SPOTLIGHT ON THREE GUEST DIRECTORS

October 5, 2015 by Miranda

Fold up those lawn chairs, and put away the ball gloves - it’s time for the pleasures of the cooler months.  And right here in the heart of Concord, The Umbrella Center will be aglow on many evenings with a new season of theater. 

Three sought-after directors are on board to work with Brian Boruta, The Umbrella’s Director of Performing Arts, in creating a lineup of shows that embody the Bold, Daring, and Innovative brand of theater the Umbrella is fast becoming known for.  The season has variety and punch, including passionate small-cast plays, and full-scale musicals.  The guest directors are all women, and while the hot topic of gender parity in the theater world is getting considerable attention in Boston and around the country, it hasn’t slowed these three dynamos one bit.

“My favorite type of show to direct is something big, with epic proportions,” says Nancy Curran Willis, who will direct the musical Bonnie & Clyde, opening at The Umbrella in November.  The story of the notorious pair of bank robbers in Depression-era America is told with a cast of 25.  “It’s huge,” says Nancy.  And she sounds pretty happy about that.

Nancy is a veteran director with decades of experience in Boston-area theater, and two past productions for The Umbrella, Angels in America, Parts I and II.  Her resume is studded with awards for best director and best production, including Elliot Norton Awards.  After years directing for professional companies, Nancy found she missed community theater, where “A huge bonding thing happens with a cast, a crew, and director.” 

Also returning to The Umbrella is Rebecca Lynn Bradshaw, who directed Red in 2013, and will tackle David Mamet’s Oleanna this season.  “I really like things that make the audience think more,” says Rebecca.  Oleanna certainly fits that description.  The two-character play will be staged in a black box configuration, giving the audience an intimate vantage point on the antagonists, a male college professor and a female undergraduate student.  The New York Times’ review called it “impassioned” and said, “Oleanna is likely to provoke more arguments than any play this year.”  So you might plan on going out for dessert after the show. You’ll have something more than pie to chew over.

Rebecca is a 2010 graduate of Emerson College, who has put down solid roots in the Boston Theater community and already amassed an impressive number of credits.  At the Huntington Theatre Company she was Assistant Director for several productions, and has directed at fringe theaters in town.  And now the larger professional theaters are calling on her as well: SpeakEasy Stage last year, and Stoneham Theatre this fall.

“Every show has its own set of challenges,” says Michelle Aguillon, director of True West, set to open The Umbrella’s theater season on September 25th.  It’s Michelle’s first time in the director’s chair at The Umbrella, but her body of work with local theaters is extensive, and her reputation well known to Brian Boruta, who sought her out for this show. 

“I’m drawn to family drama,” says Michelle.  True West centers on two adult brothers, and it’s their relationship that powers the story and attracted Michelle to the project.  The play will be staged in the round, bringing the audience up close and personal with qualities that made playwright Sam Shepard’s work famous.  “Grittiness, dark themes,” says Michelle.  “The show has a following, a reputation.” 

“I like directing plays by the Sam Shepards and the David Mamets of the world,” says Nancy Curran Willis.  The two Pulitzer Prize-winners are living giants of American theater, and both built a reputation largely with plays set in a man’s world and populated with male characters who speak in a direct fashion, to say the least. “I like the freedom of men on stage, to be what they are,” says Nancy. 

And what do these women think about directing plays written by, and sometimes about, men?  “I never thought about it in terms of gender,” says Nancy.  Michelle agrees that her focus is on the story, saying of being a woman directing True West, “I didn’t even think of it.”

But plenty of people are thinking about the issue of gender parity, as it’s termed.  StageSource, the service organization for the New England Theater Community, formed a task force to study it, and released a 35-page formal report highlighting data collected from theaters during the 2013-2014 season.  The report reveals that “men outnumber women by at least two to one in the fields of director and playwright” among the 46 New England-based theater companies surveyed.  “Women hold more roles in small and fringe theaters, while men work in higher percentages in larger theaters.  Based on these findings, it can be inferred that men make more money,” says the StageSource report.

These statistics would not come as a surprise to The Umbrella’s three women directors.  “I do feel that there are way more female directors in community theatre,” says Nancy.  “The major companies seem to be male-dominated,” says Michelle, “and fringe companies seem to have more women.”  “It’s definitely on my mind,” says Rebecca.  “I am fortunate to have entered the field at a time when it’s being questioned.”

Of course statistics alone cannot convey every individual’s story.  Both Nancy and Michelle, who are mid-career, are quick to say that being a woman has not held them back in their directing work.  “For me, I’ve never felt that I’m not getting what I want because I’m a female.  Maybe I was just lucky,” says Nancy. 

There are signs that increased attention to the issue of gender parity may be leading to change.  “More and more female directors are getting opportunities to work in town,” says Nancy, referring to the professional theaters in Boston, and adding, “Way more attention is focused on plays with women’s issues.” “It’s just now changing. It’s very exciting,” says Rebecca, the 20-something of the group.

It’s also exciting to be on the cusp of a new season of theater at The Umbrella.  The anticipation is building, the sense of possibility as delicious as the crunch of autumn leaves under your feet as you stroll from a Concord restaurant to The Umbrella to see a show.  One that will give you something to talk about.  One that’s Bold, Daring, and Innovative – a lot like these three amazing directors themselves.  

- Rebecca Cook, Freelance Writer​

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