A Conversation with Susan Claassen

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of interviews with creative decision makers and artistic directors at all of Tucson’s theatres as we look forward to the 2019-2020 season. 

An interview with Invisible Theatre’s managing artistic director Susan Claassen on love, feminism, and the magic of live theatre.

by Leigh Moyer

IT logo“Everyone has a story, and if you’re open to listening, you’re going to find a connection,” Susan Claassen, managing artistic director at Invisible Theatre, told me in a recent conversation. “Now people are so isolated that the mere nature of coming to live theatre is empowering.” She takes the almost magical, invisible connection between actors and audience as a universal truth — and as the namesake of the theatre.

As a Tucsonan lucky enough to be raised surrounded by art and theatre, the Invisible Theatre has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Long enough that I once thought Claassen was Edith Head, a role she reprises regularly in her original piece A Conversation with Edith Head. As one of Tucson’s oldest and longest running theatres, I was curious how they keep the magic alive.

The answer is straightforward: a combination of love, passion, and necessity. In the early 1970s, contemporary works weren’t being produced in Tucson. The few theatres in town stuck to the classics and classical pieces. And, perhaps more troubling but not surprisingly, women rarely held any decision making roles. Women in theatre might be actresses if there were roles for them, but off stage they worked in PR or hospitality positions. Female directors were practically unheard of. When Invisible Theatre started, they didn’t exactly go in to change theatre culture as a whole. They were women and wanted a say in what was being produced, and they certainly wanted to produce modern works, something that brought more women playwrights before audiences, but becoming “the feminist theatre,” wasn’t the goal. They wanted equality on and off stage, which happens to be feminist.

Susan Claassen as Edith Head. Photo courtesy of Invisible Theatre.

Susan Claassen as Edith Head. Photo courtesy of Invisible Theatre.

Then, for the men working with them, the reality of doing contemporary theatre set in. It was hard to start a theatre; harder still to do all new plays without the name recognition of, say, William Shakespeare. In their first year, facing economic hardship, 90% of the men working with the early incarnation of Invisible Theatre jumped ship. The women left took charge. They knew what they had was precious and worked to make sure they could produce the theatre they thought was important while staying in the black. And they did.

This season (their 49th!), follows the business model that has seen success over all these years: produce new or contemporary work, bring in artists with whom they want to work, put on shows they find interesting, usually by women, pay their team, and put women in charge. That last bit is my own interpretation of their model, but their leadership and staff page is dominated by women and 90 to 100% of their productions are directed by women.

Women, Claassen pointed out, are strong, have strong opinions, take stances on issues and are active in confronting problems. Claassen believes that artists should be activists – She admitted, proudly, to cancelling rehearsals to make sure her actors or students could attend a rally or protest.

When selecting plays, she takes a similar, but less in-your-face approach. They are still committed to producing new works and primering pieces in the region, but with the turbulent world we live in, Invisible Theatre is looking for something a little more subtle: “Plays that address current politics that aren’t actively about current events, but that still invigorate and give audiences something to reflect on.” And, Claassen said of the play selection process, she is looking for plays that give the audience a new way to look at things and have at least “a modicum of hope.”

This season Invisible Theatre is facing down the hate we hear on the news and see on social media with a Season of Love. Forty-nine seasons in, the play selection still resonates with what got them started in the first place: love, passion, and necessity. What that means varies from play to play, as they take a broad look at the concept of love. From love of humor to familial love to Becoming Dr. Ruth, “Which is certainly one way of looking at love,” Claassen remarked with a chuckle. As an actor (she’ll be playing Dr. Ruth) she knows actors and directors take risks, and that audiences trust them to produce work that is entertaining and thought provoking. “No one does theatre for money,” she observed, “so if the experience isn’t amazing, we aren’t doing our jobs.”

season of love

Invisible Theatre’s season is listed online and below. You can become a season ticket holder now and catch all six performances for $175.00 or purchase single tickets for $35.00 each by calling their box office at (520) 882-9721. Claassen couldn’t pick a favorite or must-see this season. In fact, she wouldn’t. When I asked for a show she is most excited about, she exuberantly said, “I couldn’t pick one! All of them! All of them!” She did add that Becoming Dr. Ruth would be an interesting challenge for her. “There are words Dr. Ruth says that I have never said in public,” she said with a laugh that suggested the guilty pleasure of taking on another persona on stage that lets you break the rules.

Join Claassen and the Invisible Theatre this fall and get a taste of what the company produces with Sizzling Summer Sounds, a cabaret style performance at the Carriage House downtown every evening July 8th through 21st (excluding July 15th) at 7:30pm. Patrons with dinner reservations at Janos Downtown Kitchen not only get an A+ date night, but reserved seats for the show.

Invisible Theatre’s 2019 – 2020 Season:

Sizzling Summer Sounds (Summer Cabaret)
July 8 – 21, 2019 at the Carriage House
Directed and produced by Susan Claassen, audiences will be treated to world class entertainment in a world class setting with award winning world class dining! The Carriage House will be transformed into an elegant and cosmopolitan cabaret showroom! The talent gracing our stage and being showcased is extraordinary!  Where else can you see seven different shows in two weeks? Our stellar lineup includes international guest artists Steve Ross, Natalie Douglas, Jon Weber, Ann Hampton Callaway and John Bucchino plus an array of Tucson favorites. Why go to New York or Los Angeles this summer when the best is coming to Tucson?!

Now and Then by Sean Grennan (Southwest Premiere)
September 3 – 15, 2019
A magical romantic comedy-drama about love and its unpredictable ways. Jamie is a young aspiring pianist working as a bartender when an amiable older gentleman enters and engages him in a friendly conversation. Jamie’s girlfriend Abby walks in and before you know it, the gentleman offers them a thousand dollars – each – to sit and just talk with him for one hour. They agree, and what they hear is an incredible story that changes their lives. This surprising tale about what it means to really love someone will touch your heart in unexpected ways.

Last Train to Nibroc by Arlene Hutton (Southwest Premiere)
October 22 – November 3, 2019
This is a funny, touching portrait of two people searching for happiness set in December of 1940. An eastbound cross-country train carries the bodies of the great American writers Nathanael West and F.Scott Fitzgerald. Also onboard is May, who shares her seat with a charming young flyer, Raleigh. A change in plans sets the course for a journey filled with emotional struggles, family differences, and ultimately, love.

Tony Award-Winning and Broadway Stars Lillias White and Scott Wakefield in the Arizona Premiere of Texas in Paris
January 18 – 19, 2020 at the Berger Performing Arts Center
Based on true events, Texas in Paris is the musical journey of a man and a woman – one white, one black – invited to France to perform at the Maison Des Cultures du Monde. They have never met, have no professional singing experience, and face the challenge of working together and co-existing in an unfamiliar world. Apprehensive of each other, they struggle with preconceptions, but forge a surprising spiritual bond that transforms their onstage performance and their lives.

Becoming Dr. Ruth by Mark St. Germain (Arizona Premiere)
February 11 – 23, 2020
Everyone knows Dr. Ruth Westheimer from her career as a pioneering radio and television sex therapist. Few, however, know the incredible journey that preceded it.From fleeing the Nazis in the Kindertransport and joining the Haganah in Jerusalem as a scout and sniper, to her struggles to succeed as a single mother coming to America, Becoming Dr. Ruth is filled with the humor, honesty, and life-affirming spirit of Karola Ruth Siegel, the girl who became “Dr. Ruth”, America’s most famous sex therapist.

Award-Winning Broadway Star Steve Solomon in the Arizona Premiere of From Brooklyn to Broadway
March 14 – 15, 2020 at the Berger Performing Arts Center
Presenting an evening of hilarious comedy with the author and star of one of the longest running one-man comedies in Broadway history: My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m In Therapy. This will be a night of pure enjoyment as Steve, using his gift for acting, dialects, and voices, brings to life more than twenty oddball people in hysterical situations that we can all relate to. From family to friends, from TSA officers to Steve’s doctors… from Brooklyn to Broadway! You’ll recognize these characters from your own life and leave the theater wiping tears of laughter from your eyes!

Filming O’Keefe by Eric Lanen (Southwest Premiere)
April 21 – May 3, 2020
An emotional, lyrical, and funny play that tells the story of Max and his classmate Lily, who are making a film about legendary artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Max and his mother, Melissa, live on the Lake George property that was once part of the artists’ home. When Max’s estranged grandfather unexpectedly shows up the family’s hidden and mysterious past is revealed.

Special Shows This Season:

Made For Each Other by Monica Bauer
November 15  7:30 PM and November 16 3:00  PM and 7:30 PM
This not-to-be-missed play by acclaimed Tucson Playwright Monica Bauer has been performed to rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Orlando Fringe, Boulder Fringe, Off Broadway at the United Solo Festival and The 2019 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Gay marriage, with an Alzheimer’s twist. One actor plays four parts in this tour de force drama with lighthearted comedy about a gay couple, the power of memory, and the need to tell the truth. NY Guest Artist John Fico will reprise his award winning (“an incredible performance” Three Weeks) role in this five-star hit.

Down To Eartha! Starring Film and TV Star Dierdra McDowell and Directed by Marishka S. Phillips.
November 22 7:30 PM and November 23 3:00 PM and 7:30 PM
In 1968 while at the height of her career as a world renowned entertainer, Eartha Kitt was also working as one of the main lobbyists for a group of young activists called the “Rebels With A Cause”. During this time, she was invited to a White House luncheon by Lady Bird Johnson to discuss the issue of the rising crime rates in America. Eartha stood up and expressed her views that the increase in crime was mostly due to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Lady Bird Johnson was personally insulted and by order of President Lyndon Johnson, Eartha Kitt was blacklisted from work in the United States for the following 10 years!  DOWN TO EARTHA, chronicles through her music and actual testimony, this amazing woman’s journey back to her own power, affirming that a woman´s freedom of speech should never be compromised!

 

Perfectly Imperfect Women’s Stories in 20th Century Blues

by Gretchen Wirges

I had been perusing the playbill for 20th Century Blues while waiting for the show to begin. I noticed the image of four women, standing in solidarity, walking toward a camera. The sounds of Motown and 70’s anthems played in the background. As the lights rose on Invisible Theatre’s season-ending production, my feminist spirit was ready to see what playwright Susan Miller, and directors Susan Claassen and Fred Rodriguez had in store.

P.J. Peavy as Sil, Susan Cookie Baker as Gabby, ToReeNee Wolf as Mac, and  Geri Hooper Wharham as Danny. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

P.J. Peavy as Sil, Susan Cookie Baker as Gabby, To-ree-nee Wolf as Mac, and Geri Hooper Wharham as Danny. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

The play begins with Danny, a woman in her 60’s, delivering a TEDTalk about her photography. Just as we’re about to see a retrospective of photos of her closest confidants over the 40 year span of their friendship, the scene transitions to four months prior, when she and her friends Sil, Mac, and Gabby were gathering to take their final photo.

I felt myself exhale more and more as each woman entered the set, styled as a New York City loft. Designed by James Blair and Susan Claasen, the set looked polished and professional. It was believable, without being over the top.

Having met 40 years ago, the characters have an obvious history and chemistry that evolves with the play. While discussing the photos, the women take us on a journey through their relationships, and 40 years of politics and cultural struggle. They flit from Civil Rights to Transgender issues to the ERA to the Black Lives Matter movements. At first, I was frustrated that they covered too much, instead of spending more meaningful time on one issue. But what I realized is that these women are a cultural timeline personified. They take us on a journey through that timeline in a way that also allows us to see their triumphs, fears, and desires.

It’s not often we get to see four older, diverse female actors on stage together with meaningful, powerful dialogue. The women talk to each other with a directness that we rarely get to witness. They talk about sex and race and gender and their aging bodies with brutal honesty.  One of the characters, Mac, played by To-ree-nee Wolf, is African American, and a lesbian. Mac often calls out the others for privilege and for asking her speak for “her people”. A few of the topics discussed made the audience cringe just a bit, which I absolutely loved. The playwright didn’t care if the honesty pushed buttons. In the time of #metoo and #timesup, we need to tell women’s stories without abandon or apology. 

Geri Hooper Wharham as Danny, ToReeNee Wolf as Mac, P.J. Peavy as Sil, and Susan Cookie Baker as Gabby. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Geri Hooper Wharham as Danny, To-ree-nee Wolf as Mac, P.J. Peavy as Sil, and Susan Cookie Baker as Gabby. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

While some of the dialogue felt a bit rushed at times, I attribute that to being one of the very first performances. I was impressed with the cast as a whole.  Molly McKasson (Bess) and Cole Potwardowski (Simon) were brief parts of the story, but gave us some touching moments. Geri Hooper Waram (Danny) delivered an earnest performance, and concludes the play with a powerfully delivered monologue. PJ Peavy (Sil) was able to transition deftly between her great comedic timing and the ability to ground the tender moments elegantly. Susan Cookie Baker (Gabby) gave the production a lightness with her humor and affable portrayal of this quirky character. And then we have Wolf (Mac), who in my opinion, was the standout of the show.  Wolf took my breath away. She was acting down to her fingertips. Her physicality, facial expressions, and patience on stage was such a beautiful thing to watch. She was the one that truly made the production come alive with her obvious aura of heart and grounded acting.

I felt strong connections in the cast between the women, especially between Sil and Gabby, and between Danny and Mac. I think that as the performances evolve and the run of the show continues, the chemistry between all four women will deepen and provide even more believability to the relationships between the characters. One of my favorite moments was when all four women had a mini-dance party filled with laughter and a nod to their long history.

The importance of these friendships and their conversation throughout 20th Century Blues is expressed beautifully during one of my favorite moments of the play. Danny tells the women, “You’re rock and roll, the space launch, civil rights. The decades that chronicle the most sweeping changes in everything. Style. Music. Literature. You’re my sundial, my alphabet, my guide to better living. You’re my memorial to all that.”

This play isn’t perfect but I’m able to overlook the imperfections to see women of color, women over 50, women who are queer, women who are artists, women who are afraid of loss, women who are struggling with their bodies, women who are celebrating their bodies, and women who just plain love and support each other.

20th Century Blues is playing at Invisible Theatre now through May 5th. Tickets can be purchased online at www.invisibletheatre.com or by calling their box office at 882-9721.

Put On Your Dancing Shoes!

by Gabriella De Brequet

Walking into the Invisible Theatre for the first time I was greeted by Susan Claassen, Artistic Director of the Invisible Theatre Company and Director of Dancing Lessons. As we prepared to enter the theatre, Ms. Claassen announced to the patrons that the show would run eighty-eight minutes with no intermission and that following the performance there would be a post-show discussion with Joshua Anbar, a board member at The Autism Society of Southern Arizona. Ms. Claassen told us that the subject matter of the play was near and dear to her heart and that she was excited to share the play with each and every one of us. We were ushered into the theatre, Ms. Claassen ripped our tickets and hoped that we enjoyed the play. Ms. Claassen’s incredible hospitality truly warmed my heart and I could not write this review without acknowledging it.

Samantha Cormier as Senga Quinn and Damian Garcia as Ever Montgomery. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Invisible Theatre Company.

Samantha Cormier as Senga Quinn and Damian Garcia as Ever Montgomery. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Invisible Theatre Company.

Dancing Lessons, by Mark St. Germain, is a romantic comedy about an unexpected friendship which emerges between an injured Broadway dancer, Senga Quinn played by Samantha Cormier, and a professor of environmental studies with Asperger’s Syndrome, Ever Montgomery played by Damian Garcia. The play centers around a series of dancing lessons in which Ever pays Senga to teach him how to dance for an upcoming public event where he is to be honored for his environmental work. The play explores what a relationship between a neurotypical and neurodiverse individual may look like while attempting to find a common ground in which they can successful communicate mentally, physically, and emotionally. The narrative is heartwarming and hilariously written with clear direction and a sharp focus on what it means to be human, no matter your genetic makeup. The performances were well orchestrated as both actors supported and actively listened to each other on stage. Mr. Garcia’s Ever was thoughtful, hilarious, and most importantly honest. Ms. Cormier’s Senga was loaded with subtext, intention, and physical comedy which helped illustrate the character’s need to suppress her fear of never being able to dance again.

The set design by James Blair and props design by Susan Claassen put us into a hyper-realistic, small New York apartment decorated with contemporary musical theatre posters, littered Lay’s potato chip bags, and a remote controlled stereo which helped set the play in the present. The only prop that didn’t quite fit in was the landline telephone which was used several times during the play. Let’s be honest: no twenty-something has a landline phone in their home in this day and age, but this small inconsistency was easy to look past once the play got rolling. The costumes by Maryann Trombino helped support both character’s state of mind and visually represented the drastic differences between the two characters.

Damian Garcia as Ever Montgomery and Samantha Cormier as Senga Quinn. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Invisible Theatre Company.

Damian Garcia as Ever Montgomery and Samantha Cormier as Senga Quinn. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of the Invisible Theatre Company.

Dancing Lessons left me feeling uplifted and hopeful that society can do better when it comes to adapting behavior to accommodate marginalized people from many walks of life. In a time where our communities can be so divided, it is incredibly important to produce work which reminds us that we have a lot to learn from each other. A world of kindness, unity, and understanding is a world in which we should all work harder to create.

Dancing Lessons plays Feb 5th through 17th at The Invisible Theatre located at 1400 North First Avenue. General Admission tickets are $35. For more information about show times call (520) 882-9721 or visit www.invisibletheatre.com.

 

Editor’s Note: Gabriella went to college with Damian Garcia and has played opposite him in academic productions at Pima Community College. As Tucson’s theatre community is tight knit, both a plus and a potential for bias we are well aware of and experienced in putting aside to provide quality reviews.

Love, Family, and Faith in Invisible Theatre’s The Busy World is Hushed.

by Gretchen Wirges

Cynthia Jeffery as Hannah and Steve Wood as Brandt. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Cynthia Jeffery as Hannah and Steve Wood as Brandt. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

The Busy World is Hushed, a play about the dynamics of family and faith, is a new production at Tucson’s Invisible Theatre. Hush, written by Keith Bunin, is the story of mother and Episcopal minister, Hannah, her newly appointed assistant Brandt, and Hannah’s son Thomas. Thomas returns home after years of chasing adventure to seek answers in his deceased father’s writing and Bible annotations in the hopes that he can unlock the secrets to his father’s death. The divide between Hannah and her son is palpable and strained from Thomas’ first, energetic entrance.

The story that follows is rife with conflict, passion, pain, and theological debate. We quickly learn about the desperate need for connection that each character seems lacking.  

The production was enjoyable, thanks to the talent of the amazing actors carrying the show.  But the direction, by guest director Nancy Davis Booth, lacked glaringly in the areas of staging and pacing. The actors’ movement was often very static, cold, and inorganic, which lead to moments of fear, anger, love, or lust that weren’t as believable as I believe they could have been. This was only further stunted by the pacing. The dialogue is fast. Too fast. The spaces between the lines, the words, and the actors are just as important to the storytelling as the lines themselves. And there weren’t many quiet moments of reflection and care that the script begged for.

Before lauding the talented cast, it must be acknowledged that the set and lighting design of the production were on point. The set was perfectly dressed and added a warmth that truly gave you the sense of being in someone’s cherished office and living space. And the lighting added a depth of ambiance and welcomed realism.

Steve Wood’s portrayal of the thoughtful, serious, emotionally shut-off Brandt is charming and yet heart-wrenching. Wood brings a subtle undertone of pain, fear, and longing to this difficult role. The character is struggling with issues surrounding being the caregiver for a gravely-ill father. The audience roots for him. I know I did. Having lost my own father, I was touched by Woods’ deft ability to tap into the love, loss, and even moments of laughter this role required. Watching Woods is always a joy. This is no exception.

The questioning son is played by John Noble. Noble’s ability to find moments of levity with physical humor and responses to the dialogue. The character’s lack of depth on the page likely lead to the lack of depth in the performance. While there were a few weighty moments that allowed Noble to experience more range in emotion, there weren’t enough of these to showcase the obvious talent of this young actor. The moments I didn’t believe him were the fault of the speed of the delivery and the misdirection, not the ability of the actor.

And Cynthia Jeffery. Cynthia. Jeffery. She is a revelation. She is a beam of light. She plays a grounded, gorgeously flesh and bone character. I believed her. I listened to her. I wanted to know more of what she had to say about pain and loss and love. Her acting is sublime. She does something that I swoon for as a director myself, she listens. She leans in to her cast-mates. She leans in to the dialogue. She leans in to the emotions. The only thing that limits her performance is a script that stifles what she, and Hannah, have to say.

Cynthia Jeffery as Hannah, John Noble as Thomas, and Steve Wood as Brandt. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Cynthia Jeffery as Hannah, John Noble as Thomas, and Steve Wood as Brandt. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Hannah is set up as a scholar, counselor, and mother. Her initial dialogue is strong and confident. But by the end of the play, we hear less and less from her and more and more from her spoiled, angry son. The ending moments where we have an opportunity for reconciliation and for the punctuation of her final thoughts on pain and loss are swallowed up by her male counterpart’s summation. She says nothing of true value on this topic. She defers her pain. She defers her own discoveries about her past and about her future.

The Episcopal church began allowing women to be ordained as ministers in 1974. That’s only 44 years ago. And still women in the church encounter roadblocks to advancement, including bold-faced discrimination. This discrimination is felt by the dismissal of Hannah’s character’s thoughts and theories. It’s felt deeply. When pushed to renounce her faith, deny her studies, and reject everything she believes in to win the love of her insistent son, she shuts down and goes to bed. In my opinion, the playwright was working out his frustration with the church and, likely, his own mother. The vitriol cast on both were not confronted. Bunin intentionally stifled the primary, informed, sole female voice in this piece. And while I left The Busy World is Hushed feeling frustrated by the directing and annoyed with the story, I was excited and thrilled at the way the actors managed to shine through.

The Busy World is Hushed is playing Wednesday to Friday at 7:30 and Saturday and Sunday at 3pm through November 11th. There is an additional evening performance on Saturday Nov 10th, 7:30pm.  Tickets are $35, and can be purchased at invisibletheatre.com or by calling 822-9721.