On a normal day, I would be writing this from the office of Julia Miles, the extraordinary visionary who founded WP Theater (formerly Women’s Project Theater), and who sadly passed away at age 90 on March 18 after a long illness. Instead, I write it from my couch, and dream of that scrappy little office on the very fringe of Manhattan where Julia Miles spent decades strategizing, nurturing, and going into battle for generations of women.
In 1978, Julia was Wynn Handman’s right hand at the American Place Theater, directly in the heart of the burgeoning Off-Broadway movement. She was producing premieres by Sam Shepard, Jules Feiffer, Steve Tesich, and more, and could have simply climbed the traditional ladder to success wherever she chose. Instead, she took a hard look at the inequity in her own profession, noting that only eight of the 72 plays that had been produced by the American Place were by women, and that the track record of the field overall was even more out of balance. Never one to sit back when there was something to be done, Julia decided to take the matter into her own hands.
Julia started Women’s Project in 1978 and spent the next 25 years never taking no for an answer, intentionally upending sexist bias wherever she saw it. She made a stage for hundreds of women, most of whom met Julia at the beginnings of their careers, with little to recommend them but their drive, and many of whom who would go on to win Tony Awards, MacArthur “Genius” Grants, Pulitzer Prizes, and every other award that you can think of.
With her invincible mix of Southern elegance and grit, shrewd experience, enviable connections, and artistic eye, she made space for women from all backgrounds to break through in a field that dismissed and ignored them.
Julia had the revolutionary idea that women deserved a voice in the theatre she loved so much, and so she dedicated her life to making a place where they could shout from the rooftops. Playwrights, actors, producers, directors, designers, musicians, lighting technicians—you name it, Julia always found the most brilliant young makers, gave them their first opportunities, and sent them on to huge careers in theatres all over the country, on Broadway and beyond.
Since her death, I’ve heard from so many of those artists that Julia threw doors open for, women we now consider the lifeblood of the American theatre. I was particularly struck by Carey Perloff’s tale of meeting Julia at 21 years old, in her third week in New York City, with no contacts or training. Julia introduced her to the women who would become her artistic family for the rest of her storied career.
Emily Mann and I talked about Julia’s genius for mentorship, and how she passed that on to everyone she touched. I think about that a lot—the gift of mentorship. I believe that will be the part of Julia that lives on most actively, that ongoing gift of uplift. Julia gave Carey and Emily and a thousand others—Eve Ensler, Anna Deavere Smith, Mary McDonnell, Melanie Joseph, Julianne Boyd, Evan Yiounoulis—their first opportunities, and all of those women have taken that gift forward and mentored hundreds and hundreds of young women in their part. It is no coincidence that so many of those women went on to run theatres of their own—they were continuing that living chain of mentorship that can change an industry.
I first nervously walked into Julia’s office in 1997 to interview to be her literary manager, and was struck by the elegant woman (she was always the best turned-out woman in every room she entered—the shoes alone, people!) behind the imposing wooden desk. Julia gave me my first paying job in the theatre, and, like so many of my colleagues, launched a career that would take me all the way to Broadway and back again to run the theatre she created. Julia showed me how to lead with both toughness and love, and imbued me with her ruthless drive for high standards, her fearless determination that women could demand an equal seat at the table, and her vision that successful theatre could be artist-driven.
It is my honor to take Julia’s mission forward, and to continue her work to ensure that the theatre makes space for all women. I have been so inspired by Julia’s primary creative friendships and collaborations with Maria Irene Fornés and Billie Allen, two women who helped make WP what it is today. Julia premiered six of Fornés’s plays over her career—I had the great good luck to see that extraordinary creative partnership in action working on The Summer In Gossensass in 1998. And Allen was a founding member of WP, directing many projects there and serving as a sounding board to Julia throughout their working lives.
In this moment of growing understanding about gender, I feel grateful to take Julia’s passion for inclusion forward to make space for trans and gender-nonconforming artists as well. Julia always made a big tent, and I should do no less.
Anyone who knew Julia knows that she didn’t suffer fools—I’m quaking in my boots writing this, because any tribute needs to be good enough to satisfy even Julia. She set a really high bar. Hand in hand with her toughness and drive was an uncommon personal generosity. Julia could be incredibly maternal toward her artists: offering up her apartment on Central Park to an out-of-town playwright, or hiring a nanny for a new mom in rehearsals. Julia wanted artists to be able to focus on the art, and did her best to slay any dragons that might get in the way.
I can’t wait to get back in Julia’s office to continue her work. I will look to Julia’s hard-nosed yet compassionate example as we all work together to overcome one of the biggest challenges this field has ever faced. I’m grateful to have Julia guiding me now—if she were alive now, she would have rolled up her impeccably tailored sleeves to face things head on. All of us who owe so much to Julia owe it to her to do the same.
Lisa McNulty is the producing artistic director of WP Theater.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!