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
“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.
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.”
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.
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!