When we think of the great auteur directors working in theatre today, like most exclusive artistic circles, it’s dominated largely by men, and old, white men at that. Ivo Van Hove, Thomas Ostermeier, and Peter Brook are all names that immediately come to mind. But who are the women?
I’ve compiled a list of ten names of innovative female auteur theatre directors, ordered by their birth years. In this post, I present the following first half of the list: JoAnne Akalitis, Ariane Mnouchkine, Elizabeth LeCompte, Anne Bogart, Julie Taymor. In keeping with auteur (from the French word for “author”) tradition, all of these women, broadly speaking, are artists whose unique creative vision takes primacy over the playwrights’ in their productions. In many cases, this is seen as an act of transgression, as Western theatre, particularly in America and the UK, has largely been driven by the dominance of the playwright. Audiences who flock to theatre to see the classics, are often deeply disturbed when confronted with radical interpretations (including liberal textual adaptations) of the Shakespearean and Chekhovian tales that they know and love. And often, the critics of director’s theatre are not wrong, in that over-manipulation of classic texts can result in theatre that is self-indulgent and over-intellectualized. On the other hand, at its best, the auteur imprint involves creative risk-taking that serves to provide fresh takes on classics which illuminate rather than distort, the vision of the playwright.
1. JoAnne Akalitis
Born in 1937, Akalitis is a Lithuanian-American avant-garde writer and director of theatre. She founded the critically acclaimed company Mabou Mines in 1970, and has won five OBIE awards for direction. Akalitis is particularly renowned for her direction of Beckett’s work.
Born and raised in a blue-collar suburb of Chicago, Akalitis initially was on the pre-med track at the University of Chicago before transferring to Stanford University to study philosophy. She then moved to San Francisco to study at the Actor’s Workshop and San Francisco Mime Troupe, where she met her future collaborators Lee Breuer and Ruth Malaczech.
In 1963, Akalitis moved to New York, where she trained with the Open Theater, and the following year moved to Paris. While in Paris, she met her future husband, the composer Phillip Glass, and collaborated with Glass, Breuer and Malaczech on Samuel Beckett’s One of the most formative experiences of Akalitis’ career came in 1968 when she studied with renowned Polish theatre director, theorist and practitioner Jerzy Grotowski. Grotowski’s “poor” theatre valued the body of the actor over spectacle—ie, costumes, detailed sets and music. Akalitis also learned that the actor was not just a vessel for the playwright, but a creative, generative artist in his or her own right. Akalitis said “I saw a whole development of Stanislavsky that involved the body, that involved my own personal history, and involved my value as an artist.”
In 1969, Akalitis returned to New York with Glass, Breuer and Malaczech and formed a theatre collective that was initially based in Glass’ beach house in Nova Scotia. It was Akalitis who suggested that the group perform under the name of the nearby mining town, Mabou Mines. The group then relocated in New York and made its debut at the Guggenheim Museum in 1970 with a production of Lee Breuer’s The Red Horse Animation. The 1970’s saw a period of mostly devised pieces called “animations” by Mabou Mines, with Lee Breuer directing.
The group then staged three Beckett pieces with the Theater for the New City Festival, which caught the attention of Joseph Papp who invited them to the Public Theater. This was a major turning point in Akaltiis’ career, because she switched gears from acting to directing. It was her 1976 production of Beckett’s Cascando at the Public that won her her first OBIE award for direction. Akalitis’ imaginative interpretation of Cascando, originally a radio play, stunned the public in its gritty dream-like exploration of the desperation of the creative process and of the artist in society. Although most famous for her interpretations of Beckett, Akalitis went on to direct works by Euripides, Shakespeare, Strindberg, Schiller, Genet, Williams, Philip Glass, Janacek and her own work at venues such as Lincoln Center Theater, New York City Opera, Goodman Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, Court Theatre, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, the Guthrie Theater and the American Repertory Theater.
While directing at A.R.T. in the 80’s, Samuel Beckett tried to shutdown her production his play Endgame. Akalitis also served as the artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater, as the Andrew Mellon co-chair of the directing program at the Juilliard School and the Wallace Benjamin Flint and L. May Hawver Flint Professor of Theatre at Bard College.
She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Edwin Booth Award, the Rosamund Gilder Award for Outstanding Achievement in Theatre, and Pew Charitable Trusts National Theatre Artist Residency Program grant.
2. Ariane Mnouchkine
Mnouchkine is a French theatre director born in 1939. She is widely considered to be one of the most influential directors in the world. She currently runs the avante-garde ensemble Theatre du Soleil, which she co-founded at the age of 25 in 1964. Mnouchkine’s 50-year-long oevre is staggering. Her work consistently engages in history and politics, is frequently devised through collective improvisation, and regularly draws on performance traditions from all over the world, including Noh, Kathakali, Kibuki, mime and circus.
Born and raised in Paris amidst the chaos of WWII, she grew up in a world steeped in the arts as her father Alexandre Mnouchkine, a Russian-Jewish emigre, was a very prominent post-war film producer. Mnouchkine went on to study psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris, and also spent time studying English at Oxford University, where she became involved in Oxford’s Dramatic Society. After returning to Paris, and while still a student, she founded ATEP (l’Association Theatrale des Estudiants Parisians) in 1959, which became the leftist alternative to Sorbonne’s classical theatre company, and which eventually became Theatre du Soleil. In this early period, Mnouchkine spent time traveling through Asia, and also studying under Jacques LeCoq–two experiences which undoubtedly made their mark on her vision as a director.
Mnouchkine’s big break came in 1967 with her production of British playwright Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen which premiered at the Cirque Medrano in Paris, a performance which drew crowds in the tens of thousands, and went on to tour in England. The following year, 1968, saw a massive wave of student protests, factory strikes, and generalized violent civil unrest in France. The socio-political environment greatly shaped Ariane and her mission for her theatre, which was structured as a cooperative, with all members getting equal pay and with a strong emphasis on collaboration and collectively devised work.
Some of her landmark productions include 1789 and 1793 (about the history of the French Revolution), the cycles of Richard II, Twelfth Night and Henry IV (1981-84) which were mashups of Shakespeare with ancient performance rituals of Japan, Bali and India, and The House of Atreus (1990-92), a four-part Greek tragedy that combined Kathakali and Kabuki traditions. 1995 marked a turning point for Mnouchkine, when she began a long collaborative partnership with the French-Algerian feminist playwright and philosopher Hélène Cixous, who wrote contemporary political texts for the group to perform.
Given Mnouchkine’s family history, it is not surprising that migration has become a frequent subject of her work. Her 2003 epic, Le Dérnier Caravansérail (The Last Caravan Stop), focused on the experiences of refugees from Iraq, Iran, Kurdistan, Chechnya and Russia. In 2009, Mnouchkine was awarded the International Ibsen Award, which honors an individual or institution that brings new artistic dimensions to the world of theatre. She received the Goethe Medal in 2011.
3. Elizabeth LeCompte
An American director of experimental theatre, dance and film, Elizabeth LeCompte is a founding member of the Wooster Group, and serves as its artistic director to this day. LeCompte, who has directed over 40 productions with the Wooster Group, is known for her imaginative desconstruction of classical texts, use of multi-media, and collage-like visual aesthetic.
Born in 1944 and raised in New Jersey, she initially trained as a visual artist, earning a BS in Fine Arts from Skidmore College. Upon graduation, she moved to New York and got involved in The Performance Group, an experimental theatre troupe founded by Richard Schechner in 1967. It was in there that she met actor and long-time partner and collaborator Willem Defoe, with whom she had a 27-year relationship and a son.
Following disagreements within The Performance Group, Schechner resigned and the group reformed itself as The Wooster Group, with LeCompte at the helm. The newly formed Wooster Group stayed in their home at the Performing Garage on 33 Wooster Street in SoHo, where they remain today. In over 40 years with Wooster Group LeCompte has directed created a multitude of devised work using both personal autobiography and existent texts. The Group’s first productions in the late 70’s and 80’s drew heavily on the personal experiences of the company members with such pieces as the Three Places in Rhode Island trilogy, Rumstick Road, Point Judith and Route 1& 9.
In the 1990’s, LeCompte began to make work inspired by such classic texts as Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Racine’s Phèdre and Williams’ Vieux Carré, Pinter’s The Room, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Troilius and Cressida. In recent years, LeCompte has returned to purely devised work with Early Shaker Spirituals (2012) and the upcoming Town Hall Affair, based on the scandalous events of the 1971 New York Town Hall when the writer Normal Mailer hosted a panel about feminism.
LeCompte’s work tends to polarize audiences, and like many other auteur directors, she had been embroiled in many battles with playwrights about copyright laws. LeCompte is the recipient of the NEA Distinguished Artists Fellowship for Lifetime Achievement in American Theater, a Macarthur Fellowship, the Skowhegan Medal for Performance, the Chevalier des Artes et Lettres from the French Cultural Ministry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an Anonymous Was A Woman Award.
4. Anne Bogart
Anne Bogart is an American director of theatre and opera and theorist. She is the artistic director and co-founder (with Tadashi Suzuki) of the ensemble-based SITI Company and currently serves as the head of the MFA Directing program at Columbia University School of the Arts.
Born in 1951, Bogart first made the decision to become a director after helming a production of Ionesco’s the Bald Soprano at her high school in Middletown, Rhode Island, where she grew up. She then went on to study at Bard College, graduating in 1974, where she was introduced to the work of Jerzy Grotowski. Upon graduation, Bogart moved to New York to pursue an MA in theatre studies from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. While at NYU, she met choreographer Mary Overlie, who was developing a technique called Six Viewpoints of Dance, rooted in the six elements of space, shape, time, emotion, movement and story. Bogart then, along with Tina Landau, adapted Overlie’s Viewpoints into an technique for acting, which they outline in their book, The Viewpoints Book.
From 1987-1992, Bogart served as artistic director of Via Theater, the company that produced her first OBIE-award winning production, No Plays No Poetry But Philosophical Reflections Practical Instruction Provocative Opinions and Pointers from a Noted Critic and Playwright (1988). In addition to a major teaching career, at such institutions as The Maz Reinhart Academy, The Bern Conservatory, The University of Alaska, Bennington College, The American Center in Paris, Williams College, New York University, UC San Diego, Playwrights Horizons Theater School and since 1993, at Columbia University, Bogart is the author of five books: A Director Prepares, And Then You Act, Conversations with Anne, What’s the Story and the aforementioned The Viewpoints Book.
While balancing time teaching young directors, Bogart has directed countless productions with SITI Company, including Persians, Steel Hammer, A Rite, Café Variations, Trojan Women, American Document, Antigone, Freshwater Under Construction, Who Do You Think You Are, Radio Macbeth, Hotel Cassiopeia, Death and the Ploughman, La Dispute, Score, bobrauschenbergamerica, Room, War of the Worlds, Cabin Pressure, The Radio Play, Alice’s Adventures, Culture of Desire, Bob and many more. Bogart is the recipient of a Doris Duke Artist Grant, a USA Fellowship, a Rockefeller Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
5. Julie Taymor
Taymor is an American director of theatre, opera and film as well as a playwright and designer – she was the first woman to win the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical, for The Lion King in 1998, and is an Academy Award nominated director, known for such films as Frida (2002) and Across The Universe (2007).
Born in the year of 1952 and raised in Newton, MA, she spent time in Sri Lanka and India through the Experiment in International Living, studied mime in Paris at L’École Internationale de Théatre Jacques Lecoq, and after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College in 1974 with the BA in Mythology and Folklore, she used a Watson Fellowship to study the art of puppetry in Japan. She then went on to spend 5 years in Indonesia where she founded a mask and dance company called Teatr Loh and worked as a director of international theatre with actors, musicians, dancers and puppeteers from Asia, Africa, Europe and America.
After returning to the USA, she directed productions both on and off Broadway, achieving her first major success for her design work on The King Stag, a production which toured 66 cities across the world. In 1997, Taymor achieved worldwide recognition (and two Tony Awards) for her work as a director and designer on the Broadway musical The Lion King. Other notable productions include The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus and The Green Bird at Theatre for a New Audience, and the Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark on Broadway.
Taymor has become known for her wildly imaginative use of puppetry and masks which have become hallmarks of her work. In addition to two Tony Awards, Taymor is the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship, two Obie awards, the Dorothy B. Chandler Award and the Brandeis Creative Arts Award. She currently lives in Manhattan with her long-time collaborator and partner, the Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal. The couple have been together since 1980.
Part 2 is already online – continue on with the remaining five of the best female auteur theatre directors!
Displayed on the cover is Julius Caesar, an all-female version of the Shakespeare’s classic of the same name by Phyllida Lloyd, first showcased back in 2012.