Social climber

Up-and-coming drector Alice Cash. Photo: Gretchen Cash

In theater, more often than not, men are the helm of production. But with a new play about and scaling one of the world’s highest peaks and being a woman in a man’s world, director Alice Cash is poised to change that.

By Mark Nimar

From producers to stage managers, the gender gap among theater professionals who work behind the curtain was, for decades, more like a vast chasm. Now, a new cohort of female directors in the New York theater scene are bridging the gap. Director Rachel Chavkin recently directed the Broadway musical “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.” Leigh Silverman recently made history by assembling the first all-female design team on Broadway for the new play she’s directing, “The Lifespan of a Fact” starring Cherry Jones and Daniel Radcliffe.

Director Alice Cash is a part of this movement of emerging female leadership in New York theater. A frequent presence in Manhattan’s theater scene, the Upper West Side resident directed “A Comedy of Errors’ at the West Side Community Garden, and her production of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” returns to Feinstein’s/54 Below early next year. Cash is currently in rehearsals for the play “8,000M,” which tells the story of a female climber’s journey up Mount Lhotse in the Himalayas, the fourth highest peak in the world. Her theatre company, Golden Shards Productions, is producing the play, and it will have its West Coast premiere in San Diego later this month. Straus News sat down with Alice to talk about camping in Nepal, her childhood dream of operatic stardom, and theater’s role in these tumultuous political times.

How did you get into directing?

I think I’ve always been directing in different ways. When I was really little, I would direct the kids in my neighborhood in little shows in my backyard. And that morphed into starting a theatre company at [age] 14, because there was no other outlet for a kid to direct in San Diego. And it evolved over the course of five seasons. We had students ages 7-19, over 200 students, and audiences of 200,000 in two years. My parents have always been entrepreneurs, and they told me to go for it. And I fell in love with developing a vision and style for the stage.

What was the moment you knew you wanted to do it professionally?

I think I just always knew I wanted to do it professionally. There was never a moment when there was anything else. My dream as a child was to be an opera singer, or to be a volcanologist, someone who studies volcanoes. But realistically, I knew I was gonna be a director, and I was gonna have a theater company, and I was just gonna keep making it better and better. It was just always my path.

What exactly is a director’s role? Even though you’re not on stage, what role do you play in putting a production together?

I think my role is creating the overall structure of the piece to fulfill a singular vision. It’s my job as the director to work with the actors, to work with all the designers, to work with the production team, to work with the audience because the audience is an element, too. And create a production that works for all of those people, with all of their ideas, throwing out the best ideas in the room, latching onto those, and working with them to develop a production and a piece. I am sort of the middleman, the person who is helping to put all the swatches of paint onto the canvas to create a whole work of art. Each person brings a specific color or a specific brushwork style. But in the end, we have to create a painting that works with everyone.

Tell me about your new project “8,000M.” How did it come about? What attracted you to the material?

“8,0000M” is a play by David Greig, a Scottish playwright...It’s about climbing in the Himalayas, climbing Mount Lhotse, the fourth tallest peak in the world. What attracted me to the piece was that I was at Everest base camp in 2014. I was with my sister and a girlfriend. We were stuck in a blizzard in a tent on base camp, which was insane. I read this play and fell in love, because it’s all about the Himalayas. It’s about this journey. It’s about this woman’s passion for climbing. It’s about being a woman in a man’s world, which is what I am as a female director. It spoke to me on all these different levels, from my passion for directing, for my passion for travel, for my passion for the Himalayas, for discovering, adventure and learning. So I had to direct it.

What’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated profession like directing?

I think being a female leader is unusual in any industry. Being a female director is unusual as well. But what was exciting about my grad program was that there were four women in our cohort. My class was only female directors, and that really bonded us, and that made us able to voice our opinions about being female. It’s been great to have that support system. It made me not think of myself as a female director, but more as strictly a director. And as a leader moving forward in the industry.

Why is theater still relevant to our society? Why should someone go to live theater when they can watch Netflix or HBO?

I think theater is still relevant when it’s theatrical, when it abandons realism and naturalism, and moves into a space that can only be occupied on a stage. It’s a way to be around others, to connect with others, and relate, especially in a large city like [New York]. It’s a way to uncover a story.

In this time of political tensions, what do you think theater’s role is? What type of impact can it have?

I think theater should always be doing something. I think this play 8,000M is about creating the space for dialogue about gender roles in society. Especially with what happened with our last election for president. I think it’s important to think about female leaders and how this play can start to form a dialogue about these issues. I think theater isn’t just for entertainment’s sake. I think it should be for some sort of enlightenment, or some sort of dialogue that’s created between the audience and the actor or between the actors themselves or between audience members. But I think there’s always a need for connection and for asking questions. And that can really happen on a stage in front of a crowd, which can’t be turned off.

What’s it like being a young artist? How did you get your foot in the door, and your career off the ground?

I think being a director is being an entrepreneur, and throwing yourself into the deep end and making it work, making it happen. Figuring out how to partner with people, and figuring out how to create the space for dialogues. I think it’s just about working hard, and doing it.