Ms. Directing Shakespeare, by Elizabeth Schafer was an interesting read, a scholarly project of interviews with British women who were directing in professional theaters. Because time keeps moving and the world is changing, I’d like to start by noting that this book was published over 20 years ago, in 1998. That said, while a good bit has changed (many of these women described not knowing any professional female directors, for one thing, and I know lots), the world is still what it was, in many ways. Even now, only about 20% of executive or artistic director positions at professional Shakespeare companies are held by women, and very nearly none of them are people of color (I don’t know the numbers for the UK, but I imagine they are quite similar). Women are still more likely to direct in studio spaces or educational tours rather than “the main stage,” and they’re far more likely to direct comedies or romances than tragedies or histories.

But it used to be worse, is the point. Buzz Goodbody, for example, was named in her 1975 obituary as “the shapley brunette stage director.” One hopes that would not happen today.

Beach read

The first section of the book looks at each of these directors–their backgrounds, family life, education, and how they got into directing. This also is where the title gets an explanation. Practically all of these women reported on a review, or several, where the reviewer felt that they had “misdirected” the play. It’s a loaded, and gendered, term.

I enjoyed little sparks of recognition–things that I have in common with some of these women, things I don’t think of as being because I’m a woman working in this field, but maybe they are? Jane Howell, for example, talked about creating a safe environment by how you talk to people and treat them. “In the rehearsal room, the director makes the rules; so you can have a safe, island society and you can run it how you like….one can work from a basis of love, without being soppy.” She doesn’t seem like a soppy person at all, but she does understand that you get further by creating a healthy environment than by destroying people.

The second section was more interesting, as it focused on specific productions. I’m always curious what choices other directors make with texts I know well. It was organized by play, and in some cases contrasted different productions of the same text. The consensus arising from several different productions of Shrew, for one, was that there’s no winning if you’re a woman directing this play. Half of the people will be frustrated that you didn’t take a harder feminist angle, and the other half will feel like you’ve brought too much of a political agenda into it.

The interview with Jane Howell about her productions of the Henry VI plays and Richard III for the BBC was exciting because I so rarely encounter directors whose read on Richard matches mine. “I tried always to say, with all that macho battle stuff, ‘But count the cost, count the cost,’ and I tried to undermine it all the time,” she says. “That’s what the very last image of the tetralogy…was about. It was purely instinctive but apparently it’s a classic image for revenge, a reverse pieta, with Margaret surrounded by corpses, cradling the dead Richard in her arms.” Critics apparently hated this. Michael Manheim is typical: “Howell is more engaged with old Margaret’s cacklings as she sits on her mountains of corpses during the credits–fine pacifism, but not really the point of this play.” Schafer notes a pattern that the women in this book faced over and over again: “Manheim’s certainty that he had got the point of the play and the Howell hadn’t was absolute.”

Richard was the production where I felt the most like I was just following where the text led, and where actors and audience registered the most surprise and confusion at how the thing turned out. Jude Kelly had a similar experience with her Lear, which upset a lot of people because it wasn’t the play they thought they were going to see. “There is a big problem with people who have a notion about what the play already is. People say things like, ‘Well, why did you take that angle?’ and you’ll say, ‘It wasn’t an angle, it was what I thought the play was.’…It hadn’t dawned on me that the production would seem so extraordinary.”

The final section was the one I had the lowest expectations of and ended up loving the most. It was about the deep history of women directors, stretching back to the 12th century. To be clear, we didn’t have “directors” as such before the mid-1800s, but men and women performed director-adjacent roles–editing scripts, casting, running companies, planning seasons, offering notes and adjustments, coordinating scenic designers and musicians. Women aren’t credited as directors until the early 20th century, and then rarely. Historians are frustratingly dismissive of them. I’m both angry and appalled that I knew nearly nothing at all about them before I read this book, and never thought to ask if they had even existed. I’m now determined to learn much more about them. This feels like a gaping hole in my education that I didn’t even know was there.

A couple of my favorites:

Sarah Baker of Kent ran her own company in the late 18th century. She was phenomenally successful and made a fortune managing theaters. She was written off by subsequent historians as a dotty eccentric, but clearly had a great deal of business acumen and artistic skill. Interestingly, Kent continued to be a place where women were directing plays consistently from Sarah Baker’s time to the present day. Maybe she got that community used to the idea!

Eliza Vestris managed the Olympic Theater and later Covent Garden. She did an amazing job at both. Later historians diminish her as ‘merely a singer’ or ‘the lessee of the house.’ In charge of Covent Garden, she shifted the season toward opportunities for women to shine, including Merry Wives of Windsor, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Midsummer–in which she played Oberon!

Edy Craig, one of the first women to self-describe as a director, was apparently the opposite of her brother. Gordon Craig is one of my least favorite figures in Western theater history. Every time I have to teach him I just end up yelling about his pretentious and patriarchal approach and how he basically never got anything to the stage but thought of himself as the genius of his generation. George Bernard Shaw not only agreed with me (I have just learned), but thought Edy Craig was brilliant. “Gordon Craig has made himself the most famous producer in Europe by dint of never producing anything, while Edith Craig remains the most obscure by dint of producing everything.” I wonder what it was like when they both had to come home for Christmas; apparently Edy was publicly opposed to Gordon’s way of doing things. Schafer: “[Edy] argues against her brother Edward Gordon Craig’s views on theater directing; by contrast with Gordon Craig’s controlling vision, Edy Craig wants all theater workers, including those playing the smallest of roles, to think, to be responsive, and not allow themselves to become machines.”

I’d recommend this book to people who are curious about the role of women in theater history, and also I’d be very happy to hear about any books that deal with this topic with a focus on early (18th/19th century) women directors.

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