The five women who started a secret theater society
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The five women who started a secret theater society
From left: Maria Goyanes, Shanta Thake (back), Lear deBessonet, Meiyin Wang (back) and Stephanie Ybarra in New York, April 30, 2024. In the 2010s, when these friends formed a professional alliance, ambition was a loaded word. (Ye Fan/The New York Times)

by Peter Marks

NEW YORK, NY.- It was their own secret society. Five women who worked together at the Public Theater, bonding over drinks and aspirations, sharing frustrations and ideas, commiserating and brainstorming and laughing.

They gave their alliance a nickname: Women and Ambition — cheeky because, as they saw it, “ambitious” remained such a loaded adjective for young women. Their convergence at the Public in the mid-2010s would resonate as far more than happy memories: Now each of them has become a Woman With Power, in a beleaguered field in vital need of new inspiration.

“These women have helped change the trajectory of my life,” said one of the women, Maria Goyanes, who is now the artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington.

Lear deBessonet, who oversees the long-running Encores! series at New York City Center, recalled the prevailing spirit: “There was a sense of like, ‘I see you, girl. I see you. You’ve got to run things now.’”

And now they do.

Before deBessonet officially took over the Encores! series in 2021, she ran Public Works, the community-oriented program that stages a musical adaptation of a classic story each summer. Once at Encores!, which gives rarely revived shows short-running productions, she got off to a shaky start during the pandemic. But she’s since had a number of buzzy productions, including a starry “Into the Woods,” which went to Broadway. This summer, her acclaimed production of “Once Upon a Mattress,” with Sutton Foster, is Broadway-bound as well.

Shanta Thake, who oversaw Joe’s Pub for many years at the Public, has been since 2021 chief artistic officer for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Stephanie Ybarra, who ran the Public’s Mobile Unit, left to become the artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage and is now a program officer for arts and culture at the Mellon Foundation.

And Meiyin Wang, who coordinated the Under the Radar festival at the Public, is now the director of producing and programming at the new $500 million Perelman Performing Arts Center in lower Manhattan.

That all five women — four of them women of color, all now in their 40s — have ascended to influential leadership roles reflects not only their talents, but also the evolving portrait of power in the arts. A National Endowment for the Arts study, for example, found that by 2019 women accounted for 49% of the managerial roles in performing arts companies.

The story of these five friends illuminates a truth that transcends statistics: Women are achieving parity in the upper ranks of a profession that, like so many others, has historically favored the advancement of men. Still, it’s hard to imagine in the 21st century the need for a group called “Men and Ambition.”

Not that female aspiration in the theater is anything of a novelty: Foundational leaders of the regional theater movement, back when it started in the 1950s, included women like Zelda Fichandler at Arena Stage and Margo Jones at the Dallas Theater Center.

So in gathering these five leaders recently, I wanted to understand what instinctual values they shared, and how synergy bound them. (They’re all still good friends and lean on one another, though maybe not as intensely as in the days when they retired to BBar on the Bowery, now closed.) I also wanted to hear their thoughts on a culture that still exhibits double standards when it comes to women in authority.

“The idea was about how ambition felt like such a dirty word,” Goyanes said, explaining the group’s rationale. “How it was so, you know, how we were driven, and how that was seen as not how we’re supposed to act.”

“We used to argue about things,” Thake said. “We used to sit in the office and argue about what assumptions lived inside of the word ‘leader.’ Inside of the words ‘artistic director,’ inside of what does it mean to lead an institution? We would wrestle with the dominant belief system or how we were being raised but, like, what was being modeled for us?”

“I think it was feeling clear,” deBessonet added, “that if being a leader meant being a person we didn’t want to be like, we weren’t willing to be that type.”

What that meant was discussing their own insecurities about occupying roles in an industry perennially rife with insecurity. Goyanes described an ongoing battle of conscience: being a manager with a solid job in a field of struggling artists.

“I grew up in an immigrant family,” she said. “Should I be of more direct service to people? Is storytelling enough or is this actually being selfish?”

The struggle early on was not just a matter of refining their managerial visions, but building a kind of collective self-confidence, learning that the advancement of any one of them was a success for all of them. For women of their generation, that mutual support felt almost revolutionary.

I’d arranged first to interview them separately, and now we were all together at Lafayette, a restaurant across the street from the Public, in the heart of Greenwich Village. Thake had come to the Public as an intern in 2003, and Goyanes arrived the following year, becoming a producing associate for Oskar Eustis when he was named artistic director in 2005.

It was Goyanes who over the next several years brought Ybarra, Wang and deBessonet into the Public’s fold. As Ybarra recalled, Goyanes — “a professional acquaintance” — phoned her one day in 2011, saying, “‘We have a job that’s opening up in the artistic department; I’m positive that you’re overqualified for it. Will you come and talk to us anyway?’”

With a Yale Drama School degree and experience as a producing director at the Playwrights Realm, an off-Broadway incubator for emerging dramatists, Ybarra went for it.

“This is where I think my ambition and strategy come into play,” she said. “I took a pay cut to go to the Public. I took a title cut to go to the Public. But I was betting on myself in a way that was sort of like, ‘They don’t know who they have yet.’” Her steerage of the Mobile Unit — including a tour of Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” to hard-pressed industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest — led to her appointment in 2018 as artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage.

Eustis, their former boss, said in a telephone interview that the Public’s particular scope — the off-Broadway institution that birthed “A Chorus Line” and “Hamilton,” but also free Shakespeare in Central Park — was in a sense built for these women. “We are not a niche theater,” he said. “It’s known for people who can run with the ball, and each of those women, who ran those programs, had a great deal of autonomy.

“All these women are passionate about the world, about equality, democracy, access, as well as passionate about art,” Eustis added. “And the Public Theater called to them.”

Some of what forged their bonds were indeed the idealistic aspirations of the Public, a sometimes unwieldy, sometimes financially challenged organization with a staff of around 200 and a mission of being the people’s theater.

Still, what the company instilled in the women has never lost its value. “I think we all had the same goal,” suggested Thake, who has endeavored at Lincoln Center to open the campus to a wider range of artists. As the center’s leaders shake up long-running programs like Mostly Mozart, Thake and her staff are introducing city audiences to hipper summer diversions like the NYC Ska Orchestra, “The Dream Machine Experience” and singer Dobet Gnahoré.

“We’re very different people, like so different, actually,” Thake said of the women. “However, I think we all really share this one idea: that art matters.”

All came from varied — and not seamlessly paved — paths to the arts, deBessonet noted. Goyanes grew up in Queens, the daughter of a city transit worker. Wang is from Singapore, arriving in the United States for college. Thake comes from a middle-class family in Santa Claus, Indiana. (“I grew up on Ornament Lane,” she said, laughing.) Ybarra was raised in San Antonio with a Latino father and a Czech mother. And as a child in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, deBessonet “did shows in my backyard with my sister and my dog.”

From those disparate roots, these women came of age with a similar sense of the world. “What does it mean to be ‘of the people’? What does it mean to be ‘by the people’? What does it mean to be ‘for the people’?” deBessonet said. “You know, all three of those are important, and were important in the founding of Public Works. I think that contains the essence of — the dream of the Public Theater.”

They’ve all had to move on from the dream, to the hard realities of stewardship, with the various public-facing challenges of raising money, dealing with boards, trying to program seasons that will attract paying customers. This has not been without bumps: Ybarra, for example, ran into stiff opposition in Baltimore as she tried to introduce more diversity into the company’s art and artists.

“I’m not worried about the art at all, it’s just going to thrive, it’s going to find its way into the corners in which it happens,” Wang said of creating, with artistic director Bill Rauch, a fresh arts portfolio at the Perelman. The center, now in its inaugural season, has its first bona fide hit in “Cats: The Jellicle Ball,” a radical reinterpretation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, based on T.S. Eliot’s poems.

The bigger concern? “It’s making the case for folks to get out of their homes and into environments and being present,” Wang said. “This idea of welcoming, of belonging, of excitement, it’s like, how do you just create that? And that is for me the task at hand.”

Around a banquette, the women sipped wines and seltzers and munched on guacamole and talked this past spring about the endless Monday night fundraising galas and upcoming vacations and much more. The overturning of Harvey Weinstein’s New York conviction, and analyses of court actions limiting the right to abortion, were in the news. I lamely suggested as evidence of theater world progress that seven of the 10 Tony Award nominations for best director — of both a play and a musical — went to women this year.

“What’s going on there?” I asked. The table erupted in laughter.

“Rollback?” someone said. “Rollback of women’s rights?” said someone else.

“This is a good reminder that women need to be winning, running all the things,” Thake said.

Steering back to what the group was all about, I asked: “What do you each think when you see the other four?”

“I think,” Goyanes said, “of texting people and being like, ‘Can we go outside? We need to talk!’”

For Ybarra, a particular memory comes to mind: “I have these really clear visuals of me and Lear standing together in whatever that office space was, and just being like: ‘How are you? You better do this thing, and I got to do this thing. ...’”

And so the conversation flowed. It felt as if no one wanted it to end. Among these comrades in arts, it also felt as if it never would.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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