The Art of Women Directors– Drama League Directorfest

The only program of its kind in the country, the Drama League’s Directors Project offers emerging, professional directors fellowship and residency “to advance artistry, learn new skills, develop and present new work and propel their careers.”

New York Directing Fellowships include four interesting, enthusiastic women with whom I spoke about their careers. For this part of the fellowship, each chooses a play according to festival parameters – small cast, under an hour, and is then aided by creative collaborators assigned by the League.

All the ladies started as actors; one did Shakespeare in theater camp at age nine, another was a professional at 13. Two continue as actors as well, now, as playwrights. Two prefer the topical, one likes comedies and musicals, one has been involved with a wide variety of genres. Grateful to be working in the field about which they’re passionate, one literally blesses the stage while another writes thank you notes to each member of the company. Three are particularly movement minded.

Chika Ike

“I call it an intimate epic.”

Indiana born Chika Ike (her name means God is all powerful) is one of two directing fellows descended from the Nigerian IGBO people. Her parents didn’t culturally understand making theater a profession. Live shows were rarely accessible in South Bend. It took two years for Spring Awakening to pass through from Broadway. Chika’s other ambition, to be a lawyer in the Obama White House, was, they thought, far more practical. “I realized I had about the same chance of winning a Tony as working at the White House and I wouldn’t have to wear a suit.”

Until recently, her parents believed the young woman would grow out it. “Now they don’t always understand details, but they’re encouraging when I call.” Young Chika watched family productions – à la Mickey and Judy put on a show in the barn and decided performing wasn’t for her. By middle school she aspired to direct. As there was no opportunity to try on the dream for size, she honed backstage skills: stage managed, acted as prop master, painted scenery, worked on costumes…anything to learn.

Chika began to self-educate, pouring over books and plays from which movies derived. “I kind of knew what a director was from behind-the-scenes featurettes.” Absorbing dialogue was never an issue. Shakespeare and Wilde were on the menu. “You realize what you don’t know when Brecht seems new…I read Playbill trying to find what was out there.” When a production was cited, she singlemindedly tracked down source material. Focus shows in conversation.

At Indiana University, the aspirant was finally able to major in theater- with focus on directing. She credits production manager Tayneshia Jefferson as being the first person to take her dreams seriously. “I discovered directing was not only an art and craft, but also a career.”

After school, the young woman moved to Chicago in search of broader horizons. “It was full of theater and less frightening than New York…I quickly met people who helped me find my way.” She began by self-producing Matt and Ben by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers. “I directed two of my friends from college with my best friend/ roommate as the stage manager.”

Rehearsals were held in her small apartment. She became a member of The Gift Theater Company. Like most fellows, the burgeoning director tried to get related pay-the-rent jobs. Hers included a cashier at a costume shop, a theater telemarketer, a temp at Northwest.  

Two years ago, Chika was invited to Directorfest by an alumna. “I was so excited, I felt like I was eighteen. The support and love for directors I saw was a huge deciding factor in applying, I knew this was it for me.” In 2019, she was accepted. The fellows had a Professionals Workshop in May and a Masters Retreat in August. Summer session required directing monologues and something from Antigone.

Interacting with her peers is Chika’s favorite part of the program. In fact, seeing the big, huggy warmth with which the women greet one another is like watching sisters. “We’re all pretty close now. There’s even a WhatsApp Group.”

Her fellowship director’s choice is The Sporting Life of Icarus Jones by Marcus Gardley, of whom she’s a confirmed fan.  A short piece, “it packs the punch of something three times its length. I call it an intimate epic…Taking something mundane and putting it under a microscope can make it universal. Andre de Shields talks about his definition of this kind of play as expansive, primordial, innovative, cathartic. Everyday people can have poetic lives. Manifesting this is a challenge, but it’s the kind of director I want to be.”

“I’m drawn to theatrical stories that wrestle with big ideas and people, depicting black bodies and experiences. Everything is not a trauma. Journeys of healing and joy are important to depict. Marcus does this through language. Characters try to figure out their identities – a journey to which I’m always attracted. Sporting Life is seen through the lens of a black man and his son trying to navigate their lives.” Chika is particularly looking forward to working with a music director and fight choreographer.

Rehearsal is nine short days, less than 40 hours. Drama League strongly suggests table reads about which several of these women balk. Chika agrees with the organization. How do you begin? “I bless the space. We wipe our feet i.e. play music at the top of each rehearsal, walk around, shake off the day. Sometimes we scream and dance, super hyped and over-caffeinated-like.” (The practitioner has a playlist.) A first table read follows. She then shares her thoughts about the piece, opening dialogue. “I think it lets the actors feel braver.”

The next step is “sketching” staging – “I tend to work fast, coming in with scenes already loosely blocked and trying ideas. My goal is to rough out a show, take a step back, see what works, then dive in again to build and refine.”

At the end of the process, the director formally gives the stage back to her company. Chika doesn’t stay to watch an opening; she doesn’t want her energy interfering. “The show isn’t mine anymore in the best sense. I’ll see the company at the after party.” Since Sporting LIfe is only three performances, she’ll make an exception.

Do you find your director’s mind active when you’re in an audience? “I try to experience the production as a piece, to be fully present. It’s necessary to appreciate the story and the work in front of me. Afterwards, I ask myself questions, including what I think worked, what might not have worked, and what I’d do differently. More often than not, I come away asking how the director or the team pulled off some aspect of the show or thought of an interesting way of looking at things.” 

As I write, Chika Ike is moving to New York City. “I’m very excited about a couple of opportunities that are swimming around. Outside of that, I’ll just try to figure out the trains.”

The Sporting Life of Icarus Jones by Marcus Gardley
Directed by Chika Ike
January 24 at 7:30 p.m., January 25 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The New Ohio Theatre 
154 Christopher Street

Rebecca Marzalek-Kelly

“Theater has power and I want to use that to the good.”

Rebecca Marzalek-Kelly is a breath of fresh air from Rutland, Vermont. She describes her young self as an athlete. It’s easy to see in the forthright woman’s bearing. Attending local theaters, she got bit by the bug very young with a first internship at age ten. Theater summer camp followed and at 13, Rebecca became the only non-professional in the children’s part of a company trying her hand at a bit of everything. “I even cat sat for an actor cat.”

Her parents, a woodworker and crafter, were always supportive. “I got my creativity from them.” Every weekend, her father would drive her to the theater and brunch bragging to the chef about the thespian. When Rebecca is stressed, she sometimes takes herself to brunch. (Dad is alive and well, but in Vermont.)

It wasn’t until the summer before her senior year in college the young woman found directing. She entered Anne Bogart’s SITI Company Summer Intensity Training in Saratoga an actor and left a director. “I went to Skidmore and it was right there…The collective works together so it was a composition class. I discovered I had a lot of opinions about how things should look on stage.”

A semester abroad in London at The Shakespeare Programme connected to The British Academy of Dramatic Arts exposed the student to a bounty of theater. “By the time I came back, I had opinions, even though I hadn’t owned being a director yet. I always look at theater as a director now. It’s not relaxing. My brain works at quadruple speed.” She grins. Rebecca concentrated on the craft at college and recognized how much more nervous she was than when acting.

Four days after graduation, the actor/director arrived in Manhattan and joined a company of Skidmore alums called, wait for it, Fovea Floods. (Fovea is the part of the eye retina where you can see the sharpest and floods is the psychological term used to treat phobias by exposing people to the thing that most frightens them.) For ten years, they self-produced.“Some of us are still close…When the company fell apart, I had another coming of age moment. I decided I just wanted to direct.”

Having studied with The LAByrinth Theater Company while a member of Fovea, she organically became one of its directors and was there more fully exposed to the business challenges of creating theater in New York. Like Chika, she was accepted at Directorfest the second time around. Her theater-related, rent-paying job with The Theater Communications Group was a boon. I marvel at the fact none of the four were ever waitresses.

Rebecca is directing The Drowning Girls by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson, and Daniela Vlaskalic based on serial killings in the early 1900s. “I found it through a Canadian director who said it was right up my alley.” What IS your alley? “I like very physical theater, something that has a rhythm. The piece is as much about female empowerment and getting one’s voice back as a serial killer.

“It’s  also concerned with societal pressures of marriage over time (pause) playfully told to lighten dark subject matter… I like stories that are larger than the stage. Theater has power and I want to use that to the good. It’s a gift. I sometimes choose serious material, but always want to live in a place where hope is important.”

The Drowning Girls starts with a synchronized swimming routine in bathtubs. Rebecca thrives on challenge. Seats are raised so the audience can look down and see into the tubs. “We’re filling them with transparent balls. I absolutely love my design team.” Actors will experiment. “I need to learn what’s comfortable for them, not just what’s in my brain.” The director is adding contemporary music to show the piece has resonance.

Are there any common rules you apply to your projects? “I like the energy always to remain positive. There has to be a sense of play so people feel it’s a space they want to be in. My worst fear is that something will be boring. If I ever lose interest, I go back to the drawing board. Do you have rules for actors? “I come from a sports background and bring team mentality. Everyone is encouraged to come together.”

Rebecca has never liked table reads. She starts by looking for understanding of bodies and talent, feeling work should be based on the specific actors involved. A Marzalek-Kelly production utilizes ensemble exercises borrowed from the UK group, Frantic Assembly.

“There’s a lot of mental prep outside rehearsal. When we’re there, I want actors to stop thinking about it. Eventually we get to back stories. I can usually tell if they’re being formed and, if not, I’ll ask some questions.” When she first reads a script, Rebecca sees images if it appeals to her. How a play opens and ends also makes a big difference. Sometimes she misses performing, but is not pursuing it.

Do you have a speech with which you address the company before opening? “It changes, but I always say something. I love the transfer of ownership. If you’ve done your job right, everyone is empowered and charged.” What about opening night? “I love it because it feels like, ready or not, we’re here, this is happening.” She bubbles up.

Next on Rebecca’s calendar, back to Skidmore to direct The Radium Girls by D.W. Gregory, then Baltimore Center Stage as assistant on The Bacchae. It’s her aspiration to one day go back to Vermont to direct. Hometown pride.

The Drowning Girls by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson, and Daniela Vlaskalic 
Directed by Rebecca Marzalek-Kelly                                               
January 24 at 7:30 p.m. January 25 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
The New Ohio Theatre    
154 Christopher Street

Lindsey Hope Pearlman

“Playfulness is my top, top priority.”

Lindsey Hope Pearlman’s first (childhood) experience at a musical was Hal Prince’s Broadway revival of Showboat. As soon as the steamboat paddle started to move, she was hooked. The Bedford, New York native grew up coming in to see shows with her grandmother. She acted in grade school and at a girls’ performing arts summer camp. Always tall, Lindsey played boys’ parts. She was cast as Tony in West Side Story. “I think if my mother knew I was going to be so committed when she sent me to dance class, Lindsey wryly observes, “she might’ve thought twice.”

“I identify as a director but touching back to my performance side is necessary. It helps me check back into that headspace. As a director, I feel I have perspective on audience experience because I’ve shaped the piece, I know what they’re receiving. As an actor, I have to turn that part of my brain off. If I think too much about the audience, I’m not doing my job as a performer and, frankly it drives me crazy.”

A theater/acting major at Hamilton College, Lindsey “… staged these Gertrude Stein things. It was like, oh yeah, you don’t need a story. I’m just gonna hit you with poetry because cubism is really what to see.” The now savvy, self aware young woman is bemused.

When did you know you wanted to direct? “At 22/23, I attended LISPA (The London International School of Performing Arts) and then pursued physical training in the UK with the Le Coq Method.” (Engaging the whole body, balancing space, working as a collective.) “I love dancing and movement.”

“The only New Yorker among a diverse group of international clowns, I found myself organically leading. It was a skill I never knew I possessed.” Have you had a chance to direct Commedia del Arte? “Yes, and it bleeds into anything I direct, even when otherwise text oriented.”

Back in New York, Lindsay entered the SDC Observership Program (Stage Directors and Choreographers Union). Her first assignment was with the Broadway musical Leap of Faith, a show that in both our opinions received an unduly bad rap. She spent 23 months learning how the piece came together and is determined to direct it (her way) one day.

What do you do to pay the rent? “I’m a freelance temp-receptionist. I get a lot of work done; in fact, I’ve written two plays on jobs this year.” The multifaceted artist writes comedies and musicals, drawn mostly to the former. “I feel if I can make an audience laugh, their hearts will open. When I have a message to convey, it gets in more easily. There’s always something underneath humor. I’m trying to comment on how we function as a society, a species, but I want their spirits lifted.” Lindsey is infectiously animated.

“I also like the mechanics and shaping of a musical. When I directed Cabaret, we set The Kit Kat Klub in the present with reorchestrated electronic dance music, and outside it during World War II. That summer was The Charleston March. When the cast sang “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” it resonated.”

Why did you choose the Tina Howe play? I knew I wanted to do a comedy. It was hard to find one that made me laugh. My preference was a woman writer.” Appearances is about a woman preparing for her office party, wanting to impress a colleague. It takes place in a store fitting room.

Lindsey says her mother is a shopaholic. “Women express themselves in clothes…” Having accompanied her to endless discount stores growing up, she notes the play is “personal and local.” As an emerging director, scale must also be considered.

How do you feel about table reads? “Because I have a physical background, I’m an on-my- feet person. Until I can be passing through space, I don’t know what its rhythm is.” Lindsey marks up a script for movement but considers herself flexible. “My job is to create a container for actors to express their creativity. I build the house.”

“I want characters to be very specific. Interpretation should first come from the actors. I ask questions.” If she’s teaching at a university, Lindsey might insist students create back stories. When working with skilled actors, she suggests it only if it might draw out something in particular.

The director shares her own experience, shows evocative images (often from The Picture Collection of The New York Public Library), and tells the company what she wants to accomplish. “After intention is clear, we start playing. My personal catch phrase is `save as,’ which means this is the version we’re doing today. Tomorrow, we revisit. Theater’s such a living practice. You can’t be too attached to any choice.”

You haven’t addressed emotion. “I think learning the piece comes with building a physical roadmap and counting beats. Once the body retains that information, you can start with characterization and feelings. Are there rules on your productions? “I set an expectation of being responsible for ourselves and one another, especially if there are sensitive issues. Shared courage, trust that I want to showcase them in the best way…

“Playfulness is my top, top priority. That means coming in open and willing to be surprised. Do you uphold traditions? I always write this mushy letter to each of the cast before the opening. Every collaboration is different and I want to express gratitude.” What about opening night? “If possible, we share a group moment, but everyone has their own process and I don’t want to impose. I do have a prayer I often say which speaks of being of service to the audience.”

Lindsey gravitates to women’s projects, though not necessarily feminist. “It’s an ongoing lesson to have been assistant and associate to so many men while expressing my own voice and body personally, and, as a woman…Someday I want to direct Clare Booth Luce’s Margin for Error, which was on Broadway for a minute.”

Next? At the end of this month, as an actress, Lindsay “swings back into” the long playing Drunk Shakespeare, in which she originated the Macbeth track. She’ll also be directing Rachel Lyn’s one woman show, Dear John about coming to America as a Chinese immigrant. Multiple writing projects are in the works.

Appearances by Tina Howe
Directed by Lindsey Hope Pearlman                  
January 31 at 7:30 p.m., February 1 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
The New Ohio Theatre    
154 Christopher Street

NJ Agwuna

“I have an analytical brain. That hasn’t changed since I was a child.”

NJ Agwuna describes herself as a hyper active child whose mother facilitated dance, gymnastics, adventure and theater summer camps to engage extra energy. At seven, she became a professional actor and at nine years old, performed The Tempest (at camp). “We used Shakepeare’s words, pronounced them, understood them,” she says, shrugging as if there were nothing unusual about the endeavor. “I still act occasionally, but haven’t yet reached the age for the character roles I want.”

It was then, she decided to change tracks. NJ’s sister would write plays (her sibling is now a screenwriter), she’d direct. Cousins danced and acted in them. At camp, her director was sufficiently wise not to condescend. NJ liked the idea of orchestrating a production, rather than following someone else’s vision. She admits the power appealed. “I was already bossing around my family, might as well lean in.”

Unusually, the teenager had some opportunity to direct at her Columbia, Maryland high school, but only for a few student-produced plays. There always seemed to be a role for her. Mrs. Agwuna recognized her daughter’s passion and offered unquestioning support. At Binghamton University, the enthusiastic student specialized, but in a unique way. “You have to take acting classes there when studying to be a director. It opens up that tool box.” She also earned a degree in cinema studies.

NJ hit the ground running right out of college, moved to the city, and secured a job as intern stage manager, then swing of Sleep No More at The McKittrick Hotel. She then serendipitously met the key PA for The Amazing Spiderman (the film). THey were both members of Local Zero Heroes, “a staple networking group for PAs and folks new to the film, television, and the commercial industry.” In 2013, she joined Spiderman. Other Marvel films and television followed.

Full directing responsibilities began with Funeral Food by Meghan Bandelt self produced at Krane Theatrer. The play was about coming to terms with the death of a matriarch. Apparently Bandelt first wrote it as southern, despite the story centering on her own Irish family. NJ steered her back to primary sources. They became collaborators and friends participating in many festivals as writer and director.

What kind of material attracts you? “Shakespeare.” Have you directed the Bard? “I have. The first time was in high school. I was a paid assistant director. Otherwise, new work appeals to me. It depends what’s on the zeitgeist. Culture, politics, women’s rights, integration…and I look at what’s happening to people my age. Our lives are shaped by cycles, patterns.”

The artist was drawn to Pinter because “I wanted to look at the way people communicate now.  There was a photo exhibition showing lovers/couples together, but each looking at their phones. Pinter says, Everything that needs to be said is in the silences. I wondered how that changed with technology. I’ve updated context and action-not the text.”

When you read a play, do you visualize it or allow the piece to wash over you? “The first thing I think about is how characters sound. I let actors come up with something first. We do a lot of table work. I bring in visuals. They can see what came up for me. Then, open discussion, character work, and motivation.”

NJ comes at manifestation with unexpected similes. “I bring up animalistic tendencies. Someone says, I feel like she’s a lion. What about the text makes you think she’s a lion? I ask. Then, If your character had a theme song, what would it be? What’s his/her natural rhythm? About the fifth read, I start blocking.” The director is very clear about her methods. She exudes confidence.

What about traditions? “I love having individual check-ins at the beginning of rehearsals. Say everything you need to say to get into the room right now. If there’s need to energize/wake up, we turn out the lights and dance. I skip this only for musicals. I’m still trying to stretch that muscle, but prefer plays.”

Carving out a piece of time to stage a fight is necessary for the Pinter. NJ is certified in the specialty. An intimacy director has been assigned, but she’s doing the training to be certified in that too. “I want to be a better ally.”

How do you feel about updating social mores? “It depends on the material,” she says thoughtfully. “ You could say The Tempest is a climate change play or that it’s about colonization. Context becomes different, not words. How do we look at class through Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard? What was it then, what is it now? Is there an allegory for Stanley Kowalski  to become a black man? (Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire) Some things work, some don’t.”

After Directorfest, as Assistant Director, NJ will tackle Poor Yella Rednecks by Qui Nguyen at MCC. The play is advertised as “his parents’ hot and hilarious courtship in a Vietnamese refugee camp in 1975.” Like actor/director Joe Mantello whom she greatly admires, NJ is clearly stimulated by variety.

The Lover by Harold Pinter
Directed by NJ Agwuna                                    
January 31 at 7:30 p.m., February 1 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
The New Ohio Theatre    
154 Christopher Street


About Alix Cohen (898 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.