An all-female team will oversee the musical adaptation of cult film Waitress, but why are we still talking about firsts?
Remember earlier this year when ballerina Misty Copeland became the first African American to be appointed a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre? It was one of those sobering moments of contemplating, how is this only happening now? Just like in 2010 when Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director or when last week, upon news that Angela Merkel was TIME magazine’s Person of The Year, we realised the last individual woman bestowed this title was in 1986. So, when another unbelievable announcement was made this month, that 2016 sees Broadway’s first ever all-female creative team leading a play, it feels right to think about the implications of these ‘firsts’, and the need to keep shouting about them, until the firsts can happen less.
Broadway’s first all-female creative team are behind the musical adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 cult indie film Waitress. Waitress tells the story of Jenna (played by Keri Russell), cruising through a joyless existence in a small town in America’s Deep South. Married to a manipulative shit (Jeremy Sisto, or Elton from Clueless to you and I), her only solace comes in the form of creating knee-weakening good pies and eye-rolling at her boss with her co-waitresses Becky and Dawn at her side.
With Tony award-winning director Diane Paulus (in 2013, Paulus was the third woman to win a Tony award in the musical category, for Pippin), a story by Jessie Nelson (Stepmom, I Am Sam), score by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles and choreographer Lorin Latarro, it’s incredible this can be the first time women have been represented across all departments. In 2015 Fun House, adapted from Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, was the first musical written by an all-female team to win the Tony Award for Best Musical, but this is the first time writing, directing and choreographing credits have been filled by women in one production.
“I can’t tell you how many actors walked through the casting office door and said, ‘Oh my God, look at all these women!’” – Diane Paulus
“I can’t tell you how many actors walked through the casting office door and said, ‘Oh my God, look at all these women!’” Paulus told me over the phone during a break in rehearsals. “To walk into the room with the director, choreographer, writer, composer, music supervisor, band-leader, and associate director and they’re all women – that does not happen often.”
“Being a woman working in this field…we know that this (representation) is a problem,” said Paulus. Numbers from Women For Equality On Broadway echo this sentiment: this month the number of female writers compared to male writers represented on Broadway will be 13 to 73, respectively. That’s especially astounding when it’s also recorded that on average 70 per cent of audiences for Broadway shows are female. If women are buying the tickets, why aren’t we hearing their stories?
There are similar gender imbalances in UK theatre. A major study carried out by the British Theatre Consortium in 2013 found that despite high profile successes for plays like Posh by Laura Wade and Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, only 31 per cent of new plays in 2013 were written by women, whose shows generally last for shorter runs in smaller venues and who, on the whole, earn less money.
Of course, it’s important that we don’t automatically categorise the work of women as reflecting “womens’ issues”. For Jessie Nelson, Waitress’s themes are universal. “My daughter discovered the film at a sleepover. I would watch how moved the young women were and realised that the notion of extricating yourself from a relationship where you’re shrinking to fit was something they were already dealing with. Then I noticed my husband was having such an emotional reaction when he would watch the movie too. That notion of breaking out, finding your authentic self and daring to reach for a dream that you’d forgotten about was so thematically powerful.”
I first saw Waitress when I was 17 and was easily seduced, as I still am, by on-screen American diners and feisty waitresses cooking up plans while pouring coffee refills. (See also: Lily Tomlin in Robert Altman’s Shortcuts.) Waitress isn’t a perfect piece of cinema but it warms the soul, and importantly, portrays a married woman who is pregnant and really, really doesn’t want to be.
“To me it’s the ultimate story of empowerment for women,” Jessie Nelson, book writer for the Waitress musical. “By the end of the story, Jenna has her own store, she’s working for herself making a living from her gift and she’s a single mother raising a child. Neither of the men are rescuing her. Through her journey her friends Becky and Dawn have been empowered in their own lives – to me, what could be a more powerful feminist tale?”
Throughout the film Jenna invents new recipes for pies; there’s the Pregnant, Miserable, Self-Pitying Loser pie and the I Can’t Have No Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl To Kill Me pie. “We enter Jenna’s psyche through her pie-making,” said Jessie Nelson. “So many times we hear that it’s not feminist to be thinking about kitchens and cooking, but I loved that Waitress takes this traditional female thing (of learning to bake from your mother) and used it as an empowerment story.”
“One woman’s failure is a failure for all women, and one woman’s success is her own success until more women succeed.” Director Julianne Boyd is quoted as saying in Rebecca Daniels’ Woman Stage Directors Speak: Exploring the Influence of Gender in Their Work. Jessie Nelson elaborated on this idea during our phone call: “Some women get one chance, and if they don’t knock it out of the ball park, they’re put on the bench. You grow every time you get a chance to work, and so that’s such an important focus (for women) right now.”