RECAP: LPTW THEATRE CONNECTIONS WITH WP THEATRE
June 3, 2020, 3- 4:30 pm
Presented Virtually on Zoom
WP Theater partnered with the League of Professional Theatre Women to discuss opportunities and partnerships. The program consisted of a panel from the WP Theatre leadership: Lisa McNulty, Producing Artistic Director and Michael Sag, Managing Director. Malini Singh McDonald, Co-VP of Communications for LPTW, moderated the Connection with a Q and A session afterward. Shellen Lubin facilitated the Zoom session. Cindy Cooper, project director for Theatre Connections, introduced the program.
WP Theater [WPTheater.org] is an Off-Broadway theater founded in 1978 by Julia Miles as the Women’s Project Theater, the nation’s oldest and largest theater company dedicated to developing, producing, and promoting the work of women+ at every stage of their careers. To date, WP Theater has produced more than 600 main stage productions and developmental projects and has published 11 anthologies of plays by women+ artists.
It had offices are at 55 West End Avenue NYC 10023, and produces at 2162 Broadway and 76th St, NYC 10024.
Summary of Questions from Malini Singh McDonald:
MALINI: As the head of the institution started by Julia Miles, what are your feelings about the times that we are in (with the pandemic and widespread attention to racial issues following the murder of George Floyd)?
Lisa McNulty (LM): I was Julia Miles’s Literary Manager and I was able to see the league through her lens. It is important how we handle ourselves and deal with people. Julia was always a person who made space for women of color long before intersectionality was in vogue. Julia is a model for how we need to respond this moment, both ethically and responsibly.
MALINI: How do you welcome people?
LM: As a white leadership team, we have a long way to go to be an anti-racist organization.
MALINI: WP Theater has had to think outside the box. For example, you’ve changed your name and rebranded the theater. What was that like?
LM: I instituted the change. I felt that people brought a bias to the theaters because of the name. I felt like it was a moment to seize for change.
MALINI: So, this is a new normal, a next phase of life so to speak–is this an exciting time for you to explore?
LM: Things are great culturally and artistically, but as artists of theater, we have to find the creative way forward. We have to explore other modes of making work. We have to look for opportunities for expanding and nationalizing the audience. We have to look for opportunities to deepen the anti-racist work we are doing. I am grateful for the time to look deeply.
MALINI: What is WP Theater’s process for finding new voices? What are you looking for?
LM: In terms of overall philosophy, I try to bend the way people perceive women as storytellers. When we started, people thought that women telling sad stories in the kitchen was perfect for WP. However, I needed to seek out other modes of storytelling. In our 2019-2020 season, we presented Alexis Scheer’s Our Dear Dead Drug Lord about a group of teenage girls summoning the spirit of Pablo Escobar alongside Donetta Lavinia Grays’s play, Where We Stand, a solo performance sharing notions of the black experience. These two shows demonstrate a breadth of storytelling.
I also think of early career voices along mid- and late- career voices. So if an early career artist is making their debut along with late career artist, they are benefitting from the experience of the 40+ artist’s career. I think about how are we making a commitment to our lab artists.
MALINI: How do you connect with the organization? Through the Playwrights Lab, the Director’s Lab?
LM: It’s any of the above. We receive 500 plus applications, so we get a good look at the field. We have a new AAD that comes on staff this year, Rebecca Martinez, so we are very excited to have her onboard. And a new resident playwright, Cori Thomas, will be with us for three years.
MALINI: Do you accept cold submissions?
LM: Unfortunately, no. I wish we had open submission policies. I wish we were more available in that regard, but we are a small organization. It’s simply a matter of capacity. It’s easier to invite us to things. We try to see as much as we can. We keep a tracking document that has all of our coverage. So, invite us to your shows.
MALINI: Do you accept solo submissions?
LM: We are looking to do this for the future.
MALINI: What’s the best way to become involved with WP–do you take playwrights, directors together, separately, do you take from a company?
LM: We take from our lab talent all the time. Sometimes we take from other people and we have a group of artists we make a commitment to, but we also look outside. As for actors, we use a casting director, and she’s a resource for us.
MALINI: As a producer is there a way to collaborate?
LM: Yes, we do co-productions. We’ve done them with Second Stage and with commercial producers. For example, Where We Stand was co-produced with Baltimore Center Stage.
MALINI: Tell us about Trans Lab–how did that get created?
LM: MJ Kauffman started with Trans Lab. For us it was a process. When we started, we were a gender theater. That meant a different thing in 1978 than it does now. Out of that came the Trans Lab. While I don’t feel that I have a trans experience, I want to make sure there’s a safe space for trans theater exploration. Women+ is the best language we have right now.
MALINI: What is the #WomenToTheFront hashtag start?
MS: We launched a three-week social media campaign trying to gain attention for people committed to growing with the institution. Unfortunately, when we cancelled events (because of Covid-19) that erased a substantial part of our revenue. These functions also generated a presence in the marketplace, so we sought alternative ways to how highlight the group of artists this season.
MALINI: How does a playwright apply to the lab?
MS: Application process for the lab is every other year. This is for a two-year residency. The residency begins in the summer with meetings beginning in the fall. It is a fifteen women cohort. The application opens in November.
LM: There are five hundred applications for fifteen slots. Everybody who applies identifies as a woman. Subscribe to our newsletter so you know the dates. Applications do not require an agent. We have an open submission policy for the Lab. We are trying to figure out how to be successful in these distancing conditions. We are trying to foster community and collaboration.
Q and A Session: (Liz Amadio read questions from the chat feed of Zoom)
Qu: Have you actually cast WP productions from EPAs (Equity Principal Auditions)?
LM: We participate with Playwrights Horizons for three days. Our casting director and I show up in a way that is really open to meeting folks and new artists.
Qu: In the 2019 -2020 season, how many older female roles and older playwrights were considered?
LM: In the Lab, there was one artist who was 40+. I am conscious of this, and we can do better.
Qu: Do you employ dialect coaches?
MS: Send them our way. I am interested and I keep a file of names.
Qu: Do you co-produce with independent producers or other organizations?
LM: We work with all kinds of other organizations.
Qu: How do lab alums from Julia’s time get back into the mix?
LM: We’ve been around for 30 years. How do we make space for 400 artists? We reach out. We send email invitations for lab alums for events such as previews with free tickets. A great start is to come to Lab alum evenings.
Qu: What goes into crafting a cohort? What’s that dynamic like?
LM: I feel like we could have ten, twenty labs. We are too small. We’re trying to create a group of people that are a fit for each other. We trio up a writer with a director and a producer. We learn more about those groups through the first year. But we are making a lab cohort and we question how we become intentional for making those networks.
Qu: Will the labs be online?
LM: Lab meetings in fall will be online. We have turned the festival into an online festival of work. We have been working on outreach to industry. It is important that we keep our professional industry relationships.
Qu: What experience in your career prepares you for the challenges in your present position?
LM: I’ve been producing for 30 years, so that has been very helpful. Being clear about what you value and what the institution values is also helpful.
MS: There’s no roadmap. You have to be flexible and listen to the information that’s being given to you. You try to take action with the same passion even if it’s not your idea.
Qu: Is WP Theater accepting tape submissions for casting instead of EPAs?
LM: If we can’t do traditional auditions, we’re going to have to find another viable way.
MS: Are we ready for you to put yourself on tape for auditions? That will be the way of the future, I think.
Qu: How can you be a good ally to trans artists?
LM: The way I’m choosing to be an ally is to let trans artists speak for themselves and let them choose how they occupy that space in the theater. Basically, WP Theater represents people marginalized due to their gender or gender expression.
Qu: What does the future of theater look like?
LM: I’ve never made more decisions with less information. What will next season look like–virtual? Live? Who knows? But if we are being guided by our mission and values, that is the guiding principle, that is the way
MS: It’s the great unknown. Shows are being pushed back six, seven months. We don’t know what the appetite is for theater. Will our core audience be okay with returning to the theater? Traveling from other places, getting on a plane? It will be a challenge for them to come into a theater of 1500 seats. When will they come back to these spaces? Our space is small, 100 seats – maybe we can better spread people out.
Qu: What does the Producing Lab do?
LM: The Producers Lab was created to center producers as part of the creative team. Producers are important in a cohort. They reach out to potential funders and institutions to push the work forward. They participate fully as lab members. They produce the festival, not just their project. How do you produce something, how do you promote it? These are the kinds of challenges that lead to camaraderie.
Qu: Do you mobilize artistically to speak out for people who are hurting?
LM: We’re doing our own hard work institutionally. Everyone has bias. We look at what our blind spots are. How are we reckoning with that? We are deeply involved in that conversation right now. We are concerned with uplifting the voices of black women+.
Qu: If we jumped ahead in time, what have you learned post-Covid and being better allies with BLM?
LM: That’s a good, hard question. We’re in the middle of these questions. I’m thinking about the nature of not-for-profit theaters and how they are part of a capitalist structure that has created racism. I am grappling with this.
Qu: Artists have adopted some new practices during this time. What part of theater do you see returning to normal?
LM: I hope we take some of the new technology and apply it to the theater. We need to ask: how does it help us develop national audiences for our work? How do we put out more than just Zoom readings?
MS: I expect there will be new ways, especially for people who can’t be with us on the stage.
Recap by LPTW Member Suzanne Willett
The email formula for personnel is first name @wptheater.org
Lisa McNulty, Producing Artistic Director
Lisa McNulty is an award-winning Broadway, off-Broadway and regional theater producer in her sixth season as the Producing Artistic Director of WP Theater. Lisa comes to WP from Manhattan Theatre Club, where she served as Artistic Line Producer for eight seasons, working on more than 30 productions both on and off Broadway, including plays by Lynn Nottage, Sarah Treem, Harvey Fierstein, and Tarell Alvin McCraney, among many, many others. Lisa has a long history with WP Theater. She was originally hired by the company’s founder, Julia Miles, as the Literary Manager from 1997-2000, where she dramaturged work by María Irene Fornés, Julie Hébert, and Karen Hartman, among others, and in 2004, she returned to WP as its Associate Artistic Director, working on projects with artists including Diane Paulus and Dierdre Murray, Rinne Groff, and Lisa D’Amour. From 2000-2004 she was McCarter Theater’s Producing Associate, and her independent producing career includes projects with Sarah Ruhl, Todd Almond, Lucy Thurber and Lear Debessonet.
Michael Sag, Managing Director
Michael, in his 3rd season at WP, was most recently the general manager for Williamstown Theatre Festival’s 62nd season (2016) which included four world premieres (one of which, Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, won the Pulitzer prize for Drama), one American premiere and two revivals (including Broadway transfer with Marisa Tomei The Rose Tattoo). Prior to that, Michael worked in commercial general management on and off Broadway since 2001 including production of: It’s Only A Play; Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Broadway/Tour), The Visit; Blithe Spirit (Broadway/Tour), You Can’t Take It With You, All The Way, Bullets Over Broadway, Under My Skin; The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (Broadway/Tour), The Glass Menagerie; Anything Goes (Tour), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Glengarry Glen Ross, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, La Bete, The Mountaintop, The Pee-wee Herman Show, The Scottsboro Boys, Relatively Speaking, Chinglish, Driving Miss Daisy, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Race, August: Osage County (Broadway/Tour), The Producers, Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors, Sweeney Todd, and Stomp. In addition, from 2006 to 2009, Michael headed a representative office in Shanghai out of which several Asian touring projects were launched including I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, The King and I, The Sound of Music, and SpongeBob Square Pants Live!
Links to Recaps on Prior Theatre Connections events