Twin Cities area stages are seeing a remarkable wave of female actors-turned-directors that promises to change how audiences experience theater.
“It’s probably past time” for women, said longtime stage star Christina Baldwin, making her debut as a director with “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” at the Jungle Theater in south Minneapolis.
There’s been no comparable wave among male actors.
“Not that there aren’t also wonderful male actors who should be getting their voices heard,” Baldwin said, “but I think this is a response to our political climate. It’s wanting to make sure we stand up and fight for the things we want to continue in the world.”
Sally Wingert, Angela Timberman and Annie Enneking also directed for the first time recently. And two other actor/directors have projects this season, as Austene Van’s “Annie” hits the Ordway in St. Paul on Dec. 7 and Elena Giannetti kicks off three straight directing gigs with “Coney Island Christmas” for Lyric Arts in Anoka.
All of these women are reluctant to generalize about how female directors might affect the shows we see.
Will they help produce more plays centered on female roles? Will they hire more female costume designers, lighting directors and sound designers? Will they be more attuned to nuances a male director might miss?
And will they follow the example of retiring Ten Thousand Things artistic director Michelle Hensley? Van said Hensley’s rehearsals are “sensitive to human beings. You work Monday through Friday, 10 to 3, with no weekends, because she is thinking about people having families.”
All seem possible. In fact, it was Hensley who raised those possibilities in an Ivey Award acceptance speech last fall, arguing, “Women think differently about things like power, rehearsal time and family time, and casting and gender.”
Current hiring of directors does reflect a shift. Half of the Guthrie’s 10 mainstage shows this season are directed by women; a decade ago, it was just two of nine. Three of the four directors at Hensley’s company are female — and all five at the Jungle, which was exclusively male 10 years ago.
‘Hearts and spirits’ vs. ‘boobies and butt’
Park Square artistic director Richard Cook encouraged Enneking to make her directing debut with “Of Mice and Men,” which runs through Dec. 16. And he gave early directing gigs to Van and Giannetti.
“We’re all moving away from the ‘I am the autocratic, know-all director’ to the idea that directors are responsible for the hearts and spirits in the [rehearsal] room,” Cook said. “I really think women are better at that.”
Giannetti remembers taking over a Park Square production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” originally directed by a man. It gave her the chance to restage a scene that had long bugged her.
“We changed the blocking, so it wasn’t Lysander putting his hand all over Hermia’s butt, and her having to twist his arm away,” she said. “When I told the actor who had been playing [Hermia] for a long time, she just looked at me and said, ‘Thank you.’ ”
It makes sense for actors, who know so much about how performers work, to shift to directing. But it’s not always easy to convince them.
Van diversified into directing when Penumbra’s Lou Bellamy — much like a father who teaches his daughter to swim by throwing her into the pool — handed her the reins of the holiday show “Black Nativity,” then skipped town.
Baldwin’s journey began a decade ago, when a trio of events (childbirth and the deaths of a sibling and Theatre de la Jeune Lune) seemed to be telling her to take more chances, but it took a while to find the right opportunity.
Giannetti created her own apprenticeship with assistant directing jobs. And Cook “chased” Enneking for years before she agreed to direct.
“I did not feel ready,” Enneking said. But she had done the fight choreography for previous stagings of “Mice and Men,” so the next time Cook asked, “I just felt more confident, more comfortable with the story — like I would know how to create a nice room to be in, and collaborate with people on these characters.”
Cook thought Enneking would have a unique take on the drama, which has just one, unnamed, female character. But Enneking, who said she feels equally in touch with her masculinity and femininity, isn’t sure her take is necessarily “female.”
“Someone said, early in the process, ‘I can’t wait to see a woman’s take on this play,’ and I thought, ‘Am I doing a woman’s take on the play or am I doing Annie’s?’ ” she said. “I would assume gender does have something to do with where you’re coming from, but I remember wanting to revisit that because I don’t want to be responsible for my gender’s take.”
While she thinks it’s an interesting question, Enneking isn’t sure what is different about a female director. Van is.
“Oh, I know it makes a difference,” Van said. “Men sometimes need you to be in a certain place, a box. I remember the first few times I directed, I felt like I had to wear a ‘directing costume’ and that costume was specifically designed to hide my female features. It was stupid. It was ridiculous. But that way, I felt like people would be taking me seriously. No one would be staring at my boobies or my butt.”
Van argued that women are conditioned to hone certain skills a director needs — delineating relationships, emotional intelligence — and said she became a better director when she embraced being herself: “I had to put my big-girl pants on and cowboy the eff up.”
The veteran actor/director learned that ease from Jungle artistic director Sarah Rasmussen, whose 2012 production of “In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play” was something of an incubator for female directing talent: Van, Enneking and Baldwin all acted in it.
“The fact that she was a woman inspired me,” Van said. “She wasn’t all of a sudden wearing baggy stuff and a baseball hat. She didn’t hide who she is. She didn’t raise her voice, not once, but she was strong. I just felt like, ‘Who is this woman? She’s amazing!’ ”
The ‘mother card’
Baldwin — who was drawn to “Pemberley’s” message of “the necessity to have choice and self-determination, which is a common theme for women throughout the millennia” — was similarly inspired.
“It’s so great to be doing this at the Jungle because the four of us did ‘In the Next Room’ together there. Those ladies are each forces to be reckoned with,” said Baldwin, who agrees with Enneking that being a parent, “guiding another human being in this world,” affects her directing as much as being a woman.
Giannetti, too, plays the mother card. As an assistant director, watching a male director develop a scene in which a woman was assaulted, she once stepped in to make sure the female actor felt safe and knew she could speak up if she didn’t.
Although Enneking has acted with more female directors than male, she said her biggest lesson came from a man and, like Giannetti’s story, it’s about connecting in an intimate way: “‘First, see what [the actors] are doing and see what you love about it.’ I want to start from love and, from there, we can sculpt the details.”
Van uses the word “joy” instead of “love,” but she describes something similar in rehearsals for “Annie,” which she views as being about a girl with undying hope and a very untraditional family. Her take is informed by being a woman, for sure, but also by being African-American, by knowing families that are not united by blood, and by feeling in her bones that music is an everyday part of existence.
In other words, Van is guided by the same thing as every good director: being human.