October 2nd, 2018
On a weekday afternoon, Studio 54—the theatre turned nightclub turned theatre—empty except for the creative team and crew of The Lifespan of a Fact and some front of house staff, has a sense of being at eternal twilight. It is not Broadway’s biggest house, but might be the one with the most outsized aura. It was refurbished with mirrored walls and leopard print carpet meant to evoke its past, which seems very far away. It is also where photographer Tess Mayer spent two afternoons documenting Broadway’s first all-female design team at work during their third and fourth days of tech for the new play The Lifespan of a Fact. The team was put together by Tony-nominated director Leigh Silverman. Since Studio 54 reopened as a theatre in 1998, it has housed 27 productions; The Lifespan of a Fact is only the third to have a female director.
I asked Leigh if she wanted to give a quote for the introduction that would accompany the photo essay on Broadway’s first all-female design team. This is what she said: “I hired a group of brilliant designers that I was excited to mind meld with. I had no idea an all-female design team had never been assembled on Broadway. We want to believe theatre is a place of progress, a place where women and people of color and non-binary people are welcomed into leadership positions. Well, that’s just not true—especially in commercial theatre. Except it’s happening right now at Studio 54 (including all of our assistants and associates). You walk into our production meetings at the end of the night and there are twenty or so humans talking and thinking and working and only two or three guys. We are standing on the shoulders of the fierce women who helped pave the way, and I want to acknowledge this moment while also looking forward to the day where our existence is not news.”
In the summer of 2016, I spent what would have been considered an unhealthy amount of time thinking about Leigh Silverman, if not for the fact that I was writing about her. One of the things that I thought about a lot was the lack of acknowledgement ten years prior when she became the youngest female professional director to direct on Broadway. It is a thought that has never fully left me and it always sits at the back of my mind. Because, of course, the problem has not been cured—lack of acknowledgement for women and their work happens again and again and again, and there are no reparations for time or a story falsely told.
The first time I remember hearing Leigh say, “We want to believe theatre is a place of progress, but it isn’t,” was earlier this year at a panel presented by the Roundabout featuring women theatre directors where The Interval was a co-sponsor. At the end of another awful January, it was a moment of simple truth that few people ever say, but that many feel. She has said it since then in other ways and at other places, but I will continue to print it because it is important not just for the future, but for keeping an accurate record of the present and the past.
The following photos depict Leigh Silverman and the team of The Lifespan of a Fact, including Tony-winning Set Designer Mimi Lien; Tony-winning Costume Designer Linda Cho; Lighting Designer Jen Schriever; Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan, who is making her Broadway debut; Projection Designer Lucy MacKinnon; Production Stage Manager Martha Donaldson; and assistants and associates Kylie Brown, Brittany Vasta, Alice Tavener; Catherine Clark; Ien DeNio; Katherine Freer; Rachael Geier; and Megan Sprowls. They offer a glimpse at what goes on when these individuals are in a room together doing their jobs at the pinnacle of American theatre. It is part of keeping an accurate record of what happened on Broadway in the fall of 2018, who made it happen, and of their work. — Victoria Myers