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Veteran Female Designers on Broadway

Women at the Helm: Veteran Designers

Veteran designers Ann Roth, Jennifer Tipton, and Christine Jones can claim more than 130 years of Broadway success combined, not to mention a vast array of other theater credits and work in dance, opera, and film. And none of the three women shows any signs of slowing down.

Lighting designer Tipton and costumer Roth, both in their late eighties, have respectively collected 11 and seven Tony Award nominations: Tipton was nominated for her third trophy for her work on Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Roth, who won in 2013 for The Nance, was a double nominee this year, for both Mockingbird and Taylor Mac’s Broadway bow Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus.

 

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Scenographer Jones — the relative baby of the trio, in her early fifties — made her Broadway debut in 2000 working with Julie Taymor on The Green Bird, and has since collected two Tonys, for her set design on American Idiot and on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. She’s currently represented by the latter hit and The Cher Show.

The Broadway company of The Cher Show. Photo by Joan Marcus.
The Broadway company of The Cher Show. Photo by Joan Marcus.

 

Each designer followed a different path in her career. “I first came to New York to become a dancer,” Tipton recalls, and her passion for all aspects of that art form led to a position as stage manager in charge of lighting at iconic choreographer Paul Taylor’s company. Jones had participated in drama classes as a student, “but I had an inkling that acting wasn’t my path, so I found myself doing a wide variety of things — painting, stage managing, working on props.” A teacher suggested she consider becoming a scenographer, “and I said, ‘What?’” She wound up getting a master’s degree in fine arts at New York University, where she figures that “90 to 95 percent of the teachers were men. I recall that, when I was graduating, I sensed a lack of role models who could help me know how I might navigate my way through this endeavor, through both work life and potential motherhood.”

Julie White in Gary. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
Julie White in Gary. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Now a mother of two, ages 14 and 11, Jones herself teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she estimates “I have 90 percent female students in my classes, and there’s a much more equitable balance between men and women teachers.”

None of the three designers, in fact, says that gender has posed a substantial challenge in her career. “When I first started working on Broadway, I did experience that some of the union crews were a little — how shall I put this? — skeptical,” Jones allows. “But that changed pretty quickly. I had to prove myself, just like anybody else new on the block would have had to.”

Roth is even more adamant on this point. “I guess I’m some sort of bulldozer,” she muses, “but I’ve never been treated differently because I’m not a man.” Told that a younger female designer (no one mentioned in this article) reported that a male colleague said she would have a harder time with a certain task because of her sex, Roth responded, “Who said that? Was does that even mean? I’ve never heard that said to anyone. I’m 87 years old, and no one has ever treated me like that.”

An Oscar winner whose film résumé is as luminous, and stretches almost as far back, as her list of theater credits, Roth adds, “In the movie business or on Broadway, you’re working with and for the director. Whether that’s a boy or a girl, that’s where your allegiance is, and I haven’t been hired for anything other than that.”

Tipton considers herself lucky in that “I’ve never experienced prejudice of that kind.” Two female lighting designers who preceded her, Jean Rosenthal and Peggy Clark — whose Broadway credits date back to the 1930s and 1940s, respectively — were among Tipton’s biggest sources of inspiration. “In this country, there’s been a tradition” of women working in her field, she notes. But she has perceived, ironically, something of a decline: “In Britain it may be more or less equal, but it’s been a struggle recently for women in lighting on [this] continent.”

But Tipton hasn’t been discouraged. “I’m probably too busy,” says the designer, whose recent and current theater projects also include Oresteia, marking Michael Kahn’s last production as artistic director of Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, and David Cale’s We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, due to start performances at the Public Theater June 13. “I keep thinking I should slow down, but somehow it’s not possible to stop. I don’t want to stop.”

As Roth prepares for “my first vacation in ages” — she’s costumed five Broadway productions in the past season alone, and worked on four the previous season — Jones is readying for the New Group’s musical adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, set for this fall. “I’m codesigning with a woman named Amy Rubin, who I met when she was an undergraduate at NYU, and she wrote a paper about me.”

Jones notes of Rubin, “She just had her first baby, so it feels like we’ve really had this journey together. I’m aware I’ve been a role model at this point. It’s a pleasure to know that.”