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Julia Miles, 90, dies; Pushed for gender parity in the theater
Julia Miles in 2001, two years before she stepped down as Women’s Project’s artistic director, in New York. Miles, who dedicated her career to ensuring that women playwrights and directors had a stage of their own, died on March 18, 2020, at a care facility in Ridgefield, Conn. She was 90. Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times.

by Daniel E. Slotnik

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Julia Miles, who dedicated her career to ensuring that women playwrights and directors had a stage of their own, died March 18 at a care facility in Ridgefield, Connecticut. She was 90.

Her daughter Marya Cohn confirmed the death.

Miles was working as an assistant director of the nonprofit American Place Theater in the mid-1970s when she noticed that few of the plays the company produced were written by women.

“I looked at our roster, and of about 72 plays that we had done, only about eight were written by women,” Miles told The New York Times in 1998. “I was shocked at this, that the thing I cared most about — theater — was really lacking in female voices.”

Resolving to do something about the gender disparity, she began Women’s Project, now known as WP Theater, in 1978 with a grant from the Ford Foundation, at first staging productions in the American Place Theater’s basement. That basement and WP’s later homes became incubators for young talent and welcoming places for artists trying to bring new perspectives to the theater.

A different perspective was apparent from WP’s first production, “Choices,” a one-woman show in which Lily Lodge read selections by Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath and other writers.

Since then WP has produced more than 600 plays. Standouts during Miles’ tenure included “Still Life” (1981), about the Vietnam War, written and directed by Emily Mann and starring Mary McDonnell, Timothy Near and John Spencer, which earned four Obie Awards; and “A ... My Name Is Alice,” a musical revue conceived and directed by Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd.

Frank Rich, reviewing “Alice” in The New York Times in 1984, noted that it was performed in an airless basement and had “few production values, odd curtain times” and only a piano for accompaniment, but added, “It’s amazing how little any of that matters, however, when there’s fresh talent on display almost everywhere you look.”

WP made it out of the basement in the 1980s, and after several nomadic years found a home in the late 1990s: a space in Hell’s Kitchen that was eventually named the Julia Miles Theater. The company currently operates out of the WP Theater on the Upper West Side.

WP has also produced the work of playwrights like María Irene Fornés, Eve Ensler and Lynn Nottage and featured actors like Billie Allen, America Ferrera and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Miles did all she could to keep WP humming, from securing a million-dollar donation from playwright Sallie Bingham to helping playwrights arrange for child care so that they could attend rehearsals.

Mary McDonnell, who after appearing in “Still Life” went on to earn Academy Award nominations for her roles in “Dances With Wolves” (1990) and “Passion Fish” (1992), said in a phone interview that Miles “made you relax with the process of developing your own voice, and it didn’t matter if you were a writer, a director, an actor.”

Once, McDonnell recalled, Miles invited her to lunch after one of McDonnell’s performances had received a scathing review and helped her put the critic’s reaction in context. Miles, she said, “talked to me about how to develop the kind of internal muscle, emotional muscle” that female artists needed “to make choices that didn’t fit into the old paradigm.”

Experiences like McDonnell’s were common among the many women Miles mentored. Actress Kathleen Chalfant, who helped Miles found WP, said in a phone interview that she was hard-pressed to think of a significant female playwright or director active in the American theater who “hadn’t been touched by the Women’s Project or encouraged by Julia.”

Chalfant added that one of Miles’ enduring legacies was likely to be a professional community that could outlast WP.

“It created this kind of old girls’ network that is so necessary to move forward in any profession,” she said.

Julia Eugenia Hinson was born on Jan. 24, 1930, in Pelham, Georgia, to John and Saro Hinson. Her father was a tobacco and cotton farmer, her mother a homemaker.

She graduated from a boarding school in Georgia, then earned a bachelor’s degree in theater at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she met William Miles.

They married and moved to New York City to pursue acting careers, and Miles studied at the Actors Studio. But aspects of acting in the city soon grew tiresome.

“I did auditions and hated it,” she told The Times in 2001. “I hated the herds. I felt there had to be a better way.”

In the late 1950s Miles began producing plays with Theater Current, a company she founded with friends. She joined the American Place Theater in 1964.

Her marriage to William Miles ended in divorce, as did her second marriage, to Sam Cohn, a prominent talent agent. In addition to her daughter Marya, from her marriage to Cohn, she is survived by two daughters from her marriage to William Miles, Stacey Slane and Lisa Miles; a stepson, Peter Cohn; a sister, Priscilla Arwood; and seven grandchildren.

Miles stepped down as Women’s Project’s artistic director in 2003. From the beginning she had said that she hoped to disband the organization once women had achieved equality in theater.

Lisa McNulty, WP’s current artistic director, said in an interview that even though Miles had expanded gender parity in the theater world, WP was not close to disbanding — and that Miles would have had it no other way.

“I don’t think you start an institution like that and get satisfied with a little bit of progress,” McNulty said. “I think Julia would have been pushing as hard, or more, than I am.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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