Women run show at Town Hall Theatre
By Lou Fancher
The 73-year-old Town Hall Theatre Company that began in 1944 as the Dramateurs, honors professional artistry, community engagement, education and enthusiastic leadership.
As it welcomes new artistic director Susan E. Evans, pivots Suzie Shepard from interim artistic director to community engagement specialist, and affirms Ginny Wehmeister’s role as director of education, Town Hall positions three veterans of community theater at the helm.
The fact that they are women leading a theater company in a male-dominated field could make them vanguards, but what makes them qualified has nothing to do with gender.
In other words, in 2017 everything and nothing has changed within the 102-year-old building on the outskirts of downtown Lafayette.
“What Town Hall has done very well is to be ambitious in producing stories in a professional manner using the best talent in our area,” says Evans. “I was immediately impressed by the working relationships, from the volunteers to the staff to the board. They’re invested in what goes onstage.”
Oakland-based Evans comes to Town Hall after serving as artistic director of the Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward and before that, the Eastenders Repertory Company.
As an independent theater director in the Bay Area since 1991, her interests include classic repertoire, contemporary playwrights, storytellers, and collaborative projects with solo artists and writers.
Now at Town Hall, with a hybrid season whose repertoire was chosen half by Shepard and half by Evans, her plans are twofold.
“I plan to open the doors to new actors, new directors — expand to bring in people from further afield. Programming, I’m keen on play development, stage readings, a storytelling series. Having more opportunities for people to come, not necessarily to a main stage show, can make a big difference,” she says.
But “difference” doesn’t mean ignoring the people she adamantly admires and refers to as, “our very loyal audience base.” Instead, balance will have her nurturing younger audiences with the language-centric work of playwrights like Caryl Churchill and Melissa James Gibson, while continuing to present plays that “don’t frighten audiences” more accustomed to classic theater or musicals.
A priority will be to introduce more racial diversity in the directors, set designers, playwrights and actors she selects for next season and beyond.
Asked about her experience as a woman in the industry, Evans admits to mixed reactions. She’s reluctant to evaluate a co-worker or herself in terms of gender because she doesn’t “parse things that way,” but says, “it’s a male-centered field, certainly.”
“The best strategy is to be clear what I know, what I don’t know,” she says. Harder to overcome is labeling. “Women in power can be labeled bitches, if they put a hard line on something. I may have been called that. If it was a man, it would be ‘he knows what he wants.’ So reactions can be different.”
Shepard says that as a non-equity actor, it has no impact on her opportunities, but she’s aware that more equity (higher paying) contracts go to male than female leads. Her Bay Area upbringing and experience is mostly free of gender issues.
“It’s been said that I use charm, rather than hard-line communication. My approach is to go to softness and sincerity of heart to get an answer, because that’s how I was raised.”
But beyond Shepard’s gentle technique, she asks hard questions: “Why are we seeing a transition to more women theater directors? Is it that women are taking over because the pay is low? I think there’s a ‘yes’ on that. We’re making strides in directorship, but it’s probably because we’re in dual-income relationships or aren’t thought of as the family’s main breadwinners.”
Perhaps the most uplifting indicator that gender equity in East Bay theater is rising is not the leadership at Town Hall — Clayton Theatre Company is also led by a team of four women —but that the subject doesn’t consume all of their energy.
Moving swiftly off the topic, Evans and Shepard share their goals for the future.
Evans sets in the forefront “paying living wages for my staff.” Shepard says connection to seniors is a priority. She is already partnering with assisted living centers and senior services to provide transportation for seniors who don’t have access to theater.
Community activities planned during the all-sung, musical revue, “Smokey Joe’s Café,” extend to audiences of all ages and include singalongs, wine tastings, post-show talk-backs, meet-and-greet receptions and special events for senior community groups.