Published in KPBS On Air Magazine June 1993

It’s a male-dominated profession. Men generally run the financial and creative sides of the business, and they’ve been slow to let women breathe the rarefied theatrical air.   But things are changing, both on the local and the national scene. It’s a good news/bad news time for women directors.

The good news is that one of our major theaters — the La Jolla Playhouse –named a young woman — Lisa Peterson, 32 — to the position of Associate Director, and she’s about to direct again (George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man”, June 27-August 15). More good news:   a young woman — Kellie Evans O’Connor, 36 — is directing the next offering of the San Diego Comic Opera (Jacques Offenbach’s “La Perichole”, June 18-27).

The bad news is on a larger scale: within the past few years, two very prominent female directors were fired from their very high-profile positions (artistic directors): Anne Bogart from Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI and more recently, Joanne Akalaitis from the New York Shakespeare Festival, a job for which she was hand-picked by the dying Joseph Papp.

“Those were two major setbacks for women directors,” says Peterson, who was lured to La Jolla from New York .   “Both are very, very strong women who were working out very different ways of running theaters.   In both cases, the board and the community got scared off early on. Both chose projects according to their esthetics, not according to their audience.   Those experiments failed, and that’s not a good sign for women in theater. The press was very negative, blaming Joanne’s intellectualism.   It was sexist and reactionary.”

Peterson herself has not been subjected to any of the above.   Ten years ago, fresh out of Yale College , she was scooped up by the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York , where she went from casting intern to house manager, and from there to the Lincoln Center Theater as casting director. By 1990, she made her major directing breakthrough in New York and a year later, won an Obie Award for her directing prowess.

Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff had an eye on Peterson for some time, and he was, he said, counting on her “to keep us in touch with her contemporaries, our emerging theater artists.”

Peterson finds it “flattering” to be cast as a representative of her generation. “It truly is the reason I’m here,” she confesses, “and I don’t have a problem with being hired because I’m a woman. My feeling is, you get the work, then you surprise people, show them you “do” know what you’re doing, and then you can drive the boat.”

Peterson has definitely proved she knows what she’s doing — on both coasts.   Last year, she impressed local critics and audiences with her direction of “The Swan”, a modern myth that was part of the Playhouse’s FutureFest, a new program featuring young writers and directors.   This year the directors are young again but the writers are long dead. Peterson’s production of “Arms and the Man” plays in repertory with newcomer Matthew Wilder’s take on Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape”.

Peterson is strongly committed to new works, but she’s intrigued with the “danger” in Shaw. “The terrorist side of him,” she says, “the iconoclast, is often forgotten.” Shaw’s satiric look at romantic attitudes about love and war is often played as a folk tale or a drawing room comedy. But with its setting in the Balkans and its strong images of the fighting Serbian army, it has an added edge and relevance today. “I hope the world of the play feels both ancient and modern,” says the director. “At the time it takes place — 1885 — the Balkans were steeped in turmoil and kind of feeling about in the dark to find out what sort of countries they would be.   Just like today.”

Meanwhile, on the other end of Balboa Park , Kellie Evans-O’Connor is also grappling with a satire of contemporary manners that was written in the late 19th century, another “fun, frothy piece that isn’t superficial.” She likes the music in the operetta, of course, and the story, but most of all, she likes its feminist bent.

“I like strong-minded women,” says Evans-O’Connor, singer/director who does double-duty in outreach and education for San Diego Comic Opera and the San Diego Opera, “but not feminism at the expense of all men.”    The title character in “La Perichole”, the fiery young street singer, is “strong and smart, but not conniving.   She teaches the Spanish viceroy a valuable lesson… Maybe it’s my homage to the Columbus anniversary,” the director adds.   “My comment on the conquering classes.   The point is made that you can’t just have your way with women and take advantage of lower class people; they’re not your chattel.”

Nobody is taking advantage of the two strong-willed women who are making their mark on San Diego stages this month.   “Women’s roles are starting to blossom here,” says Evans-O’Connor. “The time is right.   More and more women are asserting themselves in the arts, and that’s what it takes.”

Both women agree that the doors are opening more slowly for female writers of plays, operas and operettas, and that’s where the future of the theater lies.   But that’s another story for another month…..

©1993 Patté Productions Inc.