Women in Theatre: Top Leaders, History, Resources and More

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

From Broadway to the box office, theatre presents plenty of opportunities for professionals. Acting, directing, producing, writing, set and costume designing, lighting, and more—the possibilities are endless.

Read on to learn about some of the top women in theatre today and the history of women in the field, and find resources, scholarships, and more.

Top Women in Theatre

There are many prominent women in theatre across occupations, including acting, directing, producing, and playwrighting. The below list includes just some of the top female professionals in the industry in alphabetical order. This list is by no means exhaustive.

• Cate Blanchett

The Australian actress and theatre director has won two Academy Awards and ranked among the highest-paid actresses in the world in 2018.

• Marcia Milgrom Dodge

The American director, choreography, and playwright directed and choreographed a revival of Ragtime in 2009. The production was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Director for a Musical. She is the recipient of four Helen Hayes Awards.

• Lynn Nottage

A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter, Lynn Nottage’s plays have been produced throughout the world.

• Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw is an Irish actress and theatre and opera director who has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. She won the Olivier Award for Best Actress twice and is widely known for her role as Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter movies.

• Susan P. Stroman

Theater director, choreographer, film director, and performer Susan Stroman has won five Tony Awards. She is also the director of the film version of The Producers.

• Julie Taymor

An American director of theater, opera, and film, Taymor is best known for the Broadway adaption of The Lion King, which earned her two Tony Awards, and her film, Frida. She is the founder of the Taymor World Theater Fellowship to provide opportunities for emerging theater directors.

• Paula Vogel

Paula Vogel is a playwright and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive. She taught playwriting at Brown University and Yale University and was the playwright in residence at the Yale Repository Theater.

History of Women in Theatre

• 532 BCE

Greek theatre can be traced back to roughly this time with the performance of tragic plays. Women were not allowed to be onstage, so men performed the roles of female characters. Roman and Medieval cultures followed suit, although there were some exceptions in terms of women performing onstage.

• 10th Century

German writer Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim is thought to be the first female playwright first person to write drama post-antiquity. She is also considered to be the first known European poet after Sappho.

• Elizabethan Era (16th–17th centuries)

William Shakespeare wrote numerous strong, independent female characters into his famed plays. However, the roles were still performed by men. 

• 17th-Century European

With the creation of opera, women began performing onstage. Castrati provided an alternative for forums that did not want women performing the high-pitched parts.

• 1660

Margaret Hughes played the role of Desdemona in the new King’s Company production of Othello. She is thought to be the first woman to act on a British stage.

• 1670 

Aphra Behn, the first woman to earn a living as a playwright, had her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, staged in England.

• 1870–1880

During this period, the number of women who told the U.S. Census Bureau that their profession was that of an actress climbed 596% (780 to 4,652). 

• 1921

Zona Gale became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Dram for Miss Lulu Bett.

• 1935

Harry Hopkins appointed Hallie Flanagan, a producer, director, playwright, and author, the head of the Federal Theatre Project, which created 15,000 jobs during the Great Depression and supported regional theatres.

• 1947

The Tony Awards were created, named for Antoinette “Tony” Perry, who confounded the American Theatre Wing.

• 1959

Lorraine Hansbury became the first black woman to have her play, A Raisin in the Sun, produced on Broadway.

• 1971

Vinnette Carol became the first black women to direct a play, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, on Broadway.

• 2013

Cindy Lauper became the first female composer to win a Tony for Best Score for Kinky Boots.

• 2015

Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron won the Tony for Best Score for Fun Home, the first all-female writing team to do so.

Resources and Groups for Women in Theatre

League of Professional Theatre Women

This nonprofit organization helps increase opportunities for women in professional theatre through programs and events.

Women in the Arts & Media Coalition

This coalition of organizations for women in media and the arts seeks to empower women through advocacy, mentoring, networking, and events.

Women of Color in the Arts (WOCA)

WOCA promotes racial and cultural equity in performing arts by giving visibility to and promoting professional opportunities for women of color.


WomenArts shares news about women artists of all types. In 2018, the organization established Support Women Artists Now Day/SWAN Day, highlighting women’s creativity internationally.

WP (Women’s Project) Theater

WP Theater is the U.S.’s oldest and largest theater company devoted to developing, producing, and promoting the work of women in the industry. The Theater works with women in all stages of their careers.

Scholarships for Women in Theatre

Women in the Arts & Media Colation Opportunities

This database includes opportunities for women in theatre to gain funding through the stage, screen, submissions, festivals, grants, and more.

Women in Film Scholarship Program

The WIF Scholarship Program offers scholarships to female students of all ages, supporting them in their future careers in film, television, communications, and new media.

• Local, School-Specific, and General Scholarships for Theatre

Many individual schools, colleges, and conservatories, such as Juilliard, offer scholarships for students studying theatre and the arts. There are also general (open to all genders) and community-specific scholarships available. You can find them through the schools themselves, community organizations, or online research.

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