The theatre is in a moment of reckoning. The events of the summer, including the theatre shutdown, forced the industry to confront racism in our workplaces. And there has been a shift: a call to produce BIPOC artists and BIPOC stories; a call to mentor young Black theatre professionals; a wave of hiring Black artistic directors and associate artistic directors at influential institutions. And as we peel back the layer of systemic oppression when it comes to race, it opens the door for the examination of other underrepresented communities.
Of the 14 plays and four musicals that premiered on Broadway in the 2019-2020 season, women directed three of those plays and two of those musicals. According to the League of Professional Theatre Women’s most recent Women Count (published November 2018), women accounted for an average of 40 percent of Off-Broadway directors in the seasons from 2013–2018. While Off-Broadway inches towards parity, Broadway has a way to go and we don’t even have numbers for theatres across the nation.
In this “intermission,” theatres at every level have the opportunity to reevaluate, the time to more consciously consider the work of their upcoming seasons and the teams they’ve hired to do it. And yet, there is always that lingering question in the ether: I’d love to hire [insert marginalized group here], but who are they?
Here, we’ve compiled a list of 20 directors of marginalized genders—focusing on BIPOC and queer folx—who push the boundaries of theatre direction, have earned Off-Broadway and regional awards, and are pioneering a new frontier of theatre. (Note: This list is just the start.)
Elena Araoz (she/her)
The Drama League’s inaugural Beatrice Terry Artist-in-Residence; Faculty at Princeton University; Founding member of The Sol Project; Select credits: Anna in the Tropics (Barrington Stage), Off-Broadway Original Sound, Mud, Fur.
First production you ever directed: House of Sweets, which I created and directed with a favorite collaborator Kimberly Dilts, was my first production. It was a dance-like, very adult adaptation of the fairy-tale “Hansel and Gretel.” Without even knowing it, we were dissecting the ways girls are taught femininity. That first production coalesced my beliefs that theatre works its best magic when it capitalizes on actors’ voices and bodies to give us everything—even the scenery—and that audiences’ imaginations are most captivated by what is not shown to them.
What made you want to be a director: I love acting, but I wanted a voice in the bigger picture. I wanted to have a say in the social-political stance and outcome of a production. I didn’t only ever want to be a pawn in another director’s vision. I wanted space for my scholarship, opinion, and inventiveness. (I will say, now that I am a director, I miss acting and have started to go back to it with an upcoming network TV appearance.)
A show you want to direct: I want to make an immersive and interactive production of Astor Piazzolla’s opera María de Buenos Aires, where the audience learns tango and dances all night in a seedily-designed milonga, a tango club. There would be nothing sexier; imagine being led in a dance by a professional tango dancer while being seduced by a sultry tango singer.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: I look for impossible stage directions, a need for inventiveness and theatre magic, a puzzle that needs figuring out, characters on epic journeys, stakes greater than what can happen in my living room, and space for a director’s voice in the production. I also love working with live musicians.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: I’m very proud of Two Arms and a Noise, which I wrote and created as a fellow at New York Theatre Workshop. It’s about my female ancestors in Peru and immigration. It’s about women learning to define themselves not solely in relationship to men. It’s a one-woman production, but by the detailed and tuned specificity of her staging, you can always tell who is in the room with her, where they are, and what they are doing to her. All of the text is spoken in Spanish, but the production is made for English-speaking audiences to understand everything. And the title comes from something important my father taught me.
A guiding principle of your directing style: I strive for that perfect balance of joy and rigor in the process and in the product. I believe that audiences look for two things in a production: 1) they want to get lost in the story and believe in the honesty of the characters, and 2) they want to feel the love of performing radiating off of the actors and the entire production. Audiences want, simultaneously, a suspension of disbelief and a desire to get up on stage themselves to sing and dance. That’s why so many of my productions balance between hyper-honesty (I never say hyper-realism, because nothing in the theatre is very realistic) and exuberant dance-like staging and design. I believe the cast and team most fully exude that joy of performing and the beauty of humanity when the process is full of laughter.
Newly appointed Resident Director, Lincoln Center Theater; Obie Award winner; Recipient of Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award; Recipient of Julian Milton Kaufman Memorial Prize and the Pierre-Andre Salim Prize at Yale School of Drama; Select credits: Off-Broadway Anatomy of a Suicide, Fefu and Her Friends, Pipeline, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.
First production you ever directed:
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf was the first play/choreopoem that I ever directed; it was my senior thesis in college. After graduate school, one of my first projects was Christina Anderson’s Hollow Roots as part of the Under The Radar Festival at the Public.
What made you want to be a director: I loved being able to synthesize all of the art forms into an event that could spark dialogue, that could make people feel more alive and more aware of each other.
A show you want to direct: Gertrude Stein’s In Circles or [María Irene] Fornés’ Promenade
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: I think the world is dense—I enjoy making events that invite a density of experience, that embrace the complicated interconnectedness of our lives in the world. The plays I’m drawn to are interested in form and don’t always operate linearly. There’s a deep awareness of the audience—and in that awareness there is spectacle, there is humor, there is the possibility of feeling really alive inside of the interrogation of why our world operates the way it does (which is most often DEEPLY PROBLEMATIC!). It’s why I’m attracted to work by writers like Adrienne Kennedy, María Irene Fornés, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Branden Jacobs Jenkins and Michael R. Jackson.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: This is hard! I pour a lot of love and work and care into everything I make, so there is no one above all. I also think directors learn so much from each production. I’ll say that working on The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World had a profound impact on me because it was a play I kept encountering (as a naive undergrad, as a graduate student, and finally in a professional capacity) and to direct it was terrifying and electrifying and deeply satisfying with the incredible team of collaborators who were all deeply invested in the material and it’s urgency. It felt spiritual.
A guiding principle of your directing style: Find the joy and the love (and the opening that creates), enter into the dark places, the more complicated spaces, and the questioning—with empathy and bravery.
Margot Bordelon (she/her)
Founding member of Theatre Seven of Chicago; assistant director to Tina Landau and Austin Pendleton; Select credits: Off-Broadway Too Heavy for Your Pocket, Something Clean, upcoming: ...what the end will be at Roundabout Theatre Company, and Dance Nation, Wives
First production you ever directed: My directorial debut was my college senior thesis titled Mystery at Camp Chestnut. It was a choose-your-own-adventure comedy in which the audience picked the story direction by applause. I worked in the Chicago storefront scene for years before heading to graduate school. One of my first professional productions post-MFA was a beautiful play titled Okay, Bye by Joshua Conkel that I directed at Steppenwolf Theater.
What made you want to be a director: During my junior year of training as an actor at Cornish College of the Arts I began taking classes in playwriting and directing. I directed a short piece I’d written and I was immediately hooked. I loved being in the role of conductor. Around that same time productions directed by Tina Landau and Mary Zimmerman came through Seattle. The work of these visionary female directors blew my mind right open, and ultimately inspired me to move to Chicago to pursue directing.
A show you want to direct: I would love to direct Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage. She’s one of our great American playwrights. I work on it every year with my Pace acting students and I find the material so rich, moving, and topical. I’d also love to tackle some Clifford Odets.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: I primarily direct new plays. I love working with playwrights, and I want to participate in the larger socio-political conversation taking place. I’m drawn to plays that promote equality and inclusivity, and of course I love works with a strong feminist bent. I come from a working class background and I’d love to direct more productions that address the class divide in our country.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: One of the productions from the past few years I’m most proud of is Do You Feel Anger? by Mara Nelson-Greenberg (Vineyard Theater). Mara has a brilliant comic voice and a lightning-fast mind, and the play is both fiercely feminist and incredibly funny. Our production centered around the question: As women, what is the cost of aligning ourselves with men with power rather than aligning ourselves with one another?
A guiding principle of your directing style: My aim is to build rooms that are both joyful and rigorous. No matter what the material is, I’m always working towards achieving a blend of deep, honest acting and physical specificity. I love precision. My style isn’t anarchic (though I’m working on that!), it’s clean and taut.
Time Warner Fellow at WP Theater (2016–2018); Allen Lee Hughes Directing Fellow at Arena Stage; Van Lier Directing Fellow at Second Stage Theatre; Usual Suspect at New York Theatre Workshop; faculty member at The New School for Drama; editor at 3Views on Theater; also a playwright.
First production you ever directed: The Colored Museum at the University of Virginia when I was in undergrad (2003) and the first professional show of my own was a play version of The Nutcracker in a theatre in St. Thomas, VI.
What made you want to be a director: I had always been an actor. When I found directing it unlocked a part of me that was way more exhilarating; I discovered the agency I never knew was possible as an artist. I could pick projects with a message and craft them exactly the way I wanted. I never felt that way as an actor.
A show you want to direct: The musical Of Thee I Sing, book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: Almost anything new and never-been-produced. Bonus points if it’s weird and/or funny.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías at the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden, Florida. Not only does that play—a hilarious telenovela with a political edge—fit with my own style of storytelling, it also started my ongoing relationship with Karen and her work. And I am forever grateful for her voice in the American Theater!
A guiding principle of your directing style: I consider myself a guide and a collaborator. I want to know everyone’s ideas in the room. Oh how I miss it!
Miranda Haymon (she/they)
Newly appointed resident director at Roundabout Theatre Company; leader of RTC’s Directors Group; assistant director on Broadway’s Travesties; Roundabout Directing Fellow (2018); Select credits: Really, Really Gorgeous (The Tank), Everybody (Sarah Lawrence College), In the Penal Colony (Next Door @ NYTW, The Tank), and Mondo Tragic (National Black Theater).
First production you ever directed: I directed Post-Its (Notes on a Marriage) by Paul Dooley and Winnie Holzman in high school. Directing that ten-minute play totally engulfed me, and I'm still really proud of it. Professionally, I toured my adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five and it premiered at Capital Fringe.
What made you want to be a director: I've tried performing, designing, stage managing, writing, backstage—everything. Directing gives me the chance to pursue knowledge in the craft of everything.
A show you want to direct: The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: I like projects that encourage audiences to move away from assumed norms, and I have an open vision of what that looks like. It could be non-normative in terms of structure or narrative, but also who gets to be considered "universal" on stage, or characters facing obstacles that we don't usually get to see them battling.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: I'm really proud of the opera of Intimate Apparel, which I am the associate director on under Bartlett Sher. Our team became a real family through the process, and have become even closer as an ensemble since being halted by the pandemic. (We have bi-weekly Zoom calls!) It's an honor and a joy to be part of presenting the canonical story of Intimate Apparel in a new form. I am so excited to share with audiences when it's safe to do so.
A guiding principle of your directing style: A tenet of my directing approach is to carefully learn how my collaborators learn, so that I can responsibly guide a process filled with experimentation, courage, intention, and care. That is my mission—to be a facilitator for perpetual learning and thus, unlearning.
Krysta Hibbard (she/her)
Artistic associate of Shrunken Shakespeare Company; associate producer of Throughline Artists; assistant to Sergio Trujillo for Ain’t Too Proud, Summer, Arrabal, A Bronx Tale; Select credits: For Hope, Seafarer, Love Letters to a Dictator
First production you ever directed: First-ever was Vagina Monologues in 2008. In New York:
a play by Molly Rydzel called Everybody Dies in 2014.
What made you want to be a director: I've always been drawn toward service and social advancement, even when I was working with college students as they formed their opinions for the first time outside their parents' homes. I see the same responsibility and opportunity for impact through the arts as I experienced as a higher education professional. As artists, we have a unique platform to influence people. We get to introduce them to new cultures, different experiences, and people they may not encounter in their everyday lives. That exposure can create a rare moment of self-exploration that opens conversations and connections that could lead to new enlightenment. I want people to be actively involved in the choices they make and the opinions they hold. I don't need the audience to agree with me, but I want them to understand why they feel the way they do. Getting to drive a team of artists in the creation of a story towards that end is a dream come true.
A show you want to direct: The Woodsman, Blackbird, or Actually
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: Projects that challenge the common narrative and leave an audience with questions they need to answer for themselves. I'm currently diving into plays about the concept of empathy and how quickly we can lose it or how selectively we wield it. I'm also investigating the responsibility of artists for the impact of their work both positively and negatively. But mostly I find myself attracted to stories that combine those two ideas and work toward social impact and advancement, asking an audience to look in the mirror and see for themselves the humanity of us all.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: Certifiable. We created a three-person play with minimal resources, design, and a limited amount of time for The Fringe Festival in 2013. The guts of the play spoke deeply to mental health and the challenges of loving someone in a mental health crisis. I believe it caused audiences to see mental health in a new light and challenge their own preconceived notions surrounding it. This was the first piece where I saw my own efforts impacting and creating the social change and evolution that had drawn me to theatre. I saw audiences squirm in their seats. I heard the conversations afterwards in the lobby and nearby bars. Our play said something. This crucial story caused reflection and discord and didn't leave our audiences with an answer, just a challenge.
A guiding principle of your directing style: If it doesn't make an audience cringe or question themselves at least once, I am doing it wrong. I want my art to be uncomfortable and dangerous to some degree. If my work causes someone to seek a therapist or shaman to help navigate their feelings, then I have done my job in creating dissonance and starting a conversation that can serve as a catalyst for change.
Kimille Howard (she/her)
Newly appointed Artistic Director of the Lucille Lortel Theatre’s NYC Public High School Playwriting Fellowship; Recent NYTW 2050 Directing Fellow and Jonathan Alper Directing Fellow at Manhattan Theatre Club; Resident Director at The Flea Theater; Assistant Stage Director at the Metropolitan Opera (Porgy and Bess); Best Director at the 2016 Thespis Festival; assistant director to Des McAnuff on Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptation, assistant director to Rebecca Frecknall on Sanctuary City; Select credits: Skeleton Crew (TheatreSquared), TRIGGERED (Cherry Lane Theatre), Low Power (Ensemble Studio Theatre)
First production you ever directed: I directed my first amateur production in 2011 while I was working as a cast member at Walt Disney World. Disney had a community theatre company of sorts for cast members called S.T.A.G.E., and I wrote and directed a show for them called Christmas Cabaret. My first professional production was a one-woman show by and about French actor Cathy Mugnier-Jacob called Pardon My French at the Producers' Club Theater in 2015.
What made you want to be a director: When I was an undergraduate, I auditioned for pretty much every show and watched the same cluster of students get cast again and again. I was one of the few Black theatre majors in the department, and I didn't get cast until my junior year when they finally put on a Black play (Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage). I was frustrated by the narrow-minded casting and play selection, as well as the lack of consideration for the fact that all acting students in the department were there to improve their craft but would only get so far if the same students were always cast. As a double major in film production, I was already directing short films. When I directed a scene from Quills by Doug Wright for my theatre directing class, I fell in love hard. I loved guiding the actors in shaping the scene, having a choice in casting and play selection, and building a visual world for the piece. From then on, I decided I didn't want to wait for someone to choose me for the limited amount of roles for Black actors (although ironically you still have to be chosen to direct a project unless you self-produce). I was driven to create more opportunities for BIPOC actors and elevate more diverse stories. That continues to be a major tenet of my mission as an artist.
A show you want to direct: Anna Lucasta by Philip Yordan adapted by Abram Hill. I read it this summer with my Black Diaspora Play Reading group, and it blew me away. There's a film version of it with Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr. There are many great roles for Black women in this play, and it's a hidden gem that I cannot wait to direct!
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: I am drawn to projects that feature BIPOC characters, especially Black stories but also pieces that explore interracial dynamics. Right now I'm really interested in projects that place Black characters in the middle or upper class since we rarely see stories from that perspective. Some comedies would be great, we need some laughter and joy right now! International and multilingual projects also appeal to me. I love working on new plays and musicals, but during the pandemic I have found a lot of plays from 1847 to the 1980s by Black writers that I am more than ready to direct. I'm also ready to do some fantasy or horror for the stage. My ideal project is a play or musical with a brilliant, collaborative design team made up of mostly BIPOC artists; an open-minded writer who is ready to refine the piece together, an ensemble of strong actors with great work ethic, and an amazing stage management team.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: In 2018, I directed Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was my first regional theatre production and also the first show I'd directed that my parents were able to see. I was also assisting on the pre-Broadway tour of Ain't Too Proud at the time, so I was luckily able to discuss the play with Dominique [who wrote Ain't Too Proud's book], which was very helpful. I brought a few actors I work with and trust to Arkansas for the project, and it felt good to bring artists from my tribe up with me to rise together. My design team was awesome, diverse, and worked very well together. Plus it was my first time working with a Black stage manager which was exciting! The production looked and sounded fantastic, the cast was wonderful, and my parents were thrilled. Seeing their daughter's name on posters all over town definitely made them feel like they did a good job. My heart was so full after that production.
A guiding principle of your directing style: Treat everyone in the room well no matter what their position is, and they will go far for you. Whether it is the ASM, the intern, or the star of the show, I try to create a positive and collaborative environment in every process so that each person involved will have a good experience and be committed to the work we are doing. You never want to act like you're all-knowing and everyone's beneath you; you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Besides there may be something they know that you don't that could be helpful to the process. So it's important to be open to listen and value everyone in the room.
JoAnn M Hunter (she/her)
Began as a performer with 12 Broadway credits; choreographer Broadway’s Disaster!, School of Rock, and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever; Director-choreographer Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
First production you ever directed: The first production I directed and choreographed was Debra Monk's Birthday Bash in 2014. It was a blast. She is so brilliant and funny! We had Victor Garber, David Hyde Pierce, and Andrea Martin, among others. Complete joy. Nice way to start.
What made you want to be a director: Not sure if “wanting to be a director” was a conscious decision. In fact I know it was not. But the way the I approach choreography is all about story, is all about substance so it felt right for me to do both, at times. Not always though! It is a hard job and I like collaborating.
A show you want to direct: They do not exist as shows—yet. One is a movie, Shall We Dance (the Japanese version) and Kevin Kwan’s book Sex And Vanity. I want to make that into a musical! It is up my alley. Humor, race, identity... ANYBODY?
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: I do not feel like I have a “type” per se. I have to love the story, the moral. The music has to inspire me. I like to diversify myself with diverse projects. I do not fit in a box, nor do I ever want to live in one.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: I choreographed a piece for Harry Connick Jr, Jessie Mueller, and David Turner in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. They hated us but that “pas de trio” I was so proud of. I felt that I delivered the story of this odd complex trio of characters with humor and without a word being spoken.
A guiding principle of your directing style: My guiding principle to directing is no different to my choreographing: a point of view that is clear, know how I see the arc and be willing to change it all.
Abigail Jean-Baptiste (she/her)
New York Women’s Foundation Directing Apprenticeship (2018); assistant director to Sam Gold on Three Sisters; assistant director to Lileana Blain-Cruz on Anatomy of a Suicide; assistant director to Diane Paulus on Jagged Little Pill; Select credits: Olio Live (Audible), Big Date (New Ohio Theatre).
First production you ever directed: Technically the first show I ever directed was in my junior year of high school (2013). It was a solo-show I performed in and devised called Theater, the Absence of which explored the question: "What would a world without theater look like?" It's spooky that now with COVID-19 we are living some of that isolated and dissociated reality. Professionally, the spring of 2019, I directed OLIO LIVE for Audible Theatre. It was a staged reading of select character-driven poems from the Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection Olio by the brilliant Tyehimba Jess.
What made you want to be a director: I've loved theatre and live performance since I was young, but primarily engaged with it as an actor. I found myself more interested in what my fellow cast members were doing and what the costumes, lights, and set were doing than what I was doing as my character. I wanted to know what was going on in all the conversations before the first rehearsal. I craved collaboration across every department and sought more involvement, so I turned to directing. On top of all that, I felt quite powerless as a Black woman acting in productions helmed by white creative teams and white playwrights. I wanted to have more of an active voice in what stories were being told and how they were being told, which is why I kept pursuing directing. As a director, I was able to reconnect with why I think theatre, as practice and artform, is absolutely essential and I am able to use theatre for imagining/activating/embodying/building a more equitable world.
A show you want to direct: One at the forefront of my mind right now is What's the Use of Flowers? by Lorraine Hansberry, a play that presents our world in the wake of nuclear destruction, offering fertile ground of endless possibilities for identity and world building.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: I look for projects that build empathy, prioritize collaborative processes, and tell stories about folx who are underknown. I'm most excited by plays that manipulate language and use theatrical forms that disrupt white Western canonical expectations. My ideal projects center Black women, Black people with disabilities, and Black queer folx. I'm particularly interested in projects living at the intersection of history and Black identity because I believe interrupting exclusionary histories is an important method of redefining our futures and moving towards Black femme liberation.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: My experience with Etched in Skin on a Sunlit Night by Kara Lee Corthron has a special place in my heart because it was the first play I directed that was written by a Black woman. I'm particularly proud of this production because I fought to have an entirely BIPOC/Immigrant/Queer design team at a predominantly white institution. Our production was messy and challenging and weird and abstract and unapologetically laid bare the pain of being a Black body in white space. I am immensely proud of the conversations and processes that this production ignited.
A guiding principle of your directing style: Always prioritize rituals that foster silliness, vulnerability, trust, laughter, physical and emotional play, communal storytelling, and radical inclusion because the craft will follow. And question every assumption, "norm", tradition, routine, expectation, learned behavior.
Candis C. Jones (she/her)
Lilly Award winner, Drama League alum, and Women's Project Lab; Select credits: Pipeline (Detroit Public Theater), Gloria (American Academy of Dramatic Arts), Tembo! (Dramatic Adventure Theatre, Tanzania), Black Girl Magic (Marie Cisco & National Black Theatre)
First production you ever directed: First amateur: Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler and first professional: New Shoes by Sheila Callaghan.
What made you want to be a director: While attending Duke Ellington School of the Arts High School in Washington, D.C. I realized that I couldn’t really mind my business as an actress. I was obsessed with everything from my entrance, to lighting cues, to how the other actors were performing. My former teacher and mentor, Vera J. Katz, observed this and asked me to assist her on the mainstage plays where she frequently asked me my opinion on her directorial choices. Since Ellington didn’t have a directing program, Prof. Katz allowed me to assist for credit and coach my peers in monologue juries. After the “teacher’s pet” phase faded, I would say folks really trusted my input. From then on, I was drawn to how directing felt like this hybrid of conducting magic and cheerleading.
A show you want to direct: No way I can pick just one! I’d love to resume two world premieres that were paused: cullud wattah and 53% OF. At some point I’d also love to direct The Color Purple, in a theatre and/or site-specific.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: I’m attracted to plays or projects that expose the tragedies of our nation and celebrate the unfuck-with-able style and spirit of Black people. Working on plays by and about Black women is my directing love language. I also enjoy plays that have a stealthy, mysterious marriage of form and content. It’s so satisfying to see the form/style of a play tilt everything an audience perceives of it’s subject matter/content. I believe these are the kinds of plays that can light the world on fire and galvanize audiences to really make the world a better place. Best case scenario is when these plays are produced in spaces that hand over the keys to artists to formulate events, initiatives, and community where the play can really stretch beyond the institution.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: I’m so so proud of the workshop production of cullud wattah that went up at The Public in 2019 (world premiere returning soon, woot-woot!). It was such a unique mixture of learning a new play, supporting the development process, and crafting a MASSIVELY visual story on a workshop budget. I learned so much about how to be in support of a new play, prioritize joy in of our impossibly short process, and how to be in service to the Flint community in sharing the play. I can confidently say that our team created a heartbreakingly gorgeous production. I also have to shout out that I am incredibly proud of the collaboration between me and Erika Dickerson-Despenza in that process.
A guiding principle of your directing style: Collaboration. I believe there’s a divine listening in casting and curating a creative team for a project. From there, I trust that with my gentle shaping and visioning, everyone’s ideas and craft will generate a theatrical happening that is one in a million. That is collaboration. I hope you can feel the spirit and pulse of that collaboration when you’re watching something I’ve directed.
Stephanie Klemons (she/her)
Associate choreographer and global dance supervisor Hamilton; associate choreographer Bring It On The Musical; Select credits: This Is Sadie (Theatre Row)
First production you ever directed: In The Heights at The Kennedy Center in 2018.
What made you want to be a director: I love supporting the collaborative process of other artists and I love resourcefulness and teaming up to dodge roadblocks. I find it thrilling to hear how other artists take my small seed of an idea me make it ten times better.
A show you want to direct: Bugsy Malone. I love seeing kids thrive in theatre.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: New work, toeing the line of acceptable and controversial. Good music. Excellent team.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: Heights was such a gift. The Kennedy Center was in its inaugural season of its Broadway Center Stage series—so much was being figured out. I love that pioneer process when nothing is tried and true and every step makes an impact.
A guiding principle of your directing style: If you’ve done your job right as a director, your idea will rarely be the best in the room.
Young Jean Lee (she/her)
Artistic director Young Jean Lee’s Theatre Company; director-playwright, member of New Dramatists and 13P; PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for Playwright in Mid-Career; Select credits: The Shipment
First production you ever directed and when: First amateur: my play Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater; first professional: my play The Appeal at Soho Rep.
What made you want to be a director: My first hands-on theatre experiences consisted of interning for/working for experimental ensemble companies such as The National Theater of the United States of America and Radiohole. Watching them direct their own work in collaboration with each other, I couldn’t imagine anything I would want to do more.
A show you want to direct: I’ve been working on a new musical that I would like to direct. I’ve never had much interest in directing other people’s work—it would be frustrating not being able to change the words freely myself!
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: My ideal project is getting to direct a play I’ve written with a smart and talented cast who put the work ahead of their egos. This has been pretty much every project I’ve ever directed. I have very few complaints.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: I don’t feel proud of productions so much as I feel proud of collaborators. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of a really great rehearsal or meeting, I’ll start gloating to myself over having gotten such talented people in one room. The proudest moment for me usually comes when the teams are finalized.
A guiding principle of your directing style: Choose smart and talented collaborators who work well with others and who are deeply invested in creating something good.
Taibi Magar (she/her)
Obie Award winner; Stephen Sondheim Fellowship; Oregon Shakespeare Festival Fellowship; Public Theater Shakespeare Fellowship; TFANA Actors and Director Project Fellowship; Lincoln Center Directors Lab; Selec credits: Is God Is (Soho Rep), Underground Railroad Game (Ars Nova), Master (The Foundry), We Live in Cairo.
First production you ever directed: First amateur: Kōbō Abe's The Man Who Turned Into a Stick. I was in high school, maybe 1998. I had no idea what it was about, I just really liked the title. My first professional: The Comedy of Errors at Shakespeare & Company, 2015.
What made you want to be a director: My acting teacher at UNCSA, Marty Rader, told me I was a director. At first I was very offended! But, I think it was because I was always giving a lot of opinions in class about other student's work. He invited me to his rehearsal that night of [Athol] Fugard's Master Harold and the Boys I knew within seconds of sitting down that this would be the rest of my life. A few weeks later, I sat inside his tech rehearsal, and then it was really over. I could sit around and listen to designers talk all day.
A show you want to direct: Marie Christine by Michael John LaChiusa.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: The ideal project is something that feels very challenging, almost impossible. Both in terms of how it's experimenting with form, but also in its design challenges. I love projects that require a huge act of Imagination. Because Imagination and Social Justice are deeply intertwined. If we can't imagine it, we can't fight for it.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: Help by Claudia Rankine at The Shed. We were shut down after our second preview due to the pandemic. The trouble with becoming a director is that you are really only as good as your collaborators. It took 20 years, but I was flying high rehearsing that play. I showed up to work and sitting at the creative table were some of the most genius artists I know. Claudia (of course), Shamel Pitts (choreographer), JJJJJerome Ellis (composer), Tyler Thomas (associate director) and Casey Llewllyn (dramaturg). Our table was on fire, I've never had so much fun in my life. Not to mention, the Roslyn Ruff as our lead actress. Then in tech, I had Mimi Lien, Dede Ayite, Mikaal Sulaiman and John Torres. That's an A+ team, it doesn't get any better than that. Plus, The Shed was an unbelievably supportive place to work. I can't wait for the world to see what we made.
A guiding principle of your directing style: It's a high-wire act. Chase the ideas in the most radical way possible, but always listen to what the room is telling you.
Arpita Mukherjee (she/her)
Artistic director Hyprokrit Theatre Company; 2019 SDC Denham Fellow; 2019-2020 Sokoloff Creative Arts Fellow; 2018–2020 Womens Project Lab Member; 2018 Eugene O’ Neill National Directing Fellow; Lincoln Center Directors Lab alumnus; 2019 Mabou Mines Resident Artist; 2019-2020 LMCC Governors Island artist-in-residence, 2019 Iowa State University artist-in-residence. Select credits: Jump, House of Joy, Vietgone, upcoming Monsoon Wedding.
First production you ever directed: A 30-minute play with music I wrote called Aaja Nachle (Let’s Dance). I worked with an actor in that show—Karthik Srinivasan—and then in 2020, we worked together again on a House of Joy by Madhuri Shekar at San Diego Rep. It was one of those beautiful full circle moments.
The first professional productions I directed (both happened at the same time) were a ballet I conceived called Death Before Dying with a live band that played sufi rock music, and a play I wrote called I am SAAM (South Asian American Male) with a company of actors from the South Asian community for the D.C. Fringe Festival. The plays were completely sold out (there hadn’t really been shows for the South Asian audiences before), but I also got my first great and bad review then.
What made you want to be a director: I’ve been putting on plays ever since I was a kid; for family, for religious and/or community events, just for fun. I’ve always loved the process of making something with people I wanted to just hang out with. I think initially for me the impulse was to tell the stories no one was telling, which is why for most of my directing career I have also self-produced, and often written/conceived as well. I was part of a community that the American theatre just did not take into consideration and I felt a really strong desire to change that. Now, I have this other theory that is psychologically a bit more complex: I was not a popular kid in high school and I struggled to fit in. I think I direct because in the best cases, it creates a sense of belonging, of a community and family. I’ve done it for long enough that I know this isn’t the case most of the time, but many of my great friends are in the theatre, and I value the work we have created together as much as the experiences around it.
A show you want to direct: This was so difficult to choose, but going with A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson. I think it is so rare that a show has me crying the moment I sit down in the theatre. I remember reading Michael’s note in the program and crying. I know that the came at a certain moment when the theatre and the artistic community needed it, but you could just tell that you had the distinct privilege of sitting in the audience and being part of something historic. I love musicals and consider them the pinnacle of collaboration and that show was a shining example of the magic that can be created when there is this sense of community and belonging in the room. Some of the most exceptional talents worked on the show and it’s clear that the process was one of rigor and care, and it’s always so beautiful to be in the presence of the work of a genius as singular and as human as Michael R. Jackson. The show really is everything a musical can be, and I wish I would have been even just a fly on someone’s head or something.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: I like plays and musicals that scare me, more than anything. When I don’t know what something wants to be, it’s incredibly exciting, and then I go about the business of putting together the team that will walk into that unknown with me, armed with questions, the spirit of collaboration and a whole lot of ideas. I like plays that portray folx from marginalized communities as fully human—so they get to be funny, and weird, and also complicated. I’ve been thinking of theatre more and more as live event, rather than something you experience sitting passively in a building so I’m excited about the work in this moment, because I hope it asks us to re-evaluate what is theatre? I’m into anything with music and movement, and I actually like the humbling process of developing musicals very much.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: It sort of feels like picking one of your kids as a favorite, but because it’s been in my consciousness lately I will choose Eh Dah: Questions for My Father by Aya Aziz. Whenever anything about that show comes up, a song, or a panel with Aya or even an image, I can’t help but cry. That was a very difficult process, to build a new musical from scratch, that is also inspired by Aya’s own life. There was a lot of care and love and heartache that went into the work. But I am so proud of what we created together and the impact it had on audiences. The sold-out run just always had people who would be crying or who would finally see themselves on stage. It was one of the few shows I would keep seeing, day after day, even after it opened, just to revel in its joy, conflict and love. I loved that rehearsal room, which was full of artists who showed the utmost grace and gave this production their all. I learned so much about what it means to lead and to walk with uncertainty but with the assuredness of faith in oneself and others. And my relationship with Aya is one I treasure so much, she’s like family to me, and just also happens to be one of my favorite artists. So when I think about the show, I feel proud, yes, but also so grateful.
A guiding principle of your directing style: The process is as important as the product. I’ve worked on enough shows to know that it’s impossible to know if you have created something “good.” Excellence as a product is inherently not in our hands, but the process is something directors can create. I often say: what if reviews covered that as well? It’s important to me that whoever works with me feels safe, physically and emotionally safe and also safe enough to articulate a crazy idea. I hope to create the feeling that walking into the unknown is okay. When I work, I prefer to fall in love with not the just the piece, but also the people, and that means a readiness for profound heartbreak. Of course, I have directed shows when I didn’t feel that risk at all, and regardless of how they were received, to me, it’s the process that has to be the thing that keeps me going.
Machel Ross (she/her)
Assistant director Broadway’s King Kong; assistant director Off-Broadway: The Wolves (The Duke), The Antipodes (Signature), Pipeline (LCT), Octet (Signature); Select credits: Black Exhibition (Bushwick Starr); also a costume designer.
What made you want to be a director: I started the drama club at my high school, and directing was something I had to do out of necessity. I think what excited me about it was getting to create a whole world for a story to take place in. My directing practice is highly collaborative, and that came from making theater with my friends with very little structure and support from our school.
A show you want to direct: I would absolutely love to direct Machinal by Sophie Treadwell. It's a really rhythmic play, and the play can be a hyper-stylized in its design and performance. There are so many vivid sequences of daily life. How pedestrian movements can be treated as choreography, is something I'm deeply interested in and would want to explore with this text.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: I love projects that embrace magic. I love projects that are anchored in vivid worlds . I love projects that make me think about myself in relation to the world around me. I love projects that center womxn. I love projects that have impossible things occur in them. I love projects that have an inherent musicality to them...or literally have music in them. I love projects that are scrappy but mighty, and that embrace the inherent theatricality of limitation.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: I'm currently directing a production of Marys Seacole with third year MFA students at NYU. With the limitations of COVID, we are having to radically re-think how to create and magnify the importance of touch, caretaking and intimacy that the play is exploring, without...any physical contact. The process has taught me a lot about the bravery of experimentation, and how the best rooms are really the ones where every person feels really empowered to share their ideas. Every person on this incredible team comes into rehearsal ready to problem solve, try new things, and take care of each other. It's a really gorgeous room, and being in conversation with such a potent play that reverberates in this time of pandemic and election, has been a gift.
A guiding principle of your directing style: You need to be able to understand a play in multiple ways: both visually in framing moments of action to craft narrative, and sonically, where language and character work is so vivid and specific no visuals are needed. I really emphasize design in my directing practice, because I think that clarity of world is the beginning to clarity of story.
Mei Ann Teo (they/she)
Artistic director of Musical Theatre Factory, a resident company of Playwrights Horizons. Visiting professor of directing at Carnegie Mellon University. ArtEquity BIPOC Leadership Circle, Hemera Foundation Tending Space Fellowship. Select credits: world premiere of Dim Sum Warriors, work for Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Goodman Theatre, Public Theater, Berkeley Rep (Ground Floor), Crowded Fire, History Theatre and the National Black Theatre.
First production you ever directed: My first amateur production: The Good Woman of Setzuan By Bertolt Brecht when I was 19 years old in university in Singapore. My first professional production: Chay Yew’s Porcelain for Crowded Fire in San Francisco, California.
What made you want to be a director: I started in the theatre via acting. However, I’d be backstage mentally directing the action onstage and often missing my cues... I found that my brain functioned more like a director—always longing to see the big picture, to gather impulses and ideas towards a collective vision, and desiring to take responsibility for making space for us to fall/hurtle/swim towards some new revelation together.
A show you want to direct (that already exists):
I’m working on several collaborations that I absolutely love right now. Everyone needs to produce and present these works! Stefani Kuo’s Final Boarding Call about the Hong Kong protests (Virtual reading Nov 20–24, MAYI/WP); Eugenie Chan’s new vaudeville The Truer History of the Chan Family about the impact of America’s legacy of anti-Asian legislation and sex trafficking on three generations of the playwright’s Chinese American family; Madeline Sayet’s Where We Belong a Mohegan theatremaker journeys to the U.K. to confront colonialism (Woolly Mammoth 2021); Nia Witherspoon’s Chronicle X excavating Diamond Reynold’s experience when she went on Facebook Live documenting the murder of her fiancé Philando Castile (The Shed 2021); Little Shop of Horrors —you know, the musical about the human race encountering a deadly threat to its very existence. Made with the dopest queer AF folx gathering as if it’s Queer camp, who live CAMP, who as an act of glorious resilience take on the unflinching bleak truth about the Earth’s response to our greed, with joy at the center. And lots of puppets, not just the plant. And Crystal, Ronnette, and Chiffon are Bois in heels. Let’s go. (St. Louis Rep 2021)
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: As a director-deviser-dramaturg, I love building work from the ground up, or rehearsing via devising and improvisation. I work at the intersection of artistic/civic/contemplative practice, so I love projects where form is innovative, steeped in ritual and informed by spiritual technologies, and where the impulse of the work actively contemplates our collective consciousness to queer dominant paradigms.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: Jillian Walker’s SKiNFoLK: An American Show (Presented by The Bushwick Starr & National Black Theatre in association with Musical Theatre Factory). I was immensely grateful to be invited into Jillian’s profoundly personal work and to co-helm the development and production as director. From building the work over several years with Jillian and music director Kasuan Henry, we found ways of manifesting that held deep process and divination at the core, continually creating paths to make from shales of personal and collective history. The production was made possible by a massive net of support, from our beloved theatre community to national foundations, and we also went to Jillian's family in Chicago, where she performed for her elders. Making SKiNFoLK was participating in Jillian becoming legacy.
A guiding principle of your directing style: Everyone I encounter is my teacher. This puts me in the position of curiosity versus judgment, I'm always excited to find out more about the immense gifts everyone is bringing into the room.
Nicole A. Watson (she/her)
Associate artistic director McCarter Theater; assistant director to Bill Rauch on premiere The Great Society; assistant director to Ruben Santiago-Hudsen The Piano Lesson. Lincoln Center Directors Lab alumnus; WP Director’s Lab alumnus; Select credits: School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play, The Niceties, A Doll’s House Part 2, Sweat, Robert Schenkkan's The Great Society, world premiere Night of the Living N-Word (NY Fringe Festival)
First production you ever directed: The first thing I ever remember “directing” was Fieffer’s People when I was in high school, but it was years before I did anything else. The first thing I directed as an adult was an adaptation of The Odyssey. I was a history teacher and my sixth graders had to put on a play. I was just out of college so I decided I would write something for them to perform. I didn’t really think of myself as a director then, I was just having a good time.
What made you want to be a director: I wanted to be an actor but had a “day job” teaching. I had this wonderful gift of directing young people through my teaching work and by volunteering at the 52nd Street Project. There was so much joy and creativity and I loved the art of “solving” or “translating” what was on the page into that thing the actors inhabited. Honestly, I just loved being in rehearsal and figuring things out! I started to love directing more than acting and teaching. I began assisting and attending as many readings and play as I could and tried to make friends with playwrights and directors. I started directing at colleges, along with readings and workshops, which gave me the chance to practice and work led to more work.
A show you want to direct: I was supposed to direct the premiere of Charly Evon Simpson’s it’s not a trip it’s a journey this year, but it has been postponed due to COVID-19. That’s the play that is on my mind right now. It's about four Black women and their road trip to the Grand Canyon. (Charly and I are going to take this road trip once it's safe to travel!) I would also love to direct Adrienne Kennedy’s Sleep Deprivation Chamber or A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: I love plays that reinvent and mess up any traditional understanding of history. The historical narrative is its own sort of fiction— so many people and stories are purposefully left out. I love anything that explodes what people think they know and says, “actually, there is so much you don’t know.” I also love plays that are strange and leave room for anything to happen. I love ghosts. I love a good dance break. I don’t know that I am very project-based in my thinking— I’m more people-based and as a Black, Jamaican woman, I find that I am drawn to stories by Black women throughout the Diaspora.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: It’s so hard to pick! But, last fall I directed a production of Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play. The ensemble and I had such an amazing time working on the play. Every rehearsal was a gift. I realized that for all the directing I have done, it was my first time directing a comedy with Black women and it should not have taken ten years for me to be able to be in a room with an all Black, female identifying cast. The work itself was the reward. We had some of the alumnae of Aburi [the show’s setting] come see the show which was incredible. I know a lot of young Black women came to see the production and their ideas about who theatre was for shifted. It’s not easy to walk into theatres when the assumption is that the space was not created with you in mind, but I hope School Girls shifted that thinking even a little bit. I was also thrilled that Temidayo Amay won a Helen Hayes for Best Supporting Actress and the entire cast won the Best Ensemble award.
A guiding principle of your directing style: Rigorous joy. That doesn’t mean the work is easy, it means we come to the work with open hearts, minds and a joyful spirit. We have to do this together. Anything is possible.
Whitney White (she/her)
Obie Award winner; Lilly Award winner; Recipient Susan Stroman Directing Award; artistic associate at Roundabout Theatre Company; Recipient New York Theatre Workshop 2050 Fellowship; Ars Nova’s Makers Lab alumnus; Select credits: Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, What to Send Up When It Goes Down, for all the women who thought they were mad.
First production you ever directed: An eight-person diverse cast of Henrik Ibesn’s Hedda Gabbler with music. It was exhilarating. It was a studio project my second year in the MFA Brown Trinity Acting program. Grateful for that cast and experience to this day.
What made you want to be a director: The desire to tell stories that reflected the actual world I lived in; one that was diverse, ever-changing, complex, and not straight forward.
A show you want to direct: Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters. Its a stunning piece about feminine survival, which resonates with me deeply as a Black woman.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: Bold language, non-traditional structure, defying norms, plays and musicals that offer an impossible challenge. Plays that bring people together and create community, or the possibility of community.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: The Amen Corner by James Baldwin. Proud of this one because it was such an honor to bring Baldwin’s words to life. The characters, the story, the music are all earth-shattering. It’s a marvel that every theatre that does Ibsen, Williams and our other classic texts do not program Baldwin as much as possible.
A guiding principle of your directing style: Always keep digging deeper, and push forward.
Nia Witherspoon (she/her)
Multimedia writer-in-residence Fordham University; Creative Capital Awardee; Jerome New Artist Fellow; artist-in-residence HERE Arts Center and BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange; 2050 Playwriting/Directing Fellow at New York Theatre Workshop (2017–2018); Select credits: Messiah, You Mine, The Dark Girl Chronicles, Priestess of Twerk; also a writer, composer, and vocalist.
First production you ever directed: First ever, Funnyhouse of a Negro at Stanford University in 2007; first professional MESSIAH at La Mama ETC in 2019
What made you want to be a director: The ability to create and shape space and multi-sensory experience inside which story, the sacred, and communion can take place.
A show you want to direct: Heroes and Saints by Cherríe Moraga, Jesus Moonwalked the Mississippi by Marcus Gardley, Marcus, Or the Secret of Sweet by Tarell Alvin McCraney, delta dandi by Sharon Bridgforth—I couldn't just pick one!
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: My ideal projects see theatre as a liberating practice. They center Black and BIPOC voices/perspectives. They gnaw like a recurring dream, and understand reality to be multiplicatively constituted and populated, including by ancestors and bodies of nature. They make aesthetic and conceptual interventions that shift perception, and do the work of decolonizing theatre, and more largely, the time-space continuum of capitalism.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: I am especially proud of the work we are doing with The Dark Girl Chronicles, in particular, Chronicle X, which will premiere at The Shed at some point in 2021 (somewhat COVID determined). It is a work that I can say with full confidence is a spell of protection and holding for Black folks who continue to live inside climates where state violence goes unpunished. It, along with the rest of the chronicles, is an act of fortification, spiritual reclamation, and deliverance, merging quantum physics with Yoruba sacred stories, and documentary evidence, and does the work of acknowledging where we are and the pain that we feel while also holding us sacred inside the larger cosmos.
A guiding principle of your directing style: Care is very important to me, and building trust inside the cast and creative team that often feel like close kin by the end of a process. I do my best to operate inside an aesthetics of care, especially because so much of what I do involves working through trauma. This always means listening—to the spirits and to the people. Sometimes it means being wrong. It always means approaching things with curiosity and vulnerability. It always means having certain grounding items present and available: an altar, guiding books, tarot cards, stones, and, when we are at our best, pre-set roles for community care, including collaborating with healing practitioners to join rehearsal and production processes.
Tamilla Woodard (she/her)
Artistic director The Five Boroughs/One City Project at The Working Theatre; associate artistic director WP Theater; associate director Broadway’s Hadestown; co-founder PopUp Theatrics; Time Warner Fellow (2014–2016); Lincoln Center Directors Lab alumnus; Usual Suspect at NYTW; Select credits: Men on Boats (American Conservatory Theatre), American Dreams (Cleveland Public Theater), PolkaDots: The Cool Kids Musical at (Atlantic Theatre Company)
First production you ever directed and when: George C. Wolf’s The Colored Museum! My very first directing gig ever was while I was an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University. I was in the BFA acting program at the time, and we were explicitly prohibited from participating in any actives at the non-conservatory amateur student-run theatre organization ScotchNSoda. So I had to sneak over and direct. I was hungry for black art and black folks on stage. So I did it myself. It was brilliant and terrible! And it didn’t matter. It was also an early lesson: Do it yourself and include anybody who loves the thing you love, professional or not.
What made you want to be a director: I think my early love of theatre was always rooted in directing even though all of my training—both undergrad and grad—was as an actor. I was always suffering at the corner of the table with “great ideas”! [Laughs] Finally, I think the straw that broke the camel’s back was a production out of town, in which I was treated so badly as an actor and as a collaborator that I decided I would lead a rehearsal room the way I wanted to always be treated as an actor.
A show you want to direct: Alice Childress’s Wedding Band.
Describe the attributes of your ideal project: Projects that don't disguise the power of theatre as a tool for social justice and community growth. Projects that leave room for the audience to change the world... or at least, change their minds. Projects that change me.
A production you worked on and are particularly proud of and why: American Dreams. We premiered it successfully as an in-person production two seasons ago at Cleveland Public Theatre but re-conceived it for digital liveness this season at the theatre I now co-Lead, Working Theater. The process of re-conceiving this play/live online game show where an audience votes for the outcome each night took the imagination and ingenuity of the full company—designers, actors, producers and, of course, our amazing playwright Leila Buck. It is the kind of way of working that led me to want to be a director: intensely collaborative. It was a seemingly impossible proposition (I’m told) but the sheer hands on invention required from everyone was thrilling, mind-breaking, and soul-enriching. Also, my first gig as a co-artistic director, we set out to produce theatre in lean times and no physical gathering by creating a collaboration with nine other theatre organizations across the nation. Catch it for one more week if you can, hosted by the great folks at Marin Theatre Company.
A guiding principle of your directing style: All theatre is participatory and site-specific. Don't disguise the messy, chaotic liveness or undermine the make-believe.
These answers have been edited for clarity.