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EntertainmentColumnistsLinda Winer

Celebrating The Women's Project at 35

The same week that the Broadway League released its annual demographics report, rehearsals began for a new play called "Bethany" at the Women's Project Theater.

Coincidence? Of course.

For my purposes, however, the two events are hardly unrelated -- especially if you appreciate a civilized game of connect the dots.

One of the big findings in the trend-spotting report is that 67 percent of Broadway audiences are women. Compare that to this sad reality: A mere 20 percent of plays produced in the nation are written or directed by women, and the statistics get preposterously tiny when we get to Broadway.

No, I don't understand the disconnect, either. Of the 11 new plays and revivals that opened in the first half of the Broadway season, only one and a half are by women -- Theresa Rebeck ("Dead Accounts") and Ruth Goetz (half of the couple who adapted "The Heiress" in 1947).

But don't run away. This is not another mad / sad column about the incomprehensible lack of gender parity in the American theater. Honestly, we're going to turn this into a celebration.

First, let's change focus to the new generation of gifted women whose work has been driving some of Off-Broadway's best lately. This includes, for starters, Annie Baker ("The Flick" opens soon at the emphatically women-friendly Playwrights Horizons), Jenny Schwartz ("Somewhere Fun" opens this spring at the Vineyard), Melissa James Gibson ("What Rhymes With America" recently opened at the Atlantic), Amy Herzog ("The Great God Pan" opens Tuesday at Playwrights Horizons), Quiara Alegría Hudes (her Pulitzer Prize-winning "Water by the Spoonful" opens next month at Second Stage) and Katori Hall (last season's focus at the Signature).

But, finally, let's get back to those rehearsals at the Women's Project, where celebrations have already begun for its, no kidding, 35th anniversary. Despite the do-gooder name -- clearly a throwback to an even more desperate time -- the Women's Project has grown into a fierce, increasingly important and quite wonderful institution.

The company has a new hot spot of a home at New York City Center Stage II (formerly Manhattan Theatre Club's second stage). The three-play season opens Jan. 11 with America Ferrera (beloved of "Ugly Betty") in "Bethany," Laura Marks' dark comedy about a woman facing foreclosure on her home. "Jackie," a tough play about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek, is next, followed by "Collapse," Allison Moore's comedy about crumbling infrastructures.

Perhaps the real headline is about money. As hard as it is to believe for nonprofit arts in these times, the Women's Project (WP) is solvent. "We're actually debt-free," says Julie Crosby, producing artistic director since 2007. "Isn't it amazing? We're not sitting around with cabana boys, but we have the freedom to take risks. We're in a new phase with a larger scope and stability. No project is too big for us to consider. We have money in the bank."

Specifically, WP had to sell its longtime home, the Julia Miles Theatre, named after the pioneer who began the company in 1978. "It had become uninhabitable," Crosby explains, describing the run-down conditions, capped by losing the roof to Tropical Storm Irene. They sold it as a teardown for $4.5 million.

WP has had its ups and downs through the decades, while, according to its website, still helping to launch such major artists as Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks and Anna Deavere Smith. Sarah Jessica Parker went to high school by day and did theater there at night.

As fabulous veteran actress Kathleen Chalfant, one of the founding members, has put it, WP "has been an essential part of changing the equation" for women, adding that perhaps its greatest contribution "has been to create an 'old girls' network' that provides a community of supportive equals who prove that anything is possible for anyone with a little luck, a lot of talent and a world of women cheering you on."

Crosby, a creative sparkplug who earned a PhD in medieval drama from Columbia, has raised WP's profile to a height where it cannot be ignored. Although the National Endowment for the Arts shockingly turned down a request for $20,000 in 2009, the grant has been reinstated. Last month, the Time Warner Foundation awarded the company $150,000 to support the WP Lab -- a muscular two-year program for 15 playwrights, directors and producers.

Crosby is especially proud of the achievements of the lab she established when she arrived. "More than 75 percent of the plays we produced in the last five years were written or directed by lab artists and alumni," she marvels.

Nobody is pretending that things are peachy for women playwrights and directors. Last fall, for example, I attended "We Are Theatre," a passionate speak-out that presented 24 writers' short plays about theatrical sexism. It was coproduced by the activist group Guerrilla Girls on Tour, the Women's Initiative of the Dramatists Guild and "50/50 in 2020," a movement that pushes to achieve gender parity by the 100th anniversary of American suffrage in 2020.

I asked Crosby about a recent statement from Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of London's National Theatre. In a statement apparently meant to be comforting, he predicted that women playwrights and directors in England would be as fairly represented as men -- "in 20 years."

Crosby has heard that kind of postponement for too long. "There are so many talent-driven, whip-smart woman artists in graduate school," she growls. "But five years after graduation, the males are getting the gigs while the women can't even get the meetings to pitch."

On the other hand, though she loves "addressing that pesky gender gap," she feels strongly that her "top priority isn't to achieve equality. It's to achieve excellence. . . . Nothing beats sold-out houses and rave reviews when you're trying to get an artist on the map and dispel the frustrating myth that there are no qualified women theater artists out there.

"Hey," she adds with a wicked humor that makes more than one point, "I've got binders full of 'em!"

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