The summer theater festival at The Arboretum hasn't been the greatest venue for women.
The Lexington Shakespeare Festival leaned heavily on works of the Bard, who leaned lightly on female characters. Even as the event incorporated more contemporary plays and musicals, making the transition in recent years to SummerFest, the plays have been dude-centric fare, including Lord of the Flies and Hair.
SummerFest artistic director Joe Ferrell says that at auditions, "We always get many fine women who are ultimately turned away" because parts aren't available.
This year is different.
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SummerFest 2010 has a distinctly feminine flair: There will be a stage adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, and for the first time, all three SummerFest plays are being helmed by women. Ave Lawyer is guiding The Merchant of Venice, Sullivan Canaday White directs Pride and Prejudice, and Tracey Bonner will make her SummerFest debut with Rent.
"We are constantly trying to find ways to push this festival forward," says executive director Joe Cannon Artz, "and we said, wouldn't it be interesting to find three great female directors for the shows?"
All three are well-traveled directors who have worked in Lexington before. None of them define the ascendancy of three women to the director's chair in one season as a big deal, but Bonner says, "I think it's kind of cool."
White, a Central Kentucky native who teaches theater at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., said, "There are more male directors in the professional theater world than female directors. So it's kind of nice that here in Lexington, there are three women directing the shows. It makes a nice statement about women."
In the big world of drama, women continue to shatter glass ceilings.
Just this year, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman in the Academy Awards' 82-year history to win the Oscar for best director, for her work on The Hurt Locker. On Broadway, it wasn't until 1998 that Julie Taymor became the first woman to win a Tony Award for best direction of a musical, for The Lion King. By that time, the Tonys had been around for 52 years. Even though the play-directing Tony got with the times much earlier, the theater directing ranks continue to be dominated by men.
"Go to Playbill.com and see who's directing most of the Broadway shows," White says. Only six of 28 shows now running on Broadway are helmed by women.
In Lexington, a glass ceiling certainly isn't being shattered.
Over more than two decades, the Lexington Shakespeare Festival and SummerFest have had several female artistic directors, most recently Trish Clark, and plenty of women have directed shows. Area theaters have had or do have women as artistic directors and play directors. With Tonda Fields scheduled to direct Studio Players' production of The Marvelous Wonderettes, Robyn Peterman-Zahn leading Paragon Music Theatre's The Sound of Music and Peggy Stamps having just directed It's a Grand Night for Singing, the majority of stage productions this summer in Lexington will have a female director's touch.
The SummerFest directors say they are approaching the plays in ways that might differ from how male directors might have viewed them.
"I found that I might look at the character of Portia differently than a male director might have," Lawyer says of the wealthy and single heiress in The Merchant of Venice. "I was interested in the idea of a more mature Portia. Portia is traditionally portrayed as the hot young babe. It's interesting to see her as a slightly older woman because that brings more complexity to what happens to her, the journey she goes through, and where she comes out at the end."
Another difference is that Lawyer is staging a modern interpretation of Merchant, with a neutral contemporary setting and a soundtrack that includes hip-hop from Kanye West and Mos Def.
Pride and Prejudice, which will be presented in a traditional setting, is the festival's most overtly feminine show. Ferrell says some male Arboretum veterans in the play have looked around at rehearsals and marveled at all the women involved.
"It's a love story, and there's a lot of romance in it, and the way it's structured is very much like a dance," White says. "I don't know how a male director might approach that, because it's pretty inherent in the script."
Bonner, a Lexington native who now teaches theater and dance at several Southern California colleges, says people who aren't familiar with the musical Rent "may have this preconceived notion of it as this homosexual story, this gay New York thing. One thing I am really focusing on and trying to get my cast to focus on is the unification of love as a universal term, as a universal approach, rather than these two guys or these two girls.
"Maybe that's a different approach than a male would take or maybe someone from inside the culture would take — because I am an outsider to an extent, being a heterosexual female. But maybe not.
"It's a very universal theme for all these shows. But it's very interesting to consider what we as women — more emotional beings, psychologically — offer that is different from what a male's perspective might be."
The women in charge of this year's plays say that although this summer's festival is a cool milestone, they are happy it is not necessarily culturally ground-breaking to have women in charge of theater in Lexington.
"It says a lot about the open-mindedness of the community," Bonner says.
Lawyer quickly adds, "Plus the fact that we're damn good."