibly with a budget and investment.
Chavkin: Did you know that from the beginning or was that something that you learned?
Paulus: I think I was aware of that because when I came of age as a director in the ’90s, you had to be a business person. The glory days of the National Endowment for the Arts, the NEA Four in the 1980s, it was over. I saw the landscape, and I had to, like you, run a theatre company, figure out how to sell the tickets, figure out how to market it, figure out where we’re going to spend the money, and I really appreciated what it meant to connect to an audience. It’s less a female thing and more a generational thing. I was in that segue where I was directing at certain institutions and it was like, “You’re not going to tell her the budget, are you? You’re not going to give her the whole picture.” It wasn’t about me being a woman; it was just me being the director. And then just from my downtown, scrappy roots, I was like, “No, please tell me the budget because when I see $6,000 for that dress, we’re not going to pay that because I know that that dress goes onstage for one and a half minutes.”
Stroman: But I think that’s probably the reason it took women so long to actually be in charge, be directors, or be accepted as that. Because I think, in the olden days, a producer would see a woman and a man, and they’re going to give the man the $500,000 to do the show not the woman because it wasn’t thought of that women would be able to handle the budget.
Paulus: Well, that still goes on.
Rachel and Diane, both of you started your own theatre when you were starting out, which is the way some emerging directors still begin their careers today. Susan, was it different for you starting out?
Stroman: When I came here, there were industrial shows. So I started to direct and choreograph a lot of industrial shows, that was a big deal like 30 years ago, and commercials. But it wasn’t until I did an Off-Broadway show at the Vineyard Theatre with Scott Ellis called Flora, the Red Menace that people thought, “Oh, who’s this?” So from that production, I never went back onstage again. And doing And the World Goes ‘Round Off Broadway—it was not quite as downtown, but certainly I was not handed a Broadway show right away.
Chavkin: I definitely grew up acutely aware of Elizabeth LeCompte, JoAnne Akalaitis, Anne Bogart. A lot of my female role models were queens of the experimental world because the mainstream world wouldn’t have them. That’s not why I wanted a company necessarily; I was 24 and I wanted to make these shows and so we needed a way to make them happen and so we made a company to be able to fund-raise through. And 13 years later, the TEAM exists.
Paulus: Actually, a crazy story, I was ushering for a Nicky Silver play at the Vineyard because that’s how I saw all my shows for free. It was a night where two of the other ushers didn’t show up, so I had to stuff all these programs. I was not in a good mood, and it was Nicky Silver’s Pterodactyls. And we hit the intermission and this man walks over with these two beautiful women, and he says to me, “So, you look like a nice young lady. What do you think of the show?” And at the time, I honestly thought the first act was okay, not great. I was like, “I think it’s all right. I think it maybe needs a little work. It’s only the first act.” And then one of the ladies on this guy’s arm says, “Do you know who you’re talking to?” And I was like, “I’m so sorry, I don’t.” And he goes, “I’m Gerald Schoenfeld.” I went home and I said to my now husband, “Who is Gerald Schoenfeld?” This is how much I didn’t know Broadway! And he’s like, “Diane, he’s chairman of the Shubert* Organization.”
First of all, I was totally mortified for Nicky Silver. The chairman of the Shubert Organization was here to see Nicky Silver’s play, and I, like a jerk, was saying maybe it wasn’t all together yet. So I wrote him this letter, and I said, “I was the usher that met you. I thought act two was much better. Did you?” I put my home address and my home telephone number on it, and next thing I know he calls me. And he brought me in. Talk about what gets you in the door. And then he took me under his wing. And he was like, “I’m going to put you backstage at a Broadway show.” And he put me with the PSM [production stage manager] of Crazy for You [choreographed by Stroman] and for several weeks I trailed him.
Did you two meet then?
Paulus: No! And I would just trail him and I would stand at the back of the theatre and watch him watch the show. He let me sit in the orchestra pit for one show. We stood backstage when he called it. And then I would go see Mr. Schoenfeld every couple of months.
Stroman: That is crazy! The PSM would have been Steven Zweigbaum.
I want to ask since the Tony Awards are coming up this weekend, Diane and Susan, what advice do you have for Rachel?
Stroman: Enjoy it. Take it all in. Because it will go fast. And it’s very very special. It’s wonderful. Just make sure you’re aware of what’s going on, really take it all in.
Paulus: And enjoy the nomination. It’s so not about the winning, but to be nominated and to recognized that way and to be amidst all your amazing colleagues.
Stroman: Connect with all your colleagues that night too. Make sure you go up and enjoy it with them.
Paulus: That’s the best part, is getting to see everyone.
Stroman: Are you doing a number on the show?
Chavkin: We’re totally doing a number.
Do you have to re-stage the number for the broadcast?
Chavkin: Oh yeah, for our show there’s no way. It’s not like we can just set our stuff down on the stage.
Stroman: When Contact was up [in 2000], the pool tables were out there, and we rehearsed it and it was all good. And then when they went to set up our number, the crew put the pool tables on the wrong spike. And I was sitting there in my gown and I saw that it was wrong and I didn’t know what to do, and I thought, “This is going to be a disaster with the dancing.” So when the dancers came out, I stood up in my dress and I yelled at my dance captain, “Scott Taylor, you move that pool table!”
Paulus: Okay that is a piece of advice! Because how many times have I sat in my gown and gone, “What happened?”
Stroman: You want the number to go well. So even when you’re doing these events, you have to be on top of it. You never stop being a director.
*A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the Shubert Organization.