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The Five Women Who Founded a Clandestine Theatre Society

The Five Women Who Founded a Clandestine Theatre Society

It was their private club. Five women who collaborated at the Public Theater, who met to drink and dream, to share frustrations and ideas, to commiserate, to brainstorm and laugh together.

They coined their alliance “Women and Ambition,” a cheeky nod to the fact that “ambitious” still had a strong connotation for young women. Their meeting at Public in the mid-2010s proved more than just a fond memory: each has now become an empowered leader in a field desperately in need of fresh inspiration.

“These women changed the course of my life,” said Maria Goyanes, now artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington.

Lear deBessonet, who runs the long-running Encores! series at New York City Center, recalled the sentiment: “There was a mutual recognition: 'I see you, girl. I see you. Now step up and handle this.'”

And now they do.

Before officially taking over Encores! in 2021, deBessonet led Public Works, a community-driven program that stages a musical adaptation of a classic story each summer. Once Upon a Time at Encores!, which revives rarely performed productions, had a rocky start during the pandemic. However, it has since found success with productions like the star-studded “Into the Woods,” which moved to Broadway. This summer’s acclaimed “Once Upon a Mattress,” starring Sutton Foster, is also headed to Broadway.

Shanta Thake, who ran Joe’s Pub for many years, has been artistic director of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts since 2021. Stephanie Ybarra, who led the Public’s Mobile Unit, became artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage and is now director of arts and cultural programs at the Mellon Foundation.

Meiyin Wang, who organized the Under the Radar festival at the Public, is now director of production and programming at the new $500 million Perelman Performing Arts Center in Lower Manhattan.

The rise of these five women, four of whom are women of color and now in their 40s, to influential leadership positions highlights not only their talent but also the changing dynamics of power in the arts. A National Endowment for the Arts study found that in 2019, women held 49 percent of executive roles in performing arts companies.

The story of these five friends reveals a truth that goes beyond statistics: women are achieving parity in the upper echelons of a profession that has historically favored men. Yet it’s hard to imagine a group called “Men and Ambition” in the 21st century.

Female aspirations in the theater world are nothing new: women like Zelda Fichandler at Arena Stage and Margo Jones at Dallas Theater Center were among the founders and leaders of the regional theater movement in the 1950s.

When I recently brought these five leaders together, I wanted to understand the instinctive values ​​they shared and how their synergy brought them together. They remain great friends and support each other, though perhaps not as intensely as when they met at the now-closed BBar on the Bowery. I also wanted to hear their thoughts on a culture that still exhibits double standards when it comes to women in positions of authority.

“The idea was about how ambition felt like a dirty word,” Goyanes said, explaining the group’s rationale. “How it felt like something young women shouldn’t embody.”

“We used to argue about things,” Thake said. “We would sit in the office and discuss what assumptions were embedded in the words 'leader,' 'artistic director,' and what it meant to lead an institution. We were challenging the prevailing belief systems and models that we had grown up with.”

“I think it was clear,” deBessonet added, “that if being a leader meant becoming someone we didn’t want to be, we weren’t willing to be that kind of leader.”

This meant confronting her own insecurities about taking on roles in an industry full of uncertainty. Goyanes described a constant battle of conscience: being a manager with a stable job in a field full of struggling artists.

“I grew up in an immigrant family,” she said. “Should I serve people more directly? Is telling stories enough or is it selfish?”

Their initial struggle was not just to perfect their managerial visions; it was to build a collective self-esteem, learning that any one of their successes was a victory for all. For their generation, this mutual support seemed almost revolutionary.

I had previously agreed to interview them separately, and now we were all together at Lafayette, a restaurant across the street from the Public in Greenwich Village. Thake had come to the Public as an intern in 2003, and Goyanes followed a year later, becoming associate producer to Oskar Eustis when he was named artistic director in 2005.

It was Goyanes who later brought Ybarra, Wang, and deBessonet into the Public group. As Ybarra recalled, Goyanes, “a professional acquaintance,” called her one day in 2011, saying, “‘We have a vacancy in the art department; I’m sure you’re super qualified for this. Do you still want to come talk to us?’”

With a degree from Yale Drama School and experience as a production manager at Playwrights Realm, an Off-Broadway incubator for emerging playwrights, Ybarra decided to give it a try.

“That’s where my ambition and strategy came in,” she said. “I took a pay cut to join Public. I took a title cut to join Public. But I was betting on myself, thinking, ‘They don’t know what they’ve got yet.’” Her leadership of the Mobile Unit, including a tour of Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” in struggling industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest, led to her appointment as artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage in 2018.

Eustis, their former boss, said in a telephone interview that the Public’s unique environment was built for these women. “We’re not a niche theater,” she said. “The Public is known for people who can take charge, and each of these women who ran those programs had a lot of autonomy.

“All these women are passionate about the world, and they are passionate about equality, and they are passionate about democracy, and they are passionate about art,” Eustis added. “And the Public Theater called them.”

Their bond was forged by the idealistic aspirations of the Public, a sometimes unmanageable and financially struggling organization with a staff of about 200 and a mission to be the people's theater.

But the values ​​the company instilled in them have never lost their relevance. “I think we all had the same goal,” suggested Thake, who has pledged to open Lincoln Center to a wider range of artists. While the center’s leaders are reviving long-running programs like Mostly Mozart, Thake and her team are introducing the city’s audiences to hipper summer events like the NYC Ska Orchestra, “The Dream Machine Experience,” and singer Dobet Gnahoré.

“We’re very different people, very different, actually,” Thake said of the women. “But I think we all share this belief: that art matters.”

All came to the arts from different, often unpaved paths, deBessonet noted. Goyanes grew up in Queens, the daughter of a city transit worker. Wang is from Singapore and came to the U.S. for college. Thake comes from a middle-class family in Santa Claus, Ind. (“I grew up on Ornament Lane,” she said with a laugh.) Ybarra grew up in San Antonio with a Latino father and a Czech mother. And as a child in Baton Rouge, La., deBessonet “did plays in my backyard with my sister and my dog.”

Despite their diverse backgrounds, these women shared a common worldview. “What does it mean to be 'of the people'? What does it mean to be 'by the people'? What does it mean to be 'for the people'?” deBessonet said. “All three are important and were crucial in the founding of Public Works. I think that encapsulates the essence of the Public Theater dream.”

They have all had to juggle the dream with the harsh reality of running an organization, with the public challenges of fundraising, managing boards of directors, and planning seasons that attract paying audiences. This has not been without its obstacles: Ybarra, for example, encountered strong resistance in Baltimore as she worked to bring more diversity to the company’s art and artists.

“I’m not worried about the art at all; it will thrive,” Wang said of creating a new art portfolio at the Perelman with artistic director Bill Rauch. The center, now in its inaugural season, had its first real success with “Cats: The Jellicle Ball,” a radical reinterpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical based on the poems of T.S. Eliot.

The biggest concern? “It’s about getting people out of their homes and into environments and being present,” she said. “This idea of ​​welcome, of belonging, of excitement, is how do you create that? And that’s my job.”

Around a banquette, women sipped wine and seltzer, munched on guacamole, and discussed last spring’s endless Monday fundraising galas, upcoming vacations, and more. The overturning of Harvey Weinstein’s conviction in New York and reviews of lawsuits limiting abortion rights were hot topics. I suggested, perhaps unconvincingly, that seven of this year’s 10 Tony Award nominations for best director went to women as evidence of the theater world’s progress.

“What’s going on there?” I asked. The table erupted in laughter.

“Restoration?” someone said. “Restoration of women’s rights?” someone else said.

“This is a good reminder that women have to win and manage all things,” Thake said.

Getting back to the core of the group's purpose, I asked, “What do you think when you see the other four?”

“I think,” Goyanes said, “I’m just texting people and saying, ‘Can we go out? We need to talk!’”

For Ybarra, one memory in particular stands out: “I have these very clear images of me and Lear standing together in whatever that office space was, just saying, 'How are you? You better take care of this, and I've got to take care of this. …'”

And so the conversation flowed. It seemed like no one wanted it to end. Among these fellow artists, it also seemed like it would never end.

By Charlotte Federer

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