Five inspiring and indomitable female directors

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When it comes to theatre, female directors have certainly come a long way since 1918. Today it’s not uncommon to find a woman at the helm shaping the stories told on stage.

Of course, the incomparable Marianne Elliott is one of them, and we were thrilled to get the opportunity to talk to her about her biggest influences in theatre as well as her latest project, the West End’s upcoming Company.

In addition to that, we’ve rounded up five more women directors we admire below. They’ve not only been calling the shots and breaking ground on stage for years, but they’re also inspiring the next generation of impassioned female directors.

Phyllida Lloyd

When we think of female directors making phenomenal productions, the name Phyllida Lloyd immediately pops into our heads. This supremely talented woman born near Bristol has directed countless shows for the country’s leading theatre and opera companies including the Royal National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe, Opera North and English National Opera.

Along with serious classics, Lloyd is also behind the global smash hit Mamma Mia! which tells the story of four strong women living life on their own terms. She directed it both on stage and in the film starring Meryl Streep.

Another landmark achievement of hers is the Shakespeare Trilogy, a series of all-female Shakespeare plays. In an interview at the time, Lloyd explained how that project gave women in her company the opportunity to step outside their usual box as the love interest. Instead she said it “put everybody on the political stage, so the women were playing politicians, warriors and leaders”.

And we can hardly wait to see her latest endeavour: TINA – The Tina Turner Musical. Lloyd will bring the life and struggles of one of most iconic female rock singers of all time (a woman who defied the bounds of her race, age and gender!) to the stage when it opens in the West End this March.

Watch Phyllida Lloyd interview Tina Turner below:

Tina The Musical Shorts | Episode #1

Katie Mitchell

Raised in Hermitage, Berkshire, Katie Mitchell has a huge body of work that almost always revolves around the female experience. In fact, few directors have defied expectations as completely as she has while becoming a serious theatrical force at home and abroad.

Unafraid of taking risks on stage, Mitchell has been responsible for productions such as The Seagull, a Chekhov play that received a hostile reaction after she stamped her own strong mark on it. Mitchell’s revival of Thomas Heywood’s drama about property and marriage, A Woman Killed with Kindness, was also daring because she revealed dimensions of the two female characters that the text left unspoken.

In 2016 Mitchell did Sarah Kane’s grim and controversial play Cleansed for the National Theatre in which she challenged the audience to fully brace the violence of the plot. And last summer she directed Alice Birch’s riveting drama Anatomy of a Suicide. By presenting three generations of women simultaneously, Mitchell said it ended up being “a celebration of what it is to be female.”

Known for pushing traditional boundaries, don’t miss Mitchell’s latest work this May at the Royal Opera House where she’ll direct the world premiere of Lessons in Love and Violence.

Writer Alice Birch & Director Katie Mitchell on Anatomy of a Suicide

Susan Stroman

One of America’s amazingly talented directors as well as an abundantly gifted choreographer, Susan Stroman has earned an international reputation for her outstanding work in theatre. She’s also racked up 14 Tony Award nominations that have resulted in five wins – including Best Direction of a Musical for The Producers.

Just chat with anyone about the theatre and it’s likely you’ll mention at least one of this prolific woman’s splashy, heartfelt shows: Show Boat, Crazy for You, The Scottsboro Boys, Oklahoma!, Bullets Over Broadway, The Music Man and Big, to name a few.

Plus, Stroman is giving voice to women who may have previously gone unsung. She directed Little Dancer, which had its world premiere at the Kennedy Center in 2014. It’s about the obscure girl immortalised in Edgar Degas’ statue by the same name. Set in 1880s Paris and inspired by the real life Marie van Goethem, the focus is on a young sharp-tongued, strong-willed ballerina who struggles to break free from poverty and a world of crushing immorality.

Most recently, Stroman has revamped Mel Brooks’ cult classic musical Young Frankenstein which is now playing in London at the Garrick Theatre. And much like this monster hit, she’s a theatrical force to be reckoned with!

Behind the Curtain: Director/Choreographer Susan Stroman on Little Dancer

Julie Taymor

Revered for her spectacular stagecraft, Julie Taymor made history by being the first woman to receive a Tony Award for directing a musical. She won it in 1998 for The Lion King, along with an additional Tony for her ingenious costume design. Taymor cleverly used masks and puppetry to create giraffes with stilts, leaping antelopes with a bicycle and over 100 more inventive costumes for the show. An incredible spectacle to see, The Lion King has gone on to become one of the longest running musicals on Broadway and in the West End.

Taymor has also directed numerous operas, bringing her imaginative touch to The Magic Flute and Grendel. Following a trying time that ultimately led her to step aside from the beleaguered Broadway production of SpiderMan: Turn Off the Dark, Taymor returned stronger than ever to the stage with her award-winning production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2013 followed by Grounded, a one-woman show featuring Anne Hathaway as a fighter pilot, in 2015.

Last October the visionary American director once again broke new ground with David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly by capturing the play’s Chinese puzzle box theme through a bunch of video screens that dropped down, flipped and turned around.

In the TED Talk speech below, Taymor discussed her creative process along with the conflicts of striving to capture a story while producing experiences unlike anything else, as she’s done throughout her career and most especially in The Lion King.

Julie Taymor: Spider-Man, The Lion King and life on the creative edge

Jude Kelly

Jude Kelly has cemented herself as one of the leading directors in Britain thanks to her work in more than 100 theatre and opera productions for companies ranging from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the English National Opera.

Her most famous credit was Singin’ in the Rain which scored Kelly the Olivier Award for Outstanding Musical Production in 2001. Over the years she’s also directed acting legends like Sir Ian McKellen in The Tempest and Patrick Stewart in Othello.

Kelly has always been consistent in her interest of showing the world as viewed and experienced through women’s eyes. In 2016 she gave a passionate Ted Talk speech about why artists should strive to tell stories of humanity and envision a gender-equal society.

Although she’s been the Southbank Centre’s artistic director for the past 12 years, Kelly recently announced her resignation in order to take charge of the Women of the World Festival which she founded in 2010. Created to celebrate the history and potential of women all over the world, WOW has now grown into a thriving global movement with festivals to be held in 53 different countries this year.

Why women should tell the stories of humanity | Jude Kelly

Discover more amazing Women in Theatre throughout February and March on our blog and buy tickets for West End shows in our dedicated entertainment guide.