New York’s WP Theater: 40 years of celebrating and exploring female identity
For four decades, New York’s WP Theater has presented pioneering pieces by and about women. Its artistic director tells Eleanor Turney how the company is addressing female identity in the 21st century, ensuring work avoids the stereotypes of ‘women’s plays’ and staying afloat in a difficult funding climate
Though WP Theater – formerly the Women’s Project Theater – turns 40 this year, its reasons for existing remain depressingly pertinent. However, artistic director Lisa McNulty is ready for what the world throws at her.
“I feel very grateful to be leading an institution that has an implicit social justice mission. I’m not just producing plays: my job is to make space for women, to raise up artists who’ve been marginalised for their gender or gender expression. We have a culture that doesn’t value women, female-identifying and trans artists in the way that it values cis guys.
“When we were founded in 1978, only about 6% of the plays [founder] Julia Miles previously worked on were by women. In the United States, that number now sits at about 21%. So that’s certainly progress, but it’s taken 40 years to get there.
“Even if 21% of the whole is by women and trans people, the resources aren’t split like that – work by women is always on the smaller stage or as part of a festival. The work can’t be trusted with the same amount of resource.”
There are similar issues in the UK, of course, with women’s work often relegated to smaller spaces. McNulty is part of the solution in New York: “I really make an effort to show a spectrum of work, because people think they know what women write.
“There was a big panel of artistic directors here who were asked why they didn’t do more work by women, and one said, ‘There isn’t enough good work by women in the pipeline.’ And that’s why our festival of new work is called the Pipeline Festival – here it is, knock yourself out, come and see the work.”
Looking across the Atlantic, McNulty is rueful: “I envy you guys. Government funding for us is around 10%. We have a lot of private and individual donations, a lot of funders who we have great relationships with and our board are rock stars in terms of beating the bushes for us.
“But the economics of theatremaking in New York mean it’s very expensive; you’re never going to make enough from ticket sales to keep the doors open. I’ve sat down with the Arts Council in London, and some day I’ll have the kind of institutional funding that theatres in the UK have. But the grass is always greener… Also, I’m really sad that you guys stole Kwame [Kwei-Armah] back again – he’s an extraordinary guy.”
WP Theater describes itself as for “women, female-identifying and trans artists” – an unusually inclusive way of talking about gender. This is important to McNulty: “When I took over in 2014, I made the shift to say ‘female-identified’ instead of ‘female’. It seemed obvious; it made explicit a thing that had been implicit.
“We have people in this country who are telling gender non-conforming people that they can’t use a particular bathroom, that their lives aren’t as valuable. It does seem important that this institution is clear in its support. We can’t be behind the culture or behind the conversation – we need to be keeping up with our artistic community.”
Q&A: Lisa McNulty, WP Theater producing artistic director
What was your first non-theatre job? I had a lot of weird jobs when I was growing up. I used to answer phones at my church’s rectory, so I spent a lot of time at night in a dark rectory full of priests in their pyjamas.
What was your first theatre job? Literary manager of WP Theater in 1997.
What is your next job? I’ve got a lot of work left to do here. But I will say I’m legal to work in the UK, folks…
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Have some actual marketable skills. I wish I had a skill that would pay me money, but really it’s that there’s room for you. People will tell you you’re not ready, but you are. People tell women they’re not ready for a really long time, and they tell women that for longer than guys. Guys get to be the young Turk, and women have to earn their place. I wish I’d known that sooner, that I could take my place sooner.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Julia Miles, who founded WP, in terms of politicising me, and Maria Irene Fornes, who is an extraordinary writer. I’ve only worked for female artistic directors, and each of those has taught me things I want to be as a female leader.
If you hadn’t been a producer and dramaturg, what would you have done?
I can’t tell if this is in response to lots of years doing collaborative work, with lots of moving human parts, but there’s a part of me that thought about going to graduate school and studying art restoration, because I love the idea of being alone in a room with some cotton buds and a square inch of tapestry for a month. That would feel amazing. It would be something the opposite of what I do – something isolated and very focused.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
All of them. I have never said the name of the ‘Scottish play’, and I send people out of my theatre to turn around and spit. I think we have a perfume ghost in this theatre – there’s one spot that always smells a certain way. No whistling. I believe in all of them. I’m super-superstitious.
McNulty’s time at WP has come in three distinct sections. Her first job, in 1997, was as the company’s literary manager; she returned in 2004 as associate artistic director before a stint producing at Manhattan Theater Club, and became WP’s artistic director in 2014. The world looked very different in 2014 – pre-Trump’s election but also before the start of the various anti-harassment and anti-abuse movements.
“I’m seeing the current political moment through how I can use it to make a safe and powerful platform for women and trans folks. It’s focusing my attention and making me realise how important it is to speak up for the people who don’t have a seat at the table,” says McNulty.
“I’ve been reading [artistic director of London’s Royal Court] Vicky Featherstone’s rules of engagement combined with the really interesting set of language that the Producers’ Guild in Hollywood has put together. That’s the thing that’s interesting to me: rather than having individual conversations, how we gather it all together so that we are making one big gesture for this industry.”
Talking about the three-and-a-half years she’s been back, McNulty says: “When I got this job, I spent a lot of time thinking about this place and about what I’d learned outside it, and how I could bring those skills back with me.
“I think people bring the biases they have about women and women’s organisations. The reputation that this organisation had was that the work wouldn’t be very good, that it was a little bit unprofessional and that it wouldn’t be entertaining or funny.
“There was this ‘middle-brow, it’s not great but we should go’ feeling… I learned through my time here that when people sent us a piece that was ‘perfect for us’, it was usually about a sad lady in a kitchen who was very sad about her sad lady problem.
“Women write about lots of things, because there are all kinds of women. Having spent eight years producing at this enormous theatre that had a Broadway and Off-Broadway space [Manhattan Theater Club], working with the best press officers and ad agencies and branding and strategy, I felt like I could bring the things I learned to this institution. The only thing that’s different about us is that cis dudes may not apply.”
McNulty grew up in New England, and attended “a tiny college that no one’s ever heard of”, where she discovered theatre. “I come from a working-class background and I didn’t have a lot of experience of going to the theatre growing up. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and theatre was this immediate kind of communication.
“I recognised that I liked to read and was a little bit pushy, so maybe I should be a producer. This institution has been so important to me that when I got the call to come back it felt like coming home. I’ve spent my whole career thinking about what gender representation in the theatre means.
“Coming from a place where I didn’t grow up seeing theatre, or necessarily knowing the value of it, I feel incredibly lucky to be in a place where I can run an institution and shape that experience for other people.”
McNulty also has big plans for the future. “I need more time to do the big-picture thinking, but in those on-the-fly moments, we’re thinking about women’s voices, how women occupy creative spaces, the content that women make and what it means for women to make it. I’m thinking very much about our programming and how we do it, about artistic leadership, and growing the next generation of artistic leaders for institutions all over the country.
“I’m always wanting to make space for more – artists, mentorship, theatre. You take a job like this because all you want to do is say yes, but because of resource you spend a lot of time saying no. I’d like to be able to say yes more.”
Profile: WP Theater
Producing artistic director: Lisa McNulty
Location: New York
Number of productions (2017): Three main-stage productions, plus the five-play Pipeline Festival
Audience figures (2017): 12,000
Number of staff: Five
Landmark productions: Still Life (1981), A… My Name is Alice (1983), Abingdon Square (1987), Milk Like Sugar (2011), Bethany (2013), Dear Elizabeth (2015), Ironbound (2016)
Awards: Lucille Lortel award for outstanding body of work (2018), Multiple Obie, Outer Critics’ Circle and Drama Desk awards
Key contacts: Lisa McNulty, email@example.com