Professional theaters in the DMV have been at the forefront of making diversity a critical watchword and action step. During the past several years, the DMV has hosted two Women’s Voices Theater Festivals. In addition, Signature Theatre’s grant-funded program SigWorks: The Heidi Thomas Writers’ Initiative, a partnership with the Jenna and Paul Segal Foundation, offers a multi-year commitment to world premieres by female playwrights with female directors.
There is also the ongoing DMV demographic data analysis about gender and diversity including metrics for directors and playwrights. This data indicates improvement, but more work needs to be done for equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Considering this context, I recently had a conversation with Stevie Zimmerman, a regular presence in DMV theatre as a professional stage director. Our conversations quickly turned to issues surrounding being a female director.
First off, Zimmerman described directing as “the best job.” She chatted about her arrival in the DMV about nine years ago, arriving from Connecticut and before that the United Kingdom. The challenge was “to establish herself with a presence since she was not known.” Zimmerman indicated she “had good luck in meeting people right away who were generous and helpful.”
I first came to know Zimmerman when she directed By Jeeves at 1st Stage in 2011.
“I had never done a musical before, nor a farce, and this was both. I nearly said no,” she said. “It remains one of the highlights of my career – thanks mainly to an intrepid cast prepared to try anything.”
For DC Theater Arts, Zimmerman has been a “go-to” director for interviews, not just reviews. DCMTA Founder Joel Markowitz interviewed Stevie in 2013 for the 1st Stage production of The Pitmen Painters as did my colleague Sophia Howes in 2016 about directing Electra at 4615 Theatre.
Asked about her decision to become a theater director, Zimmerman refreshingly indicated, “This is stretching back into the distant past. When I was in college, I thought I wanted to be an actor, but it became more and more apparent I didn’t have what it took!”
“However, I was still having fun doing it. I had been cast in a show that ended up getting cancelled because the director was incompetent, and I was so furious I decided to direct myself. Suddenly I felt like I was wearing the right skin. I loved seeing the whole picture, not just one role, and I lost some of the self-consciousness that was part of why I wasn’t a good enough actor. After that experience, I decided to pursue directing.”
For her formal training to become a theater director, Zimmerman mentioned that she has a Master’s degree from the University of Leeds in England. “They have a program at their Workshop Theatre that operates like a rep company, so you learn by doing and watching. You work in every role at some point, so you get some appreciation of the work of every member of the team from lighting designer to stage manager, etc.”
We delved more deeply into the challenges of being a female director.
“I think the biggest challenge was not having any role models,” said Zimmerman. “I trained in England at a time when the arts were being ferociously defunded. There were no programs to develop young directors and no women directors I was aware of bringing up the next generation.”
She went on to say, “Although I directed college productions for many years, I didn’t work professionally as a director, for many reasons, until about twenty years after completing that Master’s degree! When I moved to this area, 9 years ago, I didn’t feel being a woman was an impediment in itself, but I did feel that a combination of gender and age and being pretty unknown was perhaps making things difficult.”
“There was then a bit of a young man’s club feel to the theatre scene here, which is changing,” noted Zimmerman. “Most theatres in the area are actively trying to consider hiring more diversely and I see that sometimes that includes concerns of age and gender as well as race, sexuality, and creed.”
Recently, Zimmerman directed Pinter’s Betrayal at 4615 Theatre.
“[This is] a play I have wanted to direct for a very long time. It’s a fascinating examination of loneliness, friendship, love, and of course, betrayal! It was entirely a coincidence that a very high profile production transferred from London to Broadway at exactly the same time, but I like to think that our much lower budget show would stand up to comparison. His writing is so precise and considered, and provides wonderful challenges to the actors.”
She went on to describe her cast and creative team as “brilliant people.” Zimmerman is now the Resident Director at 4615 Theater.
In late February 2020, Zimmerman will direct the world premiere of Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes by Dani Stoller at Signature Theatre. Many may know Stoller as an actress and singer. “She’s written a very funny, powerful, moving and sometimes shocking examination of what it takes to make a family, however dysfunctional that family may be. I’m super excited to get started with rehearsals with an amazing cast.”
Later this year in June, Zimmerman will direct Maple and Vine by Jordan Harrison for Spooky Action Theater. The play is about a couple who completely change their lives, even the period in which they live. “They take on new identities that challenge who they thought they were and who they might become. The play asks how far will they go – how far would you go to alter your life in the pursuit of happiness?” said Zimmerman. “It’s a really intriguing piece that has a quirky style that I’m eager to explore with another superb cast.”
As we wrapped up, Zimmerman added, “I more often have a great experience directing when someone asks me to do something than when I choose it myself! I’m not sure what that says about me. Perhaps that I think I’m a certain type of director, but when challenged to do something I think is outside my comfort zone, it makes me work harder, think more, be braver.”
Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes is scheduled to play at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA, from February 18, 2020, through March 29, 2020. For tickets, you can call 703-820-9771 or go online.