Volume 74, Number 47 | March 30 - April 05, 2005

A WOMB with a view about acting roles for women

By Josie Garthwaite

The moment they arrived at the Sept. 25 audition, Rebecca Keren Eisenstadt and Colleen Hodgett, two New York University Tisch School of the Arts sophomores, nearly turned on their talented heels and walked back out to Broadway.

“The first thing I see,” Eisenstadt recalls, “is a sign announcing callbacks over Yom Kippur.” Having plans to celebrate the holiday with family, she asked herself, “Do I audition, or do I keep to my faith?”

Scanning the crowded corridor at 721 Broadway, the main Tisch building, it wasn’t hard for her to decide. Eisenstadt and Hodgett were two of nearly 40 women auditioning for the show’s two female roles. By contrast, only six men had shown up for the more plentiful seven male characters. Even without a religious conflict, Hodgett agreed there were better ways to spend three minutes — the time allotted for each audition — than trying out for this show.

Perched on a bench outside the second floor studio where Playwrights Horizons seniors were holding the auditions, Eisenstadt and Hodgett hatched a blueprint for what would become the WOMB — a Tisch club for women theater artists interested in creating a supportive network and digging into multicultural ties.

The fruit of that fall audition — far from the rejection Eisenstadt and Hodgett anticipated if they’d stuck around for their three minutes — were on view last week, when the club’s first show, Wendy Wasserstein’s “Uncommon Women and Others,” played at the Stella Adler studio on W. 27th St.

The Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Wasserstein, known for plays about educated women dealing with social changes in the modern era, wrote “Uncommon Women” in 1975 while studying at Yale School of Drama. The series of vignettes centers on five women reunited six years after their 1972 graduation from Mount Holyoke College and their reflections on the paths their lives have taken.

Wasserstein’s play has been staged consistently since its debut in 1978 — and been credited with launching the careers of actresses Glenn Close, Swoosie Kurtz and Meryl Streep — but the WOMB’s current production of the 16-woman show outside of Tisch Drama is a statement about the opportunities within a department where two females are enrolled for every one male.

With Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” kicking up controversy as well as fans around the country, the 80-member WOMB tries to take things farther. It’s not enough, they say, to raise one woman into the footlights and talk about women — let’s try 16, let’s have them all talk and let’s give them a community to work from.

Eisenstadt and Hodgett unearthed the 90-minute “Uncommon Women and Others” and started the WOMB wheels rolling that same “fateful Wednesday night at Tisch,” as Eisenstadt now refers to the September audition.

Hodgett didn’t return to N.Y.U. this semester, leaving Eisenstadt as the group’s president.

Kate Kuehn and Lynn Compton, two more Tisch students, not uncoincidentally sophomores, are co-vice presidents of the WOMB.

Eisenstadt, who will direct “Uncommon Women,” says the second year is when drama students begin to feel lost in the shuffle. “You’re not well known, but you feel like you should be because you’ve been here for so long. You’re going to audition after audition,” and if you’re like many of the women, you’re not getting cast.

With support from the other WOMB leaders, Hodgett and Eisenstadt headed out to find a play for their young brainchild. They marched down the stairs at 721 Broadway and headed across the street to Shakespeare & Co., where they faced an alphabetical-by-author mass of plays.

Working their way from Aeschylus to Zola, Hodgett and Eisenstadt tore through the shelves with the jacked-up adrenaline of kids playing hooky, throwing plays at one another, shouting over the shelves between Clare Booth Luce (who wrote “The Women”), and Shakespeare (they considered staging an all-female version of one of his plays), and chuckling cynically at their classmates still waiting to audition across the street.

But when Hodgett pulled Wasserstein’s 60-page play off the shelf, the two friends knew their search was over, and Eisenstadt says, “We laughed, because that’s what we are — ‘uncommon women.’ ”

With Wasserstein’s play in hand, Eisenstadt and Hodgett applied for funding from the Tisch Undergraduate Student Council. In their proposal, they described plans to “solve the woman’s predicament at the Tisch School of the Arts.”

And no, they were not referring to the school’s notorious odds against romance.

“Our goal is to make the theater a better place for women,” says Lily Blau, the WOMB’s secretary. “It’s a numbers game,” she says, but the club intends to create more than roles for women in Tisch. Building a sense of community, the group says, is equally important.

According to Patricia Decker, applicant services coordinator for the drama department, the 1,500 undergraduate students reflect the program’s applicant pool, which consistently draws approximately 33 percent men and 66 percent women. Students are not “cherry picked” based on gender, though, and male applicants receive no less scrutiny than female ones, Decker says. Selecting students is not a matter of deciding, “We need an ingénue here,” or “We need romantic lead there,” but deciding who will work best with the program, and the ratios work out because of equal standards.

Once the actors are admitted, however, playwrights throughout history, not contemporary admissions officers, influence opportunities, and the numbers don’t play out as evenly. According to Arthur Bartow, the drama department’s artistic director, this year’s five N.Y.U. Mainstage production casts will include 41 women and 44 men — hardly proportionate to the talent pool. While Mainstages don’t account for the entire year’s productions, they are the most professional tier of Tisch drama shows, and generally most desirable to be cast in.

Looking at all 176 shows produced last school year, Bartow says the department reported nearly 60 percent of the roles were women. He is quick to point out, however, that the department looks not only at the size of the cast, but also at the quality of the roles. So while the Mainstage production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” requires six actresses and nine actors, Bartow considers it “a woman’s play” because — although written by a man — the main characters are all women. The same goes for Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,” Bartow says, featuring five leading women and three men.

As for the club’s name, organizers say it is both symbol and acronym. The first two letters stand for “Women Organized.” The second two, derived from the Hebrew and Gaelic words for “womb,” suggest Eisenstadt and Hodgett’s connections with Jewish and Irish cultures and their intention to incorporate cultural heritage into the club’s work — not so much in their first production, they say, but further down the line.

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