Savage Umbrella Artistic Director Laura Leffler-McCabe responds to the debate over diversity in the Guthrie's 2012-13 Season Announcement
Well, Guthrie, you're certainly stirring stuff up. Certainly.
As I thought about how to respond to the Guthrie's announcement of their 2012-13 season, I realized I was thinking a lot about how to respond. When I initially saw the announcement, I also saw the Facebook reactions of many talented women in the theatre community who I respect and admire: Leah Cooper, Lisa Channer, Kim Hines, Michelle Hensley, Kira Obolensky, immediately speaking out, reacting.
I didn't comment on those Facebook threads. But I did read. All the articles, from the City Pages's 2003 article about the lack of female presence at the Guthrie, to the Star Tribune article, to MPR's article by Kim Hines, to the TPT segment, to Marianne Combs's article on MPR, to Levi Weinhagen's weekly blog on mnplaylist.com, to Polly Carl's moving article "A Boy in a Man's Theater" on HowlRound, to Lauren Gunderson's Huffington Post article. So I read, and I thought. And I thought and I thought. And I told Amber I wanted to write about "the Guthrie mess," and I wasn't sure what to say.
Am I appalled? Yes. But it's not new. I remember seeing a production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile at what was then the Missouri Rep (now the Kansas City Rep) in 2000 or 2001, and pouncing on the lead actress at the talk back, pleading to know how it felt to be in a show with significantly fewer female roles than male, and how did she cope with that in her career? I think generally people asked how she memorized all those lines, so she was pretty thrown by my question. Which to be fair, had nothing to do with the play. But she did find me afterward and had a nice heart-to-heart about the realities of being a woman working in the theatre. She was sympathetic, but in a lot of ways, powerless to change it. She had to take roles to make ends meet, and that often meant being the one woman in a sea of men. At any rate.
Yes, appalled for a long time. Enough to start my own theatre company where I could make the decisions and write and direct and have that be normal. Lauren Gunderson hit on it perfectly in her article, "Maybe what we really dream of is the day when plays by and about women would stop being ‘women's plays’ and start being -- oh, y'know -- really successful, moneymaking, audience-supported, universal, true, bold, smart plays. Everyone wants those plays, no matter what your gender."
So Savage Umbrella isn't a "woman's theatre" (though I highly admire Theatre Unbound, 20% Theatre Company, and all the other companies committed to doing good work by and for women). But I didn't want to be a niche theatre. I just wanted to be a theatre that does good work, that happens to currently have 8 female members out of 11, that happens to have 5 of our 6 projects this year directed by women, and that happens to have 4 out of our 6 projects this year written by women. It isn't an issue with us. We just happen to have more women around, and believe that they are talented enough to direct on our main stage (yeah, that a reference to Joe Dowling's comment that "I employ people because of their talent, male or female. It is a very stern task to direct on a stage of our size, and I am responsible to the board for the shows we produce.")
So the question remains, how to respond? I've decided on two main points to bring up.
1. The Guthrie isn't all bad or evil or anything as simple as all that. While I've seen my fair share of shows there that I wasn't impressed by, and while I've skipped seeing many of their shows because I just didn't care, I have seen a few amazing things there. Peer Gynt with Mark Rylance? Caroline, or Change with Greta Oglesby? and (probably less universally well-loved) the world-premiere of The Master Butcher's Singing Club with Emily Gunyou Halaas? All of those shows blew me away, touched me to the core, made me think for months and months after seeing them, and did all the great things that theatre is supposed to do to you. Their recent Macbeth? Well, I had trouble not laughing out loud, I thought it was that bad. So what? Every theatre does work that sometimes misses and sometimes hits.
And I think they have at least three hits in the 2012-13 season. Three world-premieres. That's incredible. That seems like a huge step for them. New work is IMPORTANT. And they're doing a fair amount of new work. Good on them.
2. That's not enough. While it is awesome that they've got three world-premieres for the community to experience, they also have a responsibility to the community. I respectfully disagree with Levi's assessment that instead of hoping the Guthrie will change, we should put our money and efforts elsewhere. I mean, yes, support the theatres that are doing the work you want to see (especially if it's Savage Umbrella, right?). But I think that lets the big G off too easy. As Ben Layne pointed out in his open letter to Joe Dowling, with great power comes great responsibility. Not to mention, they are a non-profit institution, with public funding! It's in their mission statement to present diverse works! They're supposed to be a national leader! Their season just isn't visionary enough. It's not enough.
When I was in graduate school, one of my many part time jobs was to assistant coach forensics at my nearby undergraduate institution. One of the strongest memories I have from that time is driving the team in a 15-passenger van. Driving them to every Super8 in rural Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri, it felt like. And if you've ever driven a monster that is a 15-passenger van you know: those things are big and hard to turn around.
The Guthrie is kind of like a 15-passenger van. I understand that it's hard to make big changes at big institutions. But, if I can back that huge van into a McDonald's at 6 am with a van full of under-caffeinated college freshman, I believe the Guthrie can do better. And should. The three world-premieres are a good start. But, seriously, it's been decades that this inequality has persisted. It's not about quotas, it's about taking a chance on talent that isn't milky-white and that doesn't have a penis. You take a risk a couple of times, and suddenly it doesn't feel so risky anymore. I promise.
How to see new work
This week's post is a reflection on seeing new plays. Enjoy! -Amber
I’m thinking about seeing In the Belly, a play by Insurgent Theatre, that deals with the issues around imprisonment and the prison system. It works as a fundraiser for RedBird Prison Abolition, and also supports the artists on their tour. It’s a play that I’ve never seen before, from a group that I’m not familiar with, about a topic I know very little about.
Here’s the deal: Even though I love new plays, I’ve been dragging my feet about coming to this one. I know it’s going to be sad and violent. The facebook invite literally tells me that. I know I’m going to want to think critically about it, respond to it, and maybe stay for the talk back (I’m always curious what other people will say but I don’t like to “talk back” myself).
I know Insurgent Theatre will probably do an awesome job, but with a piece like this, it may be easy to go in a whole lotta strange directions. Either it’s awesome, and we’ll go see the show and feel like shit afterwards due to the harsh images and ugly reality the work is bringing to light. Or it could be bad. It could be poorly put together, painstakingly long, and preachy. Then we’ll just feel horrible during and after.
But I have to keep myself in check. Don’t I like new plays? Yes. I love it. It gives the viewer the opportunity to think, reflect, talk, talk, talk, and come together in a space with live people. Breathing, thinking, reflecting! It’s so nice to have community rather than sit in front of my computer screen.
I remember an old newsletter I got from the Playwrights’ Center. It was a “guide” to seeing new plays. I remember one piece of advice that’s stuck with, and I’ll paraphrase it here:
“Leave your reservations at the door.” Like literally, reserve your tickets. But also quit being so judgey! Sometimes we love to hate what we're watching. "Get over it, and get over yourself." (Thanks, PWC).
So I’m going to make my own rules about seeing new plays.
1. Leave your judgement pants at the door
Okay, Amber. You don’t know the play is going to be bad. It might actually be really, really friggin’ awesome. So shut it.
2. Do it on the cheap
Do I really want to see theatre for $29-51? No. No, no no. Thanks Guthrie for doing three world-premieres next year, but goodness. $20 for the rush line? Get me a beer with that. Also, stop calling me and asking me for money.
3. Be brave
See something from a company you don’t know about. See a play you’ve never heard of. See something that you don’t normally see. You do theatre? Then watch a film. You’re a dancer? Go to a concert.
4. Bring a friend
No matter what. At least you’ll have someone that you like to talk about it with.
Okay, so I’m scared to see In the Belly. Yes. It’s true. But self: Don’t Worry. It’s donations-only (cheap), I’ve got a friend or two ready to go, and I’m just going to be brave.
There are two ways to see the play:
Wed Apr 18th
7PM at Sister's Camelot
2310 Snelling Avenue
Thu Apr 19th
7PM at The Exchange with Support CeCe!
3405 Chicago Ave
NNW Casts and Production Team
A first from Savage Umbrella! A Night of New Works - it’s more than a workshop, it’s not quite a full production. It’s an experiment! Wild, wacky new works with edge, smarts and heart. We’re so very grateful for everyone who auditioned, and super excited to announce our casts and production team!
a dance movement piece
choreographed by Christina Lein
with Hannah Holman
The Gamer’s Guide to the Five Stages of Grief
a short play about reality, virtual and otherwise
by Russ Dugger
directed by Tanner Curl
Neal Beckman as Andy
Blake E. Bolan as Michele
Heidi Jedlicka as Keli
Adam Scarpello as The Game
The Golden Carp
music by Candace Bilyk
libretto by Laura Leffler-McCabe
directed by Amber Davis
music direction by Danny Sadowsky
Evan Boyce as The Carp
Emily Dussault as The Fairy
Karen Massey as The Friend
and puppeteers Alex Hapka and Jami Jerome
The entire evening is curated by Laura Leffler-McCabe
Production Manager...Rachel Nelson
Stage Manager...Claire Nadeau