When Kathryn Walat's new play, "Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen," opens at the Off-Broadway Women's Project on January 21, it will be a bittersweet achievement for the director, Loretta Greco. The play is her last at the Women's Project, where she was artistic director for two and a half years before leaving last summer after differences with the board about how to redefine the company's mission and address its financial difficulties. The Women's Project, a 28-year-old company that has nurtured the careers of established artists like Emily Mann and Suzan Lori-Parks, and of young writers like Karen Hartman and Neena Beeber, is now without an artistic leader and likely to remain so for some time.
The producing director of the Women's Project, Julie Crosby, said that in the immediate future, the theater would have multiple directors cycle through. "We, like other theaters, are looking at expanding opportunities for artists by having multiple outside directors come in and get passionate about a particular project, while not being tied down to a five-year contract," Ms. Crosby said.
The co-chairman of the board, Leigh Giroux, said the theater would eventually hire a new artistic director. "We're in a strategic planning phase leading up to determining who would be appropriate to fill that role and how to afford that," he said. "This is an artistic organization and ultimately needs an artistic leader."
Shortly before Ms. Greco left, the board froze the funds for a production of Melanie Marnich's play "Cradle of Man," which Ms. Greco had already postponed in order to deliver a balanced budget for 2005. "We couldn't find a way to bridge the gap between us," Ms. Greco said of herself and the board.
"I felt that I couldn't use my good name in raising money for programming that I couldn't assure people would happen, and so thought it was best to part ways. Am I disappointed? Absolutely," she said. "I think that place has enormous potential. I think they weren't quite ready for the professional artistic leadership that I brought to it, and I find that sad. What bowled me over was how much work by women there was that was not being produced." In the 2002-03 season, according to numbers collected by the Women's Project, 16.9% of plays produced nationally were written by women, and 22.6% were directed by women.
The Women's Project was founded in 1978 by Julia Miles, who had been the associate artistic director at the off-Broadway American Place Theatre and had become passionate about the cause of female playwrights, whose work at that point represented an even smaller percentage of plays produced. Through the years, the company received significant financial support from Sallie Bingham, a playwright and the heir to a Louisville, Ky., newspaper empire. With help from Ms. Bingham, the Women's Project purchased in 1998 a 199-seat theater on West 55th Street, now called the Julia Miles Theater. Ms. Miles stepped down as artistic director in 2003. Her daughter, Marya Cohn, ran the company temporarily until Ms. Greco was appointed in January 2004.
A few much younger companies in New York specifically produce women's work, including New Georges, Women's Expressive Theater, and the Hourglass Group. None of these, however, owns its own theater. In some ways, the difficulties of the Women's Project represent challenges facing niche theaters in general: How do you promote a specific group of artists — say, women — without projecting the idea that their work somehow lacks broad appeal?
"We've taken the ‘women's' thing out of our publicity and materials, just because it's never worked for us," the artistic director of New Georges, Susan Bernfield, said. "It puts kind of a medicinal quality on what the work is. No one goes to the theater to serve a social function."
Ms. Greco's vision for the Women's Project was in line with that of Ms. Bernfield for her theater. "I don't like duty theater; I like to go to the theater because it's good and it's different and it challenges me, so that's the kind of theater I wanted us to make," Ms. Greco said.
"I don't think we should ghettoize ourselves," a director who has worked with Ms. Greco, Anne Kauffman, said. "I think it's a big mistake."
Ms. Greco, who has directed at the Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, the Vineyard Theatre, and numerous regional companies, said in an interview that she wanted to reinvigorate the Women's Project by mounting full seasons of productions and promoting new artists. "The big difference was to truly commit to seasons of work, so that there was work on the stage that defined who we were, rather than a missive, or groups of mentorship, or in the classroom," she said, referring to other programs of Women's Project, which include development labs for playwrights, directors, and producers. "All that was wonderful, but the work on the stage had to demonstrate the breadth of the women out there."
Other members of the theater community praised Ms. Greco's vision and taste, while acknowledging the work she produced was challenging. Her first production, for instance, was unusual and adventurous: five short plays inspired by Sophocles's "Antigone," commissioned from a group of multiracial female playwrights and directed by young female directors. "She's really ballsy," one of the directors, Ms. Kauffman, said. "She was basically doing what's normally downtown theater uptown, which is absolutely necessary. It has to happen for theater to survive in America."
Ms. Bernfield said that when she saw the Women's Project's last production, of Lisa D'Amour's "The Cataract," "I walked out of there and I said, ‘wow, they've found their artistic voice.' It was a beautiful production and a wonderful play." But, she said, "it takes a long time to figure out how to support [a playwright] with that kind of a vision. And it's very sad to me that the financial thing had to cut short continuing to find the legs for that kind of work."
The productions were attracting attention, according to Ms. Greco, and grant money. "For the first time in 26 years, suddenly the Mellon Foundation came on board; the Rockefeller Foundation came on board; the Nathan Cummings Foundation came on board; the Lila Wallace foundation came on board," she said. "In a season and a half, we were really creating a kind of buzz and momentum, all for the right reasons: the work on the stage."
Ms. Greco said she needed time to capitalize on that energy. "You couldn't take something that for 26 years was one thing and turn it around in two seasons. My goal was always a three-to-five-year trajectory," she said. "It is a very tough financial climate," she acknowledged. Additionally, the Women's Project has a particular challenge in owning its own theater, which Ms. Greco called "both a blessing and a curse." But, to her, the most important thing was continuing to invest in productions. "What I believe is, you have to build this, or they won't come."
Ms. Marnich's play was canceled, after her agent declined to renew the theater's option. "They were very generous, in the sense that they had sent a check for the initial option, and we didn't cash it, and when we did pull it, they called and said, ‘No, please cash it,'" the agent, Bruce Ostler, said. "I want them so much to survive because they have been important to young women writers."
After Ms. Walat's play ends its run on February 11, Ms. Greco will direct a workshop of Ms. Marnich's play at the Public Theater in the spring. In May, in collaboration with the World Financial Center arts program, members of the Women's Project will present a group of site-specific works at the World Financial Center about women and money, called "Girls Just Want to Have Funds."
The chairwoman of the directing department at the Yale School of Drama, Liz Diamond, is serving as a part-time artistic adviser to the Women's Project. Ms. Diamond said her role is purely as a consultant and that she hopes to see the company find its feet and launch a search for a new artistic director.
"There's a place for what Ellen Stewart of La MaMa always called pushcart theater, which is the theater that allows young, dynamic, demonstrably gifted artists to make work and to put it out there in the professional arena to be critically evaluated," she said. "The Women's Project has a very strong history of performing that function," she said, noting that she herself directed there several times. "I see such a remarkable number of brilliant young women out there and coming up, [and] the larger theaters are simply not going to take a risk on these young people," she continued. "I think that it's an enormous service to the profession that these gateway theaters can serve, and I think the Women's Project has a real role to play doing that."