Julia Miles:  Making Theatre for the Women’s Century

By Alexis Greene

The twentieth century in America was the women’s century.

The century opened with the ascendance of what the media at that time called the New Woman. The New Woman didn’t yet have the right to vote, but she was out there: getting jobs, so she could support herself; organizing unions; establishing settlement houses for the urban poor. 

A nurse and mother of three named Margaret Sanger had worked with Lillian Wald’s Visiting Nursing Service, at the Henry Street Settlement House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and while tending to the hundreds of women who had journeyed to New York City from Italy and Eastern Europe, Sanger was horrified by the damaging physical and financial effects of their numerous pregnancies (she herself was one of eleven children). She was aghast at the dire results of back-alley abortions, which often left women bleeding, suffering infections, or dead. So in 1916, when Sanger was 37, she opened America’s first birth control clinic, in Brooklyn. And even after being arrested—it was against American law to provide contraceptives–in 1921 Sanger established the American Birth Control League, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Margaret Sanger
1917 [?] Bain News Service collection, Library of Congress

The New Woman fought for the right to vote. And in 1920, the 19th Amendment, which gave her that Constitutional right, was ratified.            

But as with several of the achievements that women won during the first half of the twentieth century, the benefits accrued mainly to white women. Even after the 19th Amendment was ratified, African American women in both the South and the North came up against discriminatory literacy tests that made it impossible for them to register to vote, let alone cast a ballot.

Then, decades later, on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, an African American  activist named Rosa Parks, who worked as a seamstress, refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. That defiance helped launch America’s Civil Rights Movement and ultimately led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, and national origin. When the Women’s Liberation Movement sprang to life in the 1960s, and bloomed during the 1970s, this second wave of feminism owed much of its modus operandi—its marches and sit-ins and consciousness raising–to the Civil Rights Movement.

Rosa Parks  (ca. 1955) National Archives, Source: Ebony Magazine

The New Woman who wrote plays or wanted to direct had also penetrated the American theatre, if in considerably smaller numbers than the men who wrote and staged plays.

Theatre in the first decades of the twentieth  century essentially meant Broadway, and there we find plays by Zoë Akins, Sophie Treadwell, Mae West, Margaret Mayo, and of course Rachel Crothers, who wrote at least 41 one-acts and full-length  plays. “If you want to see the sign of the times, watch women,” she is reported to have said in 1912. “Their evolution is the most important thing in modern life.”

Rachel Crothers [between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920]  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In Crothers’s He and She, which was produced on Broadway in 1920, with Crothers acting the leading female role, the play dramatizes the challenges and frustrations that confronted the New Woman. The He and She of the play’s title are husband and wife, sculptors both, and when the wife wins an award for her work, the husband is not  pleased. Their daughter suddenly returns home from school after a troubling sexual escapade, and it is She who gives up both her award and her artistic career to care for her daughter.

Broadway may have been the primary focus for American dramatists early in the twentieth century, but self-described Little Theatres were evolving beyond Broadway’s realm. By 1920 there were at least fifty of these amateur, anti-commercial theatre groups in the U.S., and some women who wrote plays found homes with them. Alice Gerstenberg was an original member of the Chicago Little Theatre. Neith Boyce and Susan Glaspell helped found the Provincetown Players in Massachusetts, which then moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Black women were also writing plays: Angelina Grimke and Alice Dunbar Nelson, Mary Burrill and Myrtle Smith Livingston, Ruth Gaines-Shelton, Eulalie Spence, and Marita Bonner. Their plays might be presented by the NAACP, or at a high school where the playwright taught. Or not produced at all. But as Bonner wrote in her extraordinary 1925 essay, On Being Young—A Woman—And Colored: 

You long to explode and hurt everything white; friendly; unfriendly.

But you know that you cannot live with a chip on your shoulder….For

chips make you bend your body to balance them.

And once you bend, you lose your poise, your

balance, and the chip gets into you. The real you.

You get hard.

So—being a woman—you can wait….

And then you can, when Time is ripe, swoop to your feet—at your full height . . .

Marita Bonner

American women in the theatre waited until the 1970s. In the intervening years, exceptional women were writing plays, and directing and producing them: Lillian Hellman; Eva Le Gallienne; Mary Hunter Wolf; Hallie Flanagan and Zelda Fichandler, the Black actor and director Osceola Marie Macarthy Adams, and Lorraine Hansberry—the first Black woman to see a play of hers, A Raisin in the Sun, performed on Broadway, in 1959.  By the 1960s, off-off Broadway cafes and theatres became home to playwrights such as Julie Bovasso and Ruth Krauss, Rosalyn Drexler and Rochelle Owens, Adrienne Kennedy and María Irene Fornés. But even Ellen Stewart, known as “the spirit of La Mama” was bringing more male than female playwrights to her two theaters at La Mama ETC on East Fourth Street.

Then, in the late 1970s, Julia Miles revolutionized the standing of women in the American theatre. 

She was born Julia Eugenia Hinson on January 24th, 1930, in Pelham, Georgia, a place named for Major John Pelham, who had fought and died for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. About 2,700 people lived in Pelham, which was largely known for its pecan farms and cotton fields. Indeed, Julia’s father, John Cornelius Hinson, was a cotton and tobacco farmer. Julia was the second of the three children born to John Hinson and his wife, Saro Priscilla Jones. 


A young Julia. Photo: Courtesy Marya Cohn

Julia grew up in Pelham, but left to spend the last two years of high school at Brenau Academy, an all-girls school about four hours away in Gainesville. Then she left Georgia permanently. She had always wanted to act, and her Aunt Grace, who had once lived in New York City and tried to break into musical theatre, encouraged Julia to study theatre at Northwestern University in Illinois. As Suzanne Bennett, who became literary manager at the Women’s Project in 1984 told me,  “Julia and I, we’re both Southerners. I was from a small town in Tennessee, and she was from a small town in Georgia. We talked about that, and she talked about how much she wanted to get away, as I wanted to get away. We shared that in common.” Bennett added that “one of the reasons we both wanted to leave the South was because of the segregated society that we had both grown up in and felt uncomfortable in.”

The day in June 1950 that Julia graduated from Northwestern she married an actor and writer named William A. Miles, Jr., and they both high-tailed it to Gotham.  She was 20 years old.

In New York City, like many young actors at that time, Julia studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. The actor and director Billie Allen, who was also taking classes with Strasberg, fondly remembered Julia acting Shakespeare’s Desdemona. “She did the Willow Song like a Southern Baptist hymn, and it was very deep and very moving,” Billie told me in an interview for the Introduction to A Theatre for Women’s Voices, an anthology celebrating the 25th year of the Women’s Project. “I think she would have gone on to be an extraordinary actor if she had stuck with it.”

But Julia couldn’t stand the business of acting. “I found it so discouraging and frightening and horrifying,” she told Nadine Honigberg for an interview in the Winter 1985 issue of Theater. “You were just the least important person in the world, and even when you had a job nobody cared what you thought….You really had no control over anything.”  In addition, she now had two children, Stacey and Lisa, and her marriage to William Miles was dissolving (in 1960, they divorced).

She did not completely give up acting, but she did turn to producing. Banding together with Sally Weeks, Terry Trilling and Jan Henry, they formed Theatre Current: Brooklyn’s Only Professional Resident Company, and there they drew positive critical attention in 1961 by producing Arnold Weinstein’s The Red Eye of Love, a satirical script brought to Julia by her friend, the producer Samuel C. Cohn. Soon afterward she became associate producer with Cohn, the director and designer John Wulp, and others at the Maidman Playhouse on West 42nd Street in Manhattan. In August of 1962, she and Cohn were married. Two years later, Julia gave  birth to their daughter Marya. 

Julia experienced producing and theatre-managing to be physically challenging—she suffered terribly from migraines—but she found the experience personally creative and rewarding. And thus it was that, in 1964, she climbed the wooden stairs at St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street, where Wynn Handman had established the newly formed American Place Theatre and was its artistic director. Liking the rehearsal she saw and the people she met, she volunteered at the American Place–and ultimately was hired.

“Julia was a very capable manager,” Wynn Handman recalled. “I felt that she was a really wonderful partner. For one thing, her aesthetic judgments and taste were very harmonious with mine….I thought we were an excellent team.”  

“I’ve always been ready to do the work,” was how Miles expressed her achievements at the American Place and beyond. “That’s probably been the secret of my success….I see something and want to get it accomplished. I just do it.”  And she did not suffer fools.

In 1971, when the American Place moved from St. Clement’s to underground spaces in an office building at 46th Street and Sixth Avenue, she became the theatre’s Associate Director.

In 1978, she established the Women’s Project of the American Place Theatre.

As the playwright Marita Bonner had written so prophetically in 1925  “when Time is ripe, swoop to your feet.”  Throughout the 1970s, women were  leaping to their feet, attempting to complete what the New Women had begun decades earlier.  

Action for Women in Theatre had produced a study which revealed that the number of female playwrights and directors working in regional and off-Broadway theatres was 7% or less.  Nancy Rhodes, who founded the Encompass New Opera Theatre in 1975 and became its artistic director, is fairly certain Julia Miles knew about the study.

Nancy Rhodes Courtesy of Encompass New Opera Theatre

The American Place Theatre had brought audiences to see a remarkable roster of playwrights,  including Sam Shepard, Ed Bullins, Ronald Ribman, Anne Sexton, and María Irene Fornés. But Miles became increasingly aware that the men on the American Place’s roster vastly outnumbered the women. The American Place Theatre wasn’t anti-woman, she pointed out. The APT just wasn’t receiving women’s scripts.

“So many women were becoming lawyers and doctors and everything else,” Miles told Honigberg for the Theater interview. “I thought: what is this—the theatre is behind.” 

 Miles set about helping the American Place catch up, not only by presenting women’s plays but also by bringing to the fore women who were directors and women who were set and lighting designers. She applied for and received a Ford Foundation grant of $80,000, and during the 1978-79 season, the first of the Women’s Project of the American Place Theatre, twenty playwrights received rehearsed, Monday-night staged readings of their work, followed by discussions with the audience, all taped, so that the playwrights could continue to learn from their events.

And out of that first series of readings, four plays were selected for studio productions: Choices, conceived by Patricia Bosworth, adapted by Bosworth, Caymichael Patten and Lily Lodge, and directed by Patten; Warriors From a Long Childhood by Lavonne Mueller, directed by Betsy Shevey; Joan Schenkar’s Signs of Life, staged by Esther Herbst, and Letters Home, Rose Leiman Goldemberg’s two–character play dramatizing the poet Sylvia Plath’s correspondence with her mother. Directed by Dorothy Silver, Doris Belack played Plath’s mother, Aurelia, and Mary McDonnell was the poet.

Miles’ instinct that many women were writing plays but needed a home where their plays could be produced, proved true. As she told the reporter and critic Marilyn Stasio of the New York Post, once the readings and studio productions were underway, the Women’s Project received at least 400 scripts. “The word has certainly gotten out,” she told Stasio with a dollop of humor. Nor was she completely surprised. “We expected the volume of scripts,” but were “overwhelmed by the number of women directors who responded. I might have to expand the project for them.”

Her commitment to her goals was unflinching. And she made it very personal in her life.

Joan D. Firestone

As for content, “Most of the plays I’ve read show a spirit of optimism,” Miles told Stasio. “Women seem to be writing about going through problems and crises — both in their personal relationships and in their work —- and coming out on the up-side, the positive side. The plays indicate that they are finding hard-earned strength in themselves.”

Women who met Julia during this period were invariably impressed. “You could feel the power of her,” said the producer Joan D. Firestone, who later became Assistant Director at the New York State Council on the Arts. “Her commitment to her goals was unflinching. And she made it very personal in her life. It was not a part-time commitment.”

The actor, author and career coach Mari Lyn Henry remembered that “When I arrived in New York City in the 1970s to pursue an acting career, I soon realized that I needed a survival job.” A colleague told her about a job opening for the producer Julia Miles. “She made me feel so comfortable as she was evaluating my qualifications,” Henry recalled, and although Miles complimented the young actor, she did not have a job for her. “I was grateful for her honesty and her compassion. In retrospect I was inspired to work harder and find my purpose in life.”

The playwright and director Emily Mann had just moved to New York City from Minneapolis, where, in 1979, she had been the first woman to direct on the Guthrie Theatre’s main stage (the Guthrie had opened in 1963). Mann’s play Still Life,  about a Vietnam veteran, his abused wife and his mistress, had received its premiere in October 1980 at the Goodman Theatre Studio in Chicago, with Mann directing Mary McDonnell, Timothy Near and John Spencer. Mann brought the script to Miles.

Emily Mann’s Still Life
Left to Right: Timothy Near, Mary McDonnell, John Spencer. Photo credit: James Hamilton

“Most people don’t know this story, but I’d sent the play to Lincoln Center, and they said, ‘We like it, will do it, but it needs to have movie stars.’” Mann, however, described herself as “still one of those idealistic, art-for-art’s-sake” people. She didn’t want a cast of film stars.

“I met with Julia,” Mann recalled recently, “And I told her about Lincoln Center and that I was told, ‘If Lincoln Center wanted to do my new play, I should jump,’ because Lincoln Center doesn’t do women’s plays. And I told Julia that they want me to cast movie stars, and I’d been working with a collective with other actors, who aren’t famous. And she said, ‘Oh, well, you’ve come to the right place. Please let me read it.’”

 “I literally handed it to her. She read it, like, overnight, and said, ‘I love it. We’ll do it.’ And I left Lincoln Center to do it at the Women’s Project.”

In February 1981, Mann directed Mary McDonnell, Timothy Near and John Spencer in Still Life at the American Place, and several months later Still Life received an Obie Award for Best Production, and McDonnell, Near and Spencer won Obies for their performances. Mann remembered Julia being “just so over-the-moon thrilled. She felt it was the greatest triumph of the Women’s Project to date.”

Miles was “a cheerleader,” said Joan Vail Thorne, whose comedy The Exact Center of the Universe was produced in 1999 by the Women’s Project Theater and subsequently moved to a commercial off-Broadway house. “To do more for women’s plays was all she ever wanted. And be famous for it. She was not a shrinking violet. Nothing wrong with that.”

The Exact Center of the Universe by Joan Vail Thorne
left to right: Sloane Shelton, Frances Sternhagen, Marge Redmon and Tracy Thorne

Miles’ advocacy for women in the theatre was not limited to the Women’s Project. She was a founding member of the American Theatre Association’s Women’s Program, and like many women in both the professional theatre and academia, she believed it essential to promote women in the theatre, help them acquire skills and resources, and introduce them to those in the profession who could provide jobs.

Memories differ regarding how these aims gave birth to the League of Professional Theatre Women. Beverley Byers-Pevitts recalled, in notes taken about the League’s history, that “The idea for the League was hatched at an American Theatre Association conference in San Diego, California,” in 1980, which Miles did not attend. 

Gayle Austin, who began to work at the American Place Theatre in 1977 as Wynn Handman’s assistant,  then moved over to the Women’s Project in 1978, reading unsolicited scripts and passing along the most promising ones to Julia, wrote me that “The catalyst for the League was what Julia, and everyone, experienced during the audience discussions after the staged readings held in the Subplot Cabaret space at APT. The women voiced opinions about the plays and mingled and networked during the wine receptions after the play. The playwrights and directors were there in force, but I remember Julia commenting that she wished the commercial producers were there as well. That wish led her, in 1982, to have the first gathering of what would become the League, in that very space, with producers she invited, induced to come by the presence of some of their peers and the idea of forming a League. Membership grew, and others took over leadership eventually, but the root of it all was Julia’s rolodex.”

I was trying to get the professional Broadway theatre—the commercial theatre—to know about the nonprofit women playwrights and directors so that we could get them some work.

Julia Miles

Julia herself recalled, in the notes about the League’s history, that “The first meeting we had at the American Place was with Bernie [Jacobs] and Jerry [Schoenfeld]. Because at that point I was trying to get the professional Broadway theatre—the commercial theatre—to know about the nonprofit women playwrights and directors so that we could get them some work. That was the whole point….So maybe they could hire them, come see their work. I wanted them to know what each other was doing. It was all a networking thing. That was how it started.”

Women in the professional theatre and women in nonprofit theatre and academia shared the desire to put women forward. Or as Joan Firestone summarized it, “There was definitely a group of people, but Julia was the lead. Julia was the mouthpiece. She had the resources, the contacts, and she had the passion.”

Julia Miles became Chair of the League’s Steering Committee in 1982 and remained essentially the League’s first president until 1984, when the League moved to having co-presidents. In 1986, the League of Professional Theatre Women was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization.

“Share the triumph of our 10th Anniversary Season!” a flyer exclaimed buoyantly in large white letters.

It was June 10th, 1988, and the Women’s Project was celebrating its tenth birthday at New York City’s Tavern on the Green, bestowing Women of Achievement awards on the actor Glenda Jackson; the medical researcher Dr. Mathilde Krim; CBS Correspondent Diane Sawyer; Betty Allen, the president of the Harlem School of the Arts; and Diane Coffey, who was Chief of Staff for New York City Mayor Ed Koch.

Julia Miles courtesy of WP Theater

The celebration and the triumph were also for the newly established not-for-profit named the Women’s Project and Productions.

In 1986, the Kentucky Foundation for Women bestowed a $1 million five-year grant on the Women’s Project, but stipulated that the Project must become a not-for-profit separate from the American Place, with a new name. And so the Women’s Project departed the American Place in July 1987 and, as the Women’s Project and Productions, moved into its own place, on West 42nd Street, and produced at the Apple Corps Theater on West 20th Street. Julia Miles was now an Artistic Director.

In 1988, Miles told Amy Hersh at TheaterWeek Magazine, “somebody said it takes ten years to get the work going, five more years to get it to become visible, and the rest of your life to see what impact it has. We’re in the phase where we wish to become visible and get the work out there so it can make a difference.”

Get the work out there, she did. There were productions of Cassandra Medley’s Ma Rose; Darrah Cloud’s O Pioneers! (a co-production with the Seattle Repertory Theatre); The Exact Center of the Universe by Joan Vail Thorne; Bridgette Wimberley’s St. Lucy’s Eyes, directed by Billie Allen and starring Ruby Dee; and Terra Incognito, written and directed by María Irene Fornés—among numerous others.

St. Lucy’s Eyes by Bridgette A. Wimberly
left to right: Ruby Dee and Toks Olagundoye. Photo: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Her theatre was visible, too. In 1997, to celebrate its upcoming 20th anniversary, Women’s Project and Productions hosted the conference “Women in Theatre: Mapping the Sources of Power.” As Miles wrote in American Theatre magazine, it was “an unanticipated sell-out” and “The many students who attended cheered; they networked and took notes and exhorted each other to go out and start their own theatres.”  The following year, with considerable funding from Sallie Bingham, the company acquired the 199-seat Theater Four on West 55th Street, eventually renaming it the Julia Miles Theater.

Julia handed over the reins of the theatre to Loretta Greco in 2004, and  Julie Crosby managed and ultimately headed what was renamed the Women’s Project Theater.  

Lisa McNulty Courtesy of WP Theater

In August of 2014 Lisa McNulty became producing artistic director of WP Theater, which now makes its home at the McGinn/Cazale Theater on Broadway, at 76th Street.  McNulty had been the artistic line producer at Manhattan Theatre Club since 2006, and before that had developed a deep relationship with Julia and Women’s Project and Productions, both as literary manager and then as associate artistic director. She continues to build on the mission that Miles established, attracting female-identified theatre artists to its Lab for playwrights, directors and producers, and producing in the McGinn/Cazale space. Launching the 2022-23 season: the Indie Rock Musical Weightless, written by The Kilbanes and directed by Tamilla Woodard.

“We have become more inclusive in terms of gender,” McNulty told me. “We work with trans artists, we work with nonbinary artists. We’re in a different time, and WP is more inclusive in that way.”

“As far as I can tell,” said McNulty, “we’re the oldest theatre in the country that does this work. Julia is the person who looked at the inequity and said something needed to change. And she was the person who had the presence in the industry, who was perfectly placed to make something happen and had the will to make it happen.”

As for the League of Professional Theatre Women, it has expanded its programs and forged connections with female-identified theatre artists all over the world. Some of its most notable programs include Julia’s Reading Room, a monthly program that originally took place in Miles’ apartment and provided an opportunity for LPTW theatre artists to present their works-in-progress. The League’s Heritage Program reclaims the achievements of theatre women of the past, and among the numerous awards that LPTW presents, the Gilder/Coigney International Theatre Award recognizes female artists who create theatre in worlds beyond the United States, from Rwanda to Colombia to Lebanon. In 2009  the League joined with Women’s Project Theater and New Perspectives Theatre Company to sponsor the panel and working group,  “50/50 in 2020.”

The League produces an Oral History Project, started by the incomparable Betty Corwin, joining with the NYPL for the Performing Arts to hold live, taped interviews with women of the theatre about their professional and  private lives—interviews destined for the Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape (TOFT) archive.  Want to see and hear Nancy Rhodes talk with Jean Dalrymple? Leah Frank interviewing Uta Hagen? Or Billie Allen in a captivating conversation with Ruby Dee? Billie talks with Ruby Dee about the actor’s childhood and extraordinary career, which began in a Harlem basement and led, in 1940, to her first performance, in the American Negro Theatre’s production of Strivers Row. Billie Allen herself was later interviewed by the actor Phylicia Rashad, a conversation made possible by Angelina Fiordelisi.  

Ludovica Villar-Hauser

TOFT has those videotapes and more. Upcoming: On October 17, television journalist and theatre critic Roma Torre will interview theatre producer Pat Addiss. 

As Ludovica Villar-Hauser, who is currently the League’s co-president with Katrin Hilbe, wrote me, “Every single wonderful theatre woman whose interview lives at TOFT, and whose legacy will not be forgotten, owes a debt of gratitude to Julia Miles for starting the LPTW.”

Julia Miles died in 2020 .She was 90 years old. She had helped make the twentieth century the women’s century, forging a theatre company dedicated to women’s work and a League that brings women of the theatre together from all over the world, to advise and sustain each other professionally.

Tisa Chang, who founded the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in 1977 and is a League member, wrote me that “The League attracts serious women practitioners who are in for the long haul—so sustainability, survivability, upholding standards of excellence and loyalty are key to our thrivability.”

“Julia was a champion,” said Nancy Rhodes. “A great visionary for women then and those coming after.”

In 1998, American Theatre magazine devoted its entire September issue to Women in Theatre and asked Miles to introduce “this special issue” with an essay. It had been a good theatre season for American women: Paula Vogel had won the Pulitzer for How I Learned to Drive, and Julie Taymor became the first woman in the Tony Awards’ 53-year history to win the Tony for directing, for The Lion King.

Julia Miles, Photo: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

“I’m happy about our recent successes,” Miles wrote in American Theatre, “but they must not distort our perceptions. We continue to occupy a small space in the theatre. It’s taken time, more than most of us thought, but our talents will continue to enlarge this space….Women will claim their lives in the theatre.”

Photo credit: Charles Chessler

Alexis Greene is an author, biographer and arts journalist. Her most recent biography is Emily Mann:  Rebel Artist of the American Theater, about the pioneering playwright and stage director, who became the first woman to be artistic director of the McCarter Theatre Center (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books).  Greene lives in New York City with her husband, Gordon R. Hough. 

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