At a February fundraiser for History Theatre in St. Paul, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher asked what my first official act would be as executive director of TCG. I left him in suspense, knowing that I was headed home to write my first column for American Theatre.
With this issue, I begin by paying tribute to my immediate predecessor, Gigi Bolt, who as interim executive director has brilliantly managed a transition period, working “three days a week” (as well as the other five days, I’m sure) to ensure that TCG continued to serve the field with excellence and rigor. She’s led a talented staff, which is, according to Gigi, “pushing up against the starting gate,” ready to seize the next set of opportunities for theatre in America. Also, I will always be grateful to Ben Cameron for his exceptional work in broadening TCG’s membership, while building a sense of excitement, hope and unity for the field.
I’ve recently relocated from Minnesota to New York, giving me the task of wrestling down a stack of dusty unmarked boxes in my Minneapolis basement. Several hadn’t been opened in more than seven years. Toying with the idea of transferring them directly to the dumpster, I remembered the $25 savings bond that my grandmother gave me that I’d misplaced during the last move. I thought that if I rifled through each box, I might just find it.
As fate would have it, one box was filled with theatre programs, mostly from the 1980s. They represented quite a range: Squat Theatre’s Dreamland Burns at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s Circus in Minneapolis, Fences at Penumbra in St. Paul, Oba Oba, the Brazilian Extravaganza on Broadway and the Public Theater’s production of Martha Clarke’s Miracolo d’Amore at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. With each program, a series of images emerged, memories of what I was doing at that time in my life, who I attended the plays with, the impact each piece had on me and how it became woven into my life story.
Of particular significance was an epic road trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains to see The Warrior Ant by Lee Breuer and Bob Telson at Spoleto. During the two-day drive with one of Lee’s directing students, we encountered bears, banjo players and police officers. On the third day, we arrived at the Cistern, a lush, stately courtyard at the College of Charleston, which serves as one of Spoleto’s performance venues.
Lee greeted us with excitement. He was animated as he told us about the triumphs and miseries of the day. Puppets and steel drum players milled about, and massive oak trees swayed against the late afternoon sky. We felt instantly drawn into a kind of mythmaking in process, as we watched The Warrior Ant come to life.
In his classes, Lee talked about developing a personal mythology, made up of symbols, family experiences, well-worn myths and tales that are collected and recombined into new creations. While his approach was meant to inspire artists in making their work, it also spoke to the range of tools accessible to anyone seeking to tell their own unique story and perspective on the world.
One of my last events at the Children’s Theatre Company was the annual Whittier Family Night. First, second and third graders from the Whittier International School attended a show with their classmates and were later given free tickets to invite their families to see the same show with them. Students reveled in the fact that they already knew the theatre space and the story of the play, which were now theirs to share with their sisters, brothers, cousins, parents and grandparents.
On the evening of the event, I stood in the lobby and watched as American, Somali, Mexican and Hmong families arrived at the theatre to attend Tale of a West Texas Marsupial Girl by Lisa D’Amour and Sxip Shirey. A display of artwork, created by the students, combined the play’s symbols and themes with their own thoughts about what it means to be a friend, how friends sometimes have differences and how they hope to impact the world as they grow up.
Just before curtain, a group of four Somali children, ages 7 to 11, clamored to come on stage with me to welcome the audience. They agreed that each would say his or her name and some version of “Enjoy the show.” As we arrived backstage, Autumn Ness, who played Marsupial Girl’s mother, appeared from the dressing room area. The youngest boy let out a gasp of excitement. He recognized her from his previous attendance at the show and immediately struck up a conversation, as if they were old friends. One by one, the rest of the cast came by to greet and banter with the kids. At the appointed moment, the merry band of youngsters delivered their welcome and scampered back to their front row seats as the lights dimmed.
That evening was mythic for the kids who were there. The story of the play and the story of the evening will be woven into their own life stories. And some year, they will open an old box of programs and find Marsupial Girl.
As I take on the leadership of TCG, I come with a belief that theatre can and should be central to community life. This will inspire and guide me at the helm.
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