These four stage directors know just what needs to change
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These four stage directors know just what needs to change
From left: Whitney White, Tyne Rafaeli, Taibi Magar and Danya Taymore in New York, April 29, 2021. The coronavirus pandemic pause has prompted a prizewinning cohort to ask hard questions about salaries, working in other media and choosing collaboration over “scarcity.” Caroline Tompkins/The New York Times.

by Scott Heller

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- By most measures, they’re doing great. Four prizewinning directors with notable off-Broadway résumés, working with such breakout writers as Aleshea Harris, Will Arbery and Ming Peiffer.

No top Broadway credits yet. But Tyne Rafaeli, 38, associate directed “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The King and I” there. And just as the pandemic struck, three had big breaks, with productions that dove into the maelstrom of race and racism: Danya Taymor, 32, was rehearsing Jeremy O. Harris’ “Daddy” in London, while Whitney White, 35, had just opened her revival of James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” at Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington. Taibi Magar, 39, was in previews at the Shed with the world premiere of Claudia Rankine’s “Help.”

All those runs were cut short, as was a Rafaeli production off-Broadway. And, as for so many others, a year without live theater has left these four women — some longtime friends, all likely to have competed for the same opportunities — asking how their jobs and aspirations might change when the doors reopen. (A survey by their union had already flashed “glowing red warning signs” about the profession.)

Do theater directors create, or just support? Do their skills translate to other media? Is earning $40,000 a year enough? The foursome addressed those questions in a group Zoom conversation and through follow-up interviews, edited together here.

Take the pandemic out of the picture for a moment. What would your year have been like?

TAIBI MAGAR: Wildly different. We would have all been on our hamster wheels. The four to six shows a year, back to back. No days off, 80 hours a week, packed with auditions and design meetings and live theater, and always on the job hunt for the next season. As you can tell, we’ve all pivoted on some level to digital, TV, film, student film work. Flexing new muscles.

What new muscles?

TYNE RAFAELI: I just finished an episode of “The Good Fight.” Lots of theater people involved, so it was nice company. And I’m coproducing and directing a new scripted audio series at Spotify.

WHITNEY WHITE: I’m in the writers’ room right now on a TV project, Boots Riley’s “I’m a Virgo.” Then I’m also prepping “Definition,” a theater installation for which I composed the music, at the Bushwick Starr.

MAGAR: I’m about to resume shooting of “A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction,” by Miranda Rose Hall at Baltimore Center Stage. It’s an incredible piece about the climate emergency that should be streaming in July.

DANYA TAYMOR: I’m editing this film/theater hybrid of Will Arbery’s “Plano” that I made in a COVID bubble with Juilliard students. In a theater you might have 100 or 500 or 1000 different sets of eyeballs to deal with and angles to the stage. With the camera, it’s just one gaze: so powerful!

So the glass is half, or more than half, full for you — is that fair to say?

RAFAELI: This has been an indescribably devastating time for our community, so I feel like we must say that very clearly. But I think, occasionally, with great hardship comes growth. And yeah, having to stretch in new mediums, and tell stories in different ways, and be able to respond to this extraordinary moment has been a real gift. And a necessity, to be honest, because we need to support ourselves.

Tell me how your professional lives relate to what you’d imagined they’d be at this point?

WHITE: When the world shut down, March 13th of 2020, I had every single day of my life for the next year-and-a-half to two years laid out in bullet points: “This is your travel time. This is your this time. You’re going to be more tired here. Your period starts here.”

Because you’re an ambitious person or because the field demands it?

WHITE: Because the field demanded it, nobody was talking about how hard it was. And then the shutdown happened, and we started talking and I started learning. I started dreaming and thinking differently.

TAYMOR: I was in London. I flew back, height of COVID, and I was so sick when I got back and my family was like, “We think you have COVID.” And I was like, “No, no, no, I’m just at the end of a long period of working, this is what it always feels like.” I did have COVID.

RAFAELI: Freelance directors are particularly isolated.


RAFAELI: In the American theater, there is one director in a room whereas there are multiple designers and multiple actors. Danya or Whitney or Taibi, we’d be kind of ships passing in the night as we leave one show and the other comes in.

But isn’t that the kind of personality drawn to being a director?


WHITE: Not at all.

TAYMOR: Directors are collaborators by nature. We’re good with people. The women on this call, I would say, are probably high on the list of the people I’m going up for jobs against, and that’s part of the isolation the industry tries to drum up — this idea of scarcity. We can really help each other create, and we don’t have to view one another as competition.

RAFAELI: Whitney and I codirected seven short films written by seven different playwrights in lockdown on iPhones. Taibi has just directed a piece of writing and composition by Whitney.

MAGAR: We had a weird house to film in, a total of six people and only three days. But this is where theater people thrive: we improvise, and get [stuff] done!

TAYMOR: If what we say we want is diversity in the field, can we change the structure to make it possible to attract those people? Or else film and television will, because there is more financial incentive there.

But the theater world won’t ever be able to compete.

RAFAELI: The economic models are so different between theater and TV and film. Our hearts will always be in the theater, we always want to work in the theater, even as we go on to do other things.

WHITE: Fee transparency is radically needed. And the concrete transparency that has been life-changing for me has to do with times I feel like I’m being gaslit. Times I feel like I’m not being given the same resources as someone else. Times I feel that someone is not giving my production the attention, or taking it as seriously as they would take a production directed by a white male or female. And being able to rely on this group in confidence and be like, “Something feels a little sticky here. Was this your experience?”

So you’ve all shared what your offers are from major theaters at this point, and were there discrepancies? What have you learned?

RAFAELI: I definitely experienced discrepancy between a director’s fee and other collaborators whose time isn’t required in the same way. And that’s something that we —

Directors don’t get the biggest fee?

TAYMOR: You would think that, wouldn’t you, Scott? Because you’re smart.

Or I’m dumb.

WHITE: I’m starting to get my first commercial projects. I had a conversation with our union because I was confused about what I was being offered for a project. I said, “When you see other people with my experience coming in, are they offered the same thing?” This associate in the union said straight out, “No, I know plenty of white men who are offered 10, 15% more, who have your experience, and sometimes less, on their first commercial project.” It encouraged me to be a little bit stronger in the negotiation.

TAYMOR: Just saying “I work for a year before I see any compensation for a project” was not even said.

MAGAR: Sometimes we get asked, “Well, what do you want to do? Dream big.” And then we dream big and they’re like, “Oh, can you do that with two actors and no set, actually?”

WHITE: I want to direct abroad. Danya broke it doing Jeremy’s show over there.

TAYMOR: That was by chance. The artistic director happened to see our show [in New York] on a random night and I happened to be there. But that was a total freak accident.

Tyne, you were mentored extensively by Tony-winning director Bart Sher. And you’ve sort of grown up in the Lincoln Center Theater world. Why isn’t that the space where you can do your thing?

WHITE: Child, not today, Scott.

RAFAELI: Bart and I talk all the time about how the regional theater that he came up in, with resident companies and resident directors, was so profoundly different. As much as he is a great artistic teacher in my life, we have talked about, he and I, that I have to do things differently.

TAYMOR: I think you’ll see with Lileana [Blain-Cruz]’s new position there, that the work and the way work happens in that space will change. But it can’t just be Lileana. It has to be all of us. It has to be the generation coming up: Miranda Haymon, Machel Ross. These people have proven themselves.

WHITE: I don’t spend less time when I’m doing my Soho Rep show than when I’m prepping my commercial Broadway show.

What are you paid for a Soho Rep show?

MAGAR: I think it was $5,000 or $6,000.

WHITE: Yeah.

MAGAR: I think your average, maybe, top tier is $10,000.

TAYMOR: Playwrights Horizons main stage is less than $10,000.

RAFAELI: If we put a fee like that and we divided up into the hours we put in, it’s less than minimum wage.

TAYMOR: It’s too sad.

RAFAELI: I want to be really clear also that the conversations are actually incredibly positive. We love our playwrights and they are our primary collaborators. And a lot of us have really strong and close and authentic relations with our producing partners too. They are not the enemy.

They’ve had to lay off their staffs. They’ve had next to no income. Isn’t their message, “Let’s just get shows back on?”

RAFAELI: Things take time, of course. And I think we’re all in varying degrees talking to the younger generation, and trying to pave a way if we can.

We published an Arts and Leisure cover story in 2013 about a wave of women directors, people like Pam MacKinnon and Anne Kauffman, stepping up, and one explanation was the relationships they developed with particular playwrights. It seems different now. Why?

TAYMOR: It would be fascinating to go back to that group — which has some superstar directors in it — and think how many of these women have directed more than one show on Broadway since 2013?

WHITE: How many of these women have been able to get big budgets on self-generated work? That auteuristic work, that Ivo van Hove work, is rewarded in every country where there’s theater. How many of those women have been able to do it? And how long is it going to take for me? Because I don’t have all day and I’m ready right now, you know?

Your projects that were canceled by the pandemic are likely to have more life. What else is brewing?

MAGAR: I’m coproducing and codirecting with my husband, Tyler Dobrowsky, an outdoor theatrical experience in Providence, Rhode Island, that involves over 100 local artists.

RAFAELI: “Row,” a new musical that’s going to be done at Williamstown this summer, which we did an Audible version of last year.

WHITE: I’m in deep prep for a remount of “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” which will be live this summer at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. We’re picking the location. They’re very precious about the plants; you can’t bruise the plants.

TAYMOR: I’m prepping for a Broadway transfer of “Pass Over,” which is going to reopen the August Wilson Theater. Antoinette Nwandu and I are so excited to dive back into her play and reinvestigate it for the current moment.

What will you take from your forays in other media back to the stage?

WHITE: Some of the things we’ve come to value in theater — a big fancy set, a turntable, other tricks — are not as necessary as the human body and the live event in its simplest form.

TAYMOR: There’s no going back in making our work accessible to people who, for whatever reason, can’t get to a theater. And saying, “That’s OK, we’re going to bring it to you. You do deserve to see and experience this. And I’m going to consider you watching in your living room as much as I consider the person who’s sitting in the seats.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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