LENOX — Early this year, Shakespeare & Company co-artistic director Ariel Bock sat in a room in New York City with her company manager and the director of an upcoming production, watching closely as actors and actresses auditioned for roles in her troupe's summer season.
It turned out that the performers were watching Bock and her two colleagues — also women — just as closely, and what they saw evidently came as a pleasant surprise. "We had quite a few actors comment on that: 'Wow, it's really great to be in a room with all women,' " Bock recalls. "I guess it's not the norm for other places.''
No, it's not. Despite an increasingly intense focus on the lack of gender parity in the American theater, women continue to be seriously underrepresented when it comes to top leadership positions. But a very different picture has crystallized in the Berkshires, where there are four major regional theaters, all boasting national reputations — and all headed by female artistic directors.
"There isn't the battle in terms of the glass ceiling here,'' remarks Kate Maguire, artistic director and CEO at Berkshire Theatre Group (formerly Berkshire Theatre Festival), which operates theaters in Stockbridge and Pittsfield. "This is a community where culture dominates in terms of the economy, and we're guiding the way.'' Adds Julianne Boyd, cofounder and artistic director of the Pittsfield-based Barrington Stage Company: "This group of women in the Berkshires are willing to take on plays that deal with social issues. Theater in the Berkshires is finally taking its place right next to dance and music right now.''
At a time of escalating concern in Boston, New York, and nationally about the difficulty female playwrights face in getting their work produced, this summer season kicked off in the Berkshires with a spate of provocative plays that were written or directed by women. They included Shakespeare & Company's production of Lindsey Ferrentino's "Ugly Lies the Bone,'' directed by Daniela Varon, a riveting portrait of a female soldier battling to recover from horrific injuries suffered in Afghanistan and adjust to life on the homefront; Williamstown Theatre Festival's world premiere of Martyna Majok's "Cost of Living,'' directed by Jo Bonney, a dramatization of the struggles faced by disabled people and their economically strapped caretakers; and Barrington Stage Company's world premiere of Christopher Demos-Brown's "American Son,'' directed by Boyd, a wrenching and timely examination of the issues surrounding fatal police shootings of young black men.
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the four female artistic directors — who also include Mandy Greenfield of Williamstown Theatre Festival — are assiduously grooming the next generation of female leadership.
By example, they're showing the many young women who show up each summer to work at their theaters what it takes to be an artistic director. It's a job that requires the ability to juggle responsibility for scheduling seasons, fundraising, marketing, maintaining or expanding a theater's audience, choosing directors for individual productions, developing new plays, introducing new writers, and sometimes being involved in productions that may transfer to Broadway or off-Broadway.
Underscoring the importance of their efforts to cultivate future leaders is a new national study on women in theater by the Wellesley Centers for Women, at Wellesley College, conducted in partnership with American Conservatory Theater. Released last month, the study found that of the 74 member theaters in the League of Resident Theatres (the professional association of nonprofit theaters), only 15 featured women as artistic directors, and only one was a woman of color.
Wrote the study's authors: "In a field in which 'representation' is important to the stories we present to the public, the persistent underrepresentation of female leadership is puzzling and problematic.''
In the Boston area, a number of theaters are led by women. A partial list would include Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater; Debra Wise, head of Underground Railway Theater; Lee Mikeska Gardner, leader of Nora Theatre Company; Danielle Fauteux Jacques of Apollinaire Theatre Company; and Meg Fofonoff of Fiddlehead Theatre Company.
But clearly there is work to do at all levels. A survey of 46 Boston-area theaters conducted by members of StageSource's Gender Parity Task Force found that men outnumbered women by at least 2 to 1 in the positions of director, scenic designer, lighting designer, and several other designer categories during the 2013-14 season. Moreover, fewer than one-quarter of the plays produced by theaters in the Boston area during that season were written by women.
"I'm always looking for a great play by a woman,'' says Boyd, of Barrington Stage Company, a troupe she cofounded in 1995 after two years as artistic director at Berkshire Theatre Festival. "I've hired many women directors. But I hire the most talented people possible.'' Today, Boyd can point to a half-dozen former assistants, including several women, who went on to launch their own theater companies after training under her. "I love mentoring women,'' she says. "No one mentored me. I came up the hard way, just doing it. I'd like to make it a little easier for women coming up today.''
That seems also to be the goal of Berkshire Theatre Group's Maguire, on both the artistic and administrative side. "If you walk into almost any office at Berkshire Theatre Group, it's run by a woman,'' she says. Of the 16 apprentices working this summer at her company, more than half are women. In this class of apprentices and in previous classes, Maguire says, "many of them aspire to be artistic directors. They ask me: 'How do you pick the plays? How do you serve the community?' '' They also ask about Maguire's experiences with sexism, and she is candid in her responses, telling them that yes, she has occasionally had to cope with sexist "assumptions about my abilities'' since she became artistic director at Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1997.
Greenfield is a relative newcomer to the Berkshires, having taken over at Williamstown in 2014, but not to the experience of strong women in leadership roles: She formerly worked at Manhattan Theatre Club under Lynne Meadow, one of the most prominent female artistic directors in the country. Greenfield's predecessor at Williamstown was Jenny Gersten (2011-2014), but before Gersten the festival had been led by men since its founding in the mid-1950s.
So far this summer, Greenfield says, "I have already met two female apprentices who said they want to start or run their own theaters, and they're here in part because they can work with someone who is doing that. I find that very gratifying.''
At Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company, having a woman in the top job is nothing new. The troupe was founded in 1978 by Tina Packer along with Kristin Linklater, and Packer went on to serve as artistic director for more than three decades.
Today, Bock notes that in addition to the four major regional theater companies, the Berkshires features "a whole bunch of small ones, almost all of them headed by women.'' Another major cultural institution, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, located in Becket, is led by Pamela Tatge, who took over in April as executive director, succeeding Ella Baff, who was executive and artistic director.
So why have women artistic directors fared so well at the four leading theaters in the Berkshires, when so much of American theater has not proven so hospitable to female leaders? (The new Wellesley study notes that women "have never held more than 27 percent of leadership positions in American nonprofit theater.'')
Partly, of course, it's a testament to the individual talent and drive of the four women in question. Partly, it's due to what Greenfield describes as "a kind of evolution and a natural progression toward a more inclusive culture.'' And partly it's happenstance: Bock, for instance, was named co-artistic director last year at Shakespeare & Company, along with Jonathan Croy, after a period of turmoil at the company resulted in the departure of two male leaders in succession.
When you ask the female artistic directors themselves why the Berkshires are ahead of the curve, they point to the region's cultural atmosphere, describing an enlightened community less beholden to gender bias and more likely to produce open-minded boards of directors that include sizable numbers of women.
For women who want to balance demanding careers in the theater with raising a family, several of the artistic directors say, the bucolic Berkshires hold a decided edge over big cities. "I think it has a lot to do with the quality of life,'' says Maguire. "I realized it would be a lot easier for me to work in the arts and bring up my daughters in this environment. I felt they would be nurtured in a healthier way than being in the city.''
Similarly healthy, in Bock's view, is the spirit of cooperation that she says prevails among the regional theaters and other cultural institutions based in the Berkshires. "I hate to generalize, but I think women in general like working in community,'' she says. "I think they like to support other people that are working with them.''
All four female artistic directors in the Berkshires say their experiences with the rising generation has made them optimistic that theater's gender gap will one day be a thing of the past. "There's some great, super-talented young women,'' says Boyd, of Barrington Stage. "I truly think in 10 years you're going to see a different theater scene.''
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.