Name five women who are, hands-down, major and unquestioned go-to’s when it comes to directors of plays by American men who deal, if not entirely then largely, with distinctly male American themes and characters. What’s that? Need a minute? No worries, we’re chill. Take a minute. Or two.
[Sound of one minute passing.] [Sound of one more minute passing.]
Anna D. Shapiro? OK, that’s one. Funnily enough, Shapiro’s Wiki page refers to her Yale classmates calling her “The truck-stop waitress who will one day run American theatre” and the “butchest person in the MFA program.” Her work at and with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company — and on Broadway, where she has staged plays by Tracy Letts, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Kenneth Lonergan and now Larry David’s upcoming Fish in the Dark — clearly count her as one of the five names needed to ace this quiz. Now who else?
Right. Gender diversity at every level and in every discipline on the American theater is an issue, despite no paucity of journalism — like this article from 2012, this article from 2013 and this study under the auspices of the League of Professional Theatre Women in 2014 — aiming to hope otherwise.
The truth is that, if you work in the business and you care about this topic and your eyes are meaningfully open, enumerating at least five names is hardly a task: think Jo Bonney, think Pam MacKinnon, think Sarah Benson, think Anne Kaufman, think Leigh Silverman. Our point is this: you should think Cyndy A. Marion, too. And do so, like, now.
If you want a vivid example of Marion’s work, head to the Gene Frankel Theatre (24 Bond St.) through Feb. 21 for her revival of Sam Shepard’s Eyes for Consuela. It’s presented by Marion’s White Horse Theater Company, for which she serves as producing artistic director.
The scope of Marion’s work fascinates: bold, deep trips into Shepard-land (Buried Child, A Lie of the Mind, True West, The Late Henry Moss) seemingly alternate with bold, deep trips into Tennessee Williams-land (I Can’t Imagine Tomorrow, Suddenly Last Summer, Clothes for a Summer Hotel, Small Craft Warnings, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel). Plus forays into the post-modern fun-house of American Gothic (‘night, Mother), plus rafts of new plays at developmental and Off-Off-Broadway throughout New York City.
Let’s also qualify something important before we continue. The top of this post — the point we were trying to make about women directors — is, sadly, a lot more nuanced and a lot more fraught with criticism, frustration and ambition than mere game-playing and quizzing. In a well-balanced, well-funded, sufficiently diverse and financially and artistically equitable American theater, the hook — woman director! of influential American plays! by men! my gosh! — wouldn’t be a hook. It would be utterly unremarkable. There would be more Marions than a soul could count, and little to comment on beyond what’s really most important: scripts and performances; the fundamental transcendence of a beautifully directed play for a profoundly moved and motivated audience. We’re embarrassed to have even drunk from the gender well yet again. But it’s important to remember macro topics even as we zero in an artist that we demand you pay attention to. Indeed, Marion doesn’t just tackle plays by Shepard and Williams, and how nice. She owns them, if you get our meaning, and it’s thrilling to take notice of. Trails schmails. It’s about the bloody work. As it should be.
And speaking of which, what is Eyes for Consuela about? Check it:
Based on the short story “The Blue Bouquet,” by Mexican writer Octavio Paz, Eyes For Consuela depicts the midlife crisis of Henry, a lost American soul, as he wanders the dreamlike world of a remote Mexican jungle. Estranged from his wife, Henry escapes to Mexico to “find himself” instead encountering a Mexican bandit who wants to cut out his eyes. According to Amado, blue eyes are the only thing that will make his lover Consuela smile. In a fierce battle of wills, Henry and Amado come eye to eye with their inner demons, the true nature of sacrifice and what separates them from the women they love.
For tickets to Eyes for Consuela, click here, or call 212-868-4444.
And now, here are 5 questions Cyndy A. Marion has never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
Not sure about the most perceptive question, but the most perceptive statement anyone has ever made about my work came from Amanda Pekoe of The Pekoe Group. Amanda and I go a long way back as colleagues at Brooklyn College. She said that all of my productions deal with the theme of mental illness. And she hit the nail on the head since all of my work, all of the plays I am drawn to and choose to direct have some mental or psychological struggle as a key component. It never really occurred to me until she said it. But she is absolutely right.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“When are you going to direct a comedy?”
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
Honestly, I don’t know. Nothing has ever struck me as weird. I just love that people ask questions.
To what degree, if any, does gender affect a director’s sensibility or point of view? We ask in light of the fact that you’re often associated with plays by Shepard and Williams, two playwrights arguably more associated with male directors. Does that perception point to gender bias in the theater?
Personally, for me, sexuality plays as large a role in my point of view as a director as my gender does. Meaning, my sexual identity as a woman who is attracted to women affects the material I am drawn to. I think of myself as having a dual nature in the sense that I can relate to being a woman because I am one, but can also relate/identify with the male role/identity because I am attracted to women. So, my male side completely identifies with the work of Sam Shepard and his male protagonists, but also isn’t afraid to tap into the more sensitive, vulnerable qualities which are present in his work. Tennessee Williams, who as a gay man also identified with what I refer to as “dual nature,” was able to write men and women equally well — in fact, one might even make the argument that he understood and identified with his female characters the most. Consequently, I am drawn to Williams’ plays because I identify with his dual nature and that fact that he gives voice to those of us who often are not spoken for. And by the way, would you ask a man this question?
In terms of storytelling, the conventions of the theater and the influence of pop culture, what is the most difficult challenge for contemporary playwrights creating new work?
Creating a play that does not move like a film. White Horse has an open new-play submission policy and I cannot tell you how many plays I read that have more locations than you can count on two hands and that require million-dollar scene changes. What happened to writing plays that take place in one location, where the setting becomes a theatrical metaphor for the story and plays an active role in the unfolding of the dramatic action? I think new playwrights today are so influenced by film and TV that they tend not to think about theatrical time and space. My first test as to whether a play is theatrical is to ask myself whether the story would be better realized on film.
Which aspects, elements or sensibilities of the plays of Shepard and Williams do you uniquely understand that the playwrights themselves do (and did) not?
Well, I certainly cannot speak for either Shepard or Williams, but I can comment on what attracts me to their work and what I feel I understand about it. I think I touched on this above when I mentioned that I can relate to many of the themes in both Shepard and Williams’ work. I am particularly drawn to the later plays of Williams, written during a darker period in his life where he was experimenting with new ways of expressing his fears, pain and desires. Many of these plays employ silence and fragmented dialogue and abandon traditional notions of character in an attempt to capture a truer, purer essence of human behavior. Rather than viewing these later works as the theatrical failures of an alcoholic, depressed, dried-up old playwright, I see the innovation in these works as deliberate, skilled experiments with new, truer, bolder theatrical forms.
I think Williams was very self-aware and knew exactly what he was trying to do. It was incredibly frustrating to him that critics and audiences did not appear to see that. With Shepard, I am continually drawn to his theatrical landscapes — for example, the American desert becomes a metaphor for the rugged individualism many of his characters seek and, in Eyes for Consuela, the Mexican jungle serves as a symbol of the heart that America has lost. The distinctly American flavor and themes of his plays, such as the the eternal battle between the mind and the heart…between personal freedom/passions and societal/familial responsibility.
There is a beautiful, poetic, sensitive quality to Shepard’s work that he seems to often overlook when directing his own plays. Shepard seems to feel safer in the rugged macho physicality of his plays, but there is also so much rich, poetic, sensitive language to explore and I try to bring this out in my productions. It is that delicate balance between the poetic emotional territory and the explosive, raw physicality of his plays that make his work most compelling.