Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Sofia Colvin
February 7th, 2017
In 2014, Lisa McNulty became the fourth Artistic Director of WP Theater (Women’s Project Theater), which is the country’s oldest company dedicated to producing and developing work by women. Since then, she’s expanded WP’s programing both on and off stage with their Pipeline Festival, becoming one of the city’s most popular programs for emerging female-identified artists. Prior to becoming Artistic Director of Women’s Project, Lisa was Artistic Line Producer at Manhattan Theatre Club and also worked at 13P and the McCarter Theatre Center. She was also previously the Literary Manager and Associate Artistic Director at Women’s Project. We visited Lisa at her office on the Upper West Side to talk about the role of an artistic director, the perception of work by women, and how she sees WP continuing to evolve.
I’m not sure if a lot of people know what an artistic director does. What is your day like, especially at this point in WP’s year?
I’m new at this job. I’m about a third of the way through my third season here. I had not been an artistic director before taking this job. I’m learning a lot about what it means to be an artistic director and what the job actually is. A lot more of the job is fundraising than one actually realizes, particularly when a new artistic director comes into the job. For me, it’s been an education to learn how to fundraise and how much of one’s time is spent fundraising, particularly for an institution in transition. Right now, our big fundraiser for the year is coming up in March and so a lot of my time is spent prepping for that. Figuring out what the event’s going to be, who’s going to participate, that kind of thing. Right now, I’m spending a lot of time on that and not as much time on programming the work for next season. I think, for me, that was the discovery: trying to find time to carve out space to do the art part of your job.
For season planning, how far in advance do you usually like to plan ahead?
When I arrived we needed to announce a season six weeks later. I feel like I long to get to a time when I’m planning in advance. Right now, I feel like I’m responding in real time. I’m the only member of the artistic staff. I think I am more reactive right now. When you say, “Hey, what’s your schedule? How do you plan it out?” I would say, “I look forward to a time when I can plan it out and when I do have a schedule.” Right now things bubble up. There are artists that I love and I’m always in communication with. Sometimes things will just float into my orbit. But that kind of focused, proactive programming, I feel like I’m a couple years away from that. I feel really lucky because the stuff that’s been floating into my orbit or the artists that I have long-term relationships with or the artists I’ve been lucky enough to work with in the lab have given me the ability to program in a way that I’m excited about. I look forward to having five projects in the pipeline that we can then launch into the world once we’ve developed them here and they’re ready. I just think that the reality of somebody coming new into an institution at a time of redefinition is that you’re dealing with what’s in front of you all the time, and it takes you a while to get to that other, more measured way of operating.
Do you feel that there are any advantages to that? In the sense that sometimes having things so planned in advance gives no flexibility to respond to world events and what the cultural pulse is at the moment.
That’s an amazing way to spin that into a positive. Certainly when somebody picks up the phone and calls me about something, I have an ability to deal with it in real time. In this moment of cultural change and conflict, it gives me a real ability to go, “Okay, where are we now and what kind of stories do we want to be telling right now?” Yet, I would like to combine that with a pipeline of work that we have ready and developed. I think the grass is probably always greener on both sides. I would like to have a combination of both. It certainly is freeing to be able to try on the ideas that you have had throughout your career as a person watching other folks program and watching how other people occupy this job—to be able to throw things against the wall yourself and see what sticks. Some things will fail epically, and then other things will succeed. I think it’s really great to be thrown back on your resources that way.
What is your philosophy like for finding the balance between coming into a theatre that has a mission statement and a set goal, and as a person with ideas and artistic tastes?
This is the third time I’ve worked at WP. The founder, Julia Miles, gave me my first paying job a very long time ago. Then I came back and I worked here again in 2004. In some ways this institution was kind of the making of me, formed who I am as a person of the theatre. It wasn’t me showing up fresh and going, “What is this organization? How does it connect to who I am as a person of the theatre?” It was more like a homecoming. Certainly whenever a new person comes to an institution, the institution in some way starts to reflect who that person is. As well as, for me, the questions I was asking were, “Well, what does it mean to be a women’s theatre now? What does it mean to be a woman right now? What does it mean to have an institution that is thinking about gender?” I’ve tried to reflect that questioning in the programming. When I arrived, we changed the mission to say that we were for female-identified artists. We’ve started to reflect a slightly more multidisciplinary and artist-focused approach. We’re working more in partnership with other organizations. All of that reflects who I am as a person in the theatre. As well as my own notion about how I serve the mission, which is providing more access to as many artists as possible. Opening the doors to trans artists or wanting to bring in smaller companies and provide access to production opportunities to them.
One of WP’s new programs is working with other companies around the country who have similar missions. Could you talk a little about that?
I started thinking about, what are our challenges and our assets? The challenge we have, like everybody, is [that] our budget is limited. The asset is we have a pretty great space on the Upper West Side. How do I then make use of the asset? I thought, well, let’s provide the space at a small subsidy to companies who are making work that allies with ours, as well as [provide] marketing support and ticketing support and other kinds of support that’s manageable for us. I think everything works better when it has a slightly amusing name, so I called it the “Domestic Partners Program.” I’ve been really pleased with how that’s been working out. Our Domestic Partners this year are Monica Bill Barnes & Company, which is exciting to me because I think multidisciplinary work is really important. I think it’s the way that the field is headed. To meet them and support them at that place feels really important. Pop UP Theatrics is our other Domestic Partner. The cool thing about them is that they’re about occupying spaces in untraditional ways. They’re using our lobby space and they’re using our stairwell and they’re activating our space in ways that are making me more thoughtful about the way we use the space. I really want the programming to make me more thoughtful. The way they are making us think about the way we make work is really invigorating to me as a programmer and as a producer. I think it’s a thing that is practical and useful for us, but also shakes things up for the institution in a cool way.
We did a feature on the women involved with the Pipeline Festival last spring, and I wanted to ask you to talk a little about that program.
There are lots of things that are cool about it, but a thing that I think is very cool is that it’s putting writers, directors, and producers together. I don’t actually know of another program that does that. I love the idea that every two years we’re launching 15 badass women out into the world as a cohort to be each other’s primary collaborators going forward. That feels really powerful to me. I think a thing that women struggle with is they’re existing in kind of an old boys networks. There’s a kind of established mentorship for male artists where they lift up the next generation. I don’t see that necessarily those [same] structures are in place for female-identified artists. I already see the way in which lab artists are providing opportunities for each other, being each other’s professional network, and previous lab cohorts mentoring the next generation lab cohorts. That feels really cool to me. Also, I love the idea that we’re providing all this stuff, like collaborating work and skills building. We bring in headhunters and executive coaches and people who help people occupy their careers in ways that feel powerful to them. Also, at the end of the two years we plant our flag with the Pipeline Festival and say, “Okay, American theatre, you say you want to be making work by female-identified and trans artists, but you don’t know where to find them? Here’s where you can find them. Come and see this work. It’s all here.” I’d like to get to a place where we have two labs running simultaneously so that every year we have a festival. We have a ways to go before we can afford it. It’s a strong priority of mine because we had an insane amount of incredible people apply to the lab. It felt like we’re making a thing that people find valuable, but also it was a heartbreak not to be able to provide this to 150 people a year.
Do you ever feel that you have to play the industry game and that might not always match up with exactly what you want to do or where you want to push boundaries?
I don’t feel that as much. I think the lovely thing is that we’ve been able to do both in ways that have been exciting to me. I feel more of a responsibility to reflect the spectrum of work that female-identified artists are making right now. Women are making all kinds of work. I spent a lot of time thinking about the mission. I’m envious sometimes of Susan Bernfield [Artistic Director of New Georges] who’s able to have an aesthetic mandate that I don’t think is actually appropriate for this institution. This institution is about the spectrum of work, and I try to do that both in an individual season as well as in the overarching idea of our programming. In the first season, it was really exciting for me to be able to put Kate Benson and Lee Sunday Evans next to Tanya Barfield and Leigh Silverman, or in the season after that, Laura Eason and Kirsten Kelly. Then to put the Pipeline Festival and Martyna Majok’s New York debut next to a play by Sarah Ruhl and directed by Kate Whoriskey. That feels, to me, like the sweet spot of who we are and what we should be. Those tough decisions are less about what’s going to sell than it is about are we telling the full story of what kind of work women and female-identified artists are making?
I did want to ask a marketing question. When I was talking to Susan Bernfield she said, at New Georges, their marketing philosophy has always been to not make “a play by a woman!” a big part of their marketing. Is that something you think about?
I think about it a lot. I went through a process of rebranding—well, that indicates I hired a firm and spent a lot of money and really I just worked with a couple people and we made a new logo. It ties into a thing that I found when I first got the job. I found that there were a lot of people reaching out to me saying, “I have the perfect play for WP.” I thought that was really interesting because it gave me a moment to go, “Oh, what do people think WP is?” I found that they were sending me plays that were largely about a sad lady in a kitchen with a problem. And they weren’t always written by women. They would say, “Oh, but it’s about a woman.” I thought, “That’s interesting to me because I feel like it’s about the artists.” In some ways, what the women are writing about is less interesting to me than who they are. It was also a moment where I sort of discovered what people’s biases are, what they think it means to be a women’s theatre. They think the work is domestic, it’s not entertaining, it’s not funny, that it’s like, “come to the theatre and eat your vegetables but you’re not actually going to have a good time.” That was interesting to me. That was not my experience of the work that I was seeing by those artists. In terms of the marketing, we changed the name of the theatre to WP Theatre. We’ve been Women’s Project for a very long time. We were called Women’s Project because when the institution was formed we were a sub-project of The American Place Theatre. I thought, well we’re not that anymore. We’re a theatre on our own. Also, I used to work at MTC. If MTC can be MTC, why can’t we be WP, right? We made that change. Our women artists or female-identified artists or trans artists—they’re artists, right? I don’t call them that [women artists] ever. Maybe I do in grants, but I certainly don’t in marketing materials because I find it reductive. In terms of the marketing, I suppose we sell the work as the work, we don’t sell the mission. The mission is implicit. If you look at our materials, there aren’t any dudes. For the most part, I’m really just trying to sell the work as the work, which I think is probably the most feminist thing I can do.
Do you think that there’s a problem with how the work is talked about in reviews or press?
I’ve definitely seen it. There was the review of Sweet Charity that was so difficult. I’ve certainly seen a bias in criticism. I don’t know that in the two and a half seasons I’ve been here that we’ve had a bad experience. I don’t know that we won’t. We have our eyes open for it. I’m not quite sure how to break through that because I don’t know that the circumstance changes when you actually have a female reviewer. I think it’s a cultural bias, I don’t think it’s necessarily tied to the fact that most of the reviewers are male. If that’s the case, I actually don’t know what to do about it other than continuing to call people out for it. In that way, I think as a culture at large we’re becoming more aware of our cultural biases, or to be conscious of our own biases, and as a field, being rigorous with the critical community when they’re exposing their biases. A good example: Lucy Thurber is a good friend of mine and I remember for a long time folks would review her plays as though they weren’t coming from her experience. They couldn’t conceive of the fact that she was writing about coming from a working or poverty class background. I just thought, “What’s going on here?” Is it because they cannot imagine that a person who is having a really vibrant career in New York theatre could have come from a poverty class background? That seems bananas to me. I think we need to be having that conversation all the time because theatres live and die by these reviews and they tell people how to receive work. I struggle with it all the time.
Do you think part of the problem is also how we talk about the artists themselves? Observationally, one of the things I’ve noticed is that women are not given the same autonomy that men are given in terms of anything in the public sphere. Men get to talk about the work more, but also their individual personalities are embraced, whereas women are seen as a group or representing a group.
I think in society at large, what is normal is to be a white male, and to be anything else deviates from the norm. African American writers are seen as a group. Writers of color. Women or trans writers. I feel like that’s not just a problem for women. I think something that’s very specifically female, that I’m trying to figure out how to address in our programming and advocacy, is that I think male writers get to a certain point and they are received in the community as masters, whereas women disappear. Obviously there are fewer of them, but there are really, really fine women who would be heralded as masters of the form, and they just disappear. Their work doesn’t get done and they aren’t invited to panels where they get to opine. I find that really frustrating. We’re trying to think about what’s the next step for us, what kind of programming are we going to do, how are we going to define ourselves going forward. I start thinking about the individual issues that plague women and trans writers at different points in their career. It’s harder for them to get the first production because it takes longer for institutions to perceive them as ready than it does their male collaborators. There’s the issue at mid-career of support for child care or support for other kinds of financial issues Then this late career issue. Just trying to think about the sweep of a career and how we can be the touch point for people at each point in a career. We’re hoping to kind of combat that lack of visibility, lack of access, lack of institutional support. We’re in this moment right now where folks are aware they should be doing work by women and female-identified artists, but then you see the work going to festivals, to the second stage, to readings or workshops, not getting the same kind of resources, women not being able to get the big bite to do the large budget project on the main stage.
Do you ever feel like there’s more pressure or more of a microscope on your programming choices than at theatres that don’t have a female-driven mission statement?
I don’t know, maybe. I think right now, we should all be investigating those choices and investigating our programming with a pretty serious lens. Nobody’s going to give me as hard a time as I give myself about that stuff. Particularly right now I’m spending so much time thinking about, what do I do, how do I make the work we’re doing really important, how do I investigate the choices, how do I make sure that we’re really serving the community and really telling stories that matter right now? I think it’s important for all of us to hold everyone really, really accountable right now.
I wanted to ask a little bit about fundraising too. You mentioned that being a big part of a job. I think it’s an aspect that people don’t know a lot about and perhaps don’t realize that things take a lot of money.
Things take money. Budgeting, and how much money it takes to run an organization, it’s bigger than I understood in a really physical way. You understand it in your head, and then you land in the chair where the buck really stops with you and you understand it differently. It really lives and dies on how charming you are on a certain day or how good a case you make in a particular grant. That was an important discovery for me. Also, that it takes longer than you realize. You sort of feel like you’re going to make the rounds and do a bunch of grant applications and you’re going to talk to some folks and start to grow your board and that you’ll figure things out in a couple of years. Really, things take two or three times longer than you think. That was a surprise to me. I think these jobs test your mettle in certain ways. This job requires every part of who I am. You have to bring yourself really fully to the job. Essentially, you tell the story of your organization everyday. You have to figure out how to be good at that, even if you’re not necessarily. I always say, “I would be better at my job if I was about 75% more charming or if my social circle were about 75% bigger.” In a small institution like this—we have four full-time employees—everybody’s working at capacity every second. You are always just trying to be a little bit bigger and a little bit better than you are.
Feeling like this would be better if I was this, that, or the other thing, is something that I’m not sure a male artistic director would feel so much.
I don’t know. I actually have never worked really intimately with a male artistic director. I’ve been really lucky—I worked with Emily Mann, Julia Miles (the founder of Women’s Project), and I worked with Lynne Meadow for a number of years. Women who have planted their flag and made huge institutions and made them really successful. I struggled a lot when I arrived here because I started out as a literary manager. I grew into a producer, which is what I do and what I love. My MO as a producer was, I always felt like the more invisible I was, the better I am at my job. Now I’m in a position where if I am invisible, I am ineffective. It’s been a real process for me to grow into that position where, in order to be effective, the institution reflects me in some way.
In terms of the economics, do you feel like people are worried about fundraising now more than ever because of what’s going on politically? Both in the macro sense of what’s going on politically and also in the sense that maybe a lot of people who would normally give small donations are now giving those donations to the ACLU, etc.?
My wife’s a journalist, and she’s actually written about the way people are responding philanthropically to the current social and political climate. I think the fact that we have a social justice mission as well as an artistic mission actually helps us, because folks understand that we commit to bringing the voices of underserved communities to a really public forum. That feels important to people right now. I think it’s a little too soon to say. I think everybody’s worried about fundraising at all times. I think our mission feels more powerful and I think people are more aware of why the mission feels important. I think everybody’s aware that not everybody’s going to have a seat at the table and the places that preserve those access points are going to be even more important. Fingers crossed.
If you could change something about the economic structure of theatre, what would it be?
I came from a working-class background and I’ve always felt a little outside of the structures of theatre because I don’t have those “friends from school,” I didn’t get a graduate degree. I also don’t see a lot of people like myself in the professional theatre because it takes a certain amount of cash to get here. I would like to see more people with a different kind of background in the theatre. I would like to see those stories represented from a place of experience. It was really important for me to produce Martyna’s play Ironbound, and that’s why I think Lucy Thurber’s work is so important. I would be excited by a theatre that provided space for the kid from the public school in the Ozarks. I think it’s important, and maybe more important than ever, right now. I think it’s not a thing we’re very comfortable talking about as a culture. Is that specifically an economic structure of theatre? It’s a thing that’s important to me. There’s a kind of background that most artistic leadership comes from, and I’d be curious what the landscape would look like if that changed a little bit.
Do you have ideas on how to help change that?
I think there’s the education piece. I think all of us need to be reaching out into our community and outside of our immediate communities. I think it’s hard. This is a business that is all about relationships, and how do we extend those relationships? I think we need to reach outside of our comfort zones in terms of the artists that we give access to. I feel like that’s a thing I need to get better at, certainly. When I have 500 people applying to the Lab, folks with a kind of pedigree are going to rise to the top, and how do I get past my own biases in that way? I also think if we don’t talk about it, it’s not going to change.
In 2017, if you could tell the industry to do one thing to make things better for women what would it be?
Do the plays, dude. They exist. I go to so many things where folks say, “How do we create a structure for diversity?” If you cannot find the plays, you’re not looking.
People have been saying that for a while though, but it’s 2017 and people still aren’t doing it.
Here’s the thing: I call the Pipeline Festival the Pipeline Festival for a reason. [You say] There are no good plays in the pipeline? You know what? Here’s the pipeline, come and see the plays, come and put that work on stage. I just said, “Listen, we’re not going to get to a place where the only female designer in the team is a costume designer, we’re not going to do it.” All you have to do in the process when you’re putting together a creative team is say, “Hey guys, we’re not going to get there, let’s think a little bit more deeply.” If you say that and you believe it and you mean it, then you don’t make a creative team that only has a female costume designer. I sort of don’t understand when institutions say that they have a value towards racial and gender diversity and then it isn’t reflected on stage. I sort of think, “Well if it’s not actually translating on stage then it’s not of value, right?” Then you need to say that it’s not of value. I just don’t understand the mysteriousness. Also, if you look at the numbers, the work that does get to major productions by women and female-identified artists actually is very financially successful. There isn’t even a financial reason for a barrier. If people cannot find a play by a lady or a lady-adjacent person that they would like to put on their stage, they can give me a call. I’ve got a nice long list. I’ll happily pass it along. The work exists. You just need to make the commitment to put it onto your main stage and provide the same amount of resources that you would for a male writer.