Parity or Better, but Usually Better

Editor’s Note: This is the second 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. 

Coffee, representation on the stage, and really good plays with Something Something Theatre Company’s founding artistic director Joan O’Dwyer and founding director Whitney Morton Woodcock.

by Leigh Moyer

Something Something LogoSomething Something Theatre brands itself as theatre by women for everyone. Their mission is “Parity or better,” founding Director Whitney Morton Woodcock explained over coffee. “So fifty percent or better, but we usually have more than fifty percent of our season written by female playwrights.”

This mindset started with their first season – not as a fluke, but also not exactly on purpose – driven instead by feminism and the realization that there was a lot of good work that was too often overlooked. It started when three fierce women, Joan O’Dwyer, Whitney Morton Woodcock, and Esther Almazán, saw a gap in the Tucson theatre community that became their niche. “There are just so many plays written by women, and women are really finding their voice right now. And they’re young women and they’re brilliant,” Joan O’Dwyer gushed, “And they’re not just writing about homely things, they’re writing about war and injustices to women and women in different countries and their experiences which nobody has ever heard before and I just love that.”

I have to say, I agree with her. But that doesn’t make doing theatre by women easy. While it was a woman who was the most-produced playwright in the United States in the 2017-2018 season and second most-produced in 2018-2019, this is a distinctly modern phenomenon. (That playwright is Lauren Gunderson, playwright of Something Something’s first production of the season, The Revolutionists.) Historical restrictions limited women’s opportunities to write and kept women’s work from the stage for a long time, which means staging women’s plays now is often a choice to focus on contemporary work rather than well-known classics. It doesn’t faze the women of Something Something, but producing a significant amount of new or unknown writers is a risk. Women may be finding their voice now and using it to tell amazing stories, but we have ground to make up.

But boy, are we. O’Dwyer and Morton Woodcock are faced with the best kind of problem when selecting plays: there are almost too many great plays by women. Selecting the next (and next, and next) season is a process of narrowing down the choices, and then amending that list as new plays are written and produced. And if they do a play by someone of the male persuasion? “Well,” Joan quipped, “if the play is written by a man, it has to be a really good play. They have to work five times as hard if they want to get in– for half as much pay!”

Oh, how the tables have turned. And while it is important to the Something Something artistic team to have representation, like all theatres, the point isn’t that the play was written by a woman, but rather that the play is meaningful, inspiring, challenging, or simply entertaining. (The point, I would add, is that women playwrights are writing great theatre prolifically, not in isolated cases of genius.)

Morton Woodcock explains, “It is more about the story and how we think the audience will feel. What it comes down to is that it is a good story and there are good roles. And liking the characters. Like in The Aliens, those guys are so… they’re so incompetent sometimes, but they’re also so funny. They are likable.”

“They’re sexist,” O’Dwyer interrupted.

This didn’t slow Morton Woodcock down for a beat, “But likable.” And so goes theatre. So goes storytelling. You don’t always want to be friends with the characters in a good show. She continued, “We pick plays about humans, humans who should be represented on the stage, but also humans who are flawed. We choose scripts that address those flaws, call out the bad behavior, but sometimes you just have to let the characters be the characters. I wouldn’t do a play that portrayed someone who was really horrible in a positive light and of course we aren’t going to do plays that endorse problematic people.”

“You have to feel empathy for these people,” O’Dwyer added. “But it is going to have to be handled delicately.” That is, after all, what good theatre is: showing people new perspectives and challenging them to reflect and take new perspectives out of the theater and into the real world. A lot of characters are morally gray.

While some plays this season present characters that force the audience to consider a new view point, others take on issues that are often overlooked or downplayed in a male dominated culture, like the decision to become a mother, go back to work, breastfeed in public, or seek help for postpartum depression. Cry It Out focuses on women connected by the experience of new motherhood and the challenges that come with it, something that struck close to home for Morton Woodcock as a new mother. She is also the director of Cry It Out and can relate to the women. “It isn’t sexy or fun to discuss,” she admitted, “Like, maternity leave, ohhh. But it has to be discussed. They talk in the play about how people judge the choices you make, about deciding to have a baby at all. Everyone, other moms included, has an opinion and everyone feels like they are right and if you do it differently, you are a monster. I cried when I read the script.”

I asked both if they had a show they were most excited about. Without hesitation O’Dwyer answered, “I’m really excited about Cry It Out. It has something we don’t often see on stage: new mothers and they are all different.” Cry It Out goes beyond the stereotypes of never getting enough sleep or complaining about changing diapers.

Woodcock Morton also has a favorite: “The one I think is important for people to see it Martie’s play Transformations. This topic, the concept of transgender and gender fluidity, is something that has been growing in the public eye in terms of celebrities and media and people talking about it more but a lot of people still don’t understand. Martie is not giving a lecture or sharing what can be googled; she is sharing people. She is funny and it is well written and she gives each character she plays their own persona that you can relate to. I’m not sure that people realize that representation matters. The types of stories you see, the types of characters you see, impacts your world view. We consume stories to explain our lives, or who we are, but it also normalizes new or different perspectives.”

The 2019-2020 season, Something Something’s fifth, brings five plays, all written by women, to the stage. And Joan has a point, they aren’t just writing about homely things, they are writing about revolution, being human, pride and pain, motherhood, and even boys being boys.

This season is a lot about people you think you know, but are presented in a different way that makes you question yourself and those notions. Confront what you think you know at Something Something Theatre. The season is listed online and below. You can become a season ticket holder now and catch all five performances for $75.00 or purchase single tickets for $25.00 each by calling their box office at (520) 468-6111.

Something Something 2019-2020

Something Something Theatre’s 2019 – 2020 Season:

The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson
September 12 – 29, 2019
Set during the height of the French Revolution, four women – a playwright, an assassin, a spy and an empress – bond to tell the story of their turbulent times for future generations. It’s a comedy. Guillotines may be involved. 

TransFormations by Martie van der Voort
October 31 – November 17, 2019
Local actor and playwright van der Voort performs all twelve transgender characters, their close relatives and significant others at a group therapy session. TransFormations’ has been performed to acclaim in Tucson and in cities around the nation, but this will be its first full run!

Apples in Winter by Jennifer Fawcett
November 27 – December 15, 2019
We are with a woman baking a small pie in a kitchen not her own. The room is bare, institutional. There are no chairs, and a knife is attached to the work table with a wire.  This is the story of a mother’s deepest love and most grievous pain.

Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler
February 13 – March 1, 2020
Metzler’s sympathetic yet brutally honest play brings characters to the stage not normally seen. Three women, diverse in all ways… except hat they have all recently given birth and are coping with everything that comes with being the main caretaker. Funny and uniquely insightful, written by a young mother.

The Aliens by Annie Baker
March 26 – April 12, 2020
Something Something Theatre produced Body Awareness, another of Baker’s ‘Shirley, Vermont plays’ in our second season. Dramatists Play Service describes The Aliens so darn well that we’re simply forced to run their synopsis here: “Two angry young men sit behind a Vermont coffee shop and discuss music and Bukowski. When a lonely high-school student arrives on the scene, they decide to teach him everything they know. A play with music.” – Dramatists Play Service

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!