First Love, Improv, and Getting Behind the Scenes with Director, Actor, and Playwright Gretchen Wirges

Gretchen Wirges
interviewed by Gabriella De Brequet

Which came first for you, improv or theatre?

Theater! Definitely my first love. Though, interestingly I spent a good part of my early years behind the scenes as Stage Manager, prop master, set designer. A few years after I moved to Tucson I was taken to an improv show and became a regular audience member. When the opportunity came to take a class I was really afraid because I didn’t know what I could do with a script. I went to and realized that the freedom and creativity and trust and community involved in improv was exactly the freedom I’d always wanted in theater. Now I can apply those skills and that sense of play and comfort to scripted works as well. It’s the perfect marriage of everything I love about performing.

How has teaching influenced you and your craft?

As with most things, when you teach something you understand it on a very different level. I love to see students find the ability to be vulnerable and trust their own ability to be in the moment. This reminder always helps me focus on stage. I practice what I preach. Be truthful. Listen like a thief. Let go of story and embrace the relationship. I take deep breaths, I make eye contact with my partner, and I listen to them and to the deeper meaning behind the words. I always perform as though one of my students is watching.

Gretchen Wirges (center) as one of three in the Chorus of Stones, the gatekeepers of the Underworld, in Euridice, with Leah Taylor (left) and Julia Balestracci (right). Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Gretchen Wirges (center) as one of three in the Chorus of Stones, the gatekeepers of the Underworld, in Euridice, with Leah Taylor (left) and Julia Balestracci (right). Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

What do you think Tucson’s improv and theatre community is lacking?

On a practical level, rehearsal space. Haha. No, but really. It’s kind of symbolic of the bigger issue I see. I’m on the board of the Tucson Fringe Festival. And what Fringe focuses on is providing a beautiful space that allows artists to create. But Fringe is only one weekend a year (January 9-12 by the way! Woot!) Some theaters are encouraging a bit of this with new play festivals and late night series for local writers and performers. But we can do more. We can create more spaces and creativity workshops/outlets to encourage writers, dancers, actors, directors, song writers and visual artists. Can we collaborate? Can we inspire each other more directly? Can we put something on stage that is beautifully new and fresh written by a local playwright instead of one of the classics being considered? Can we designate one night a week to a think tank for local creators/playwrights/devisers? I just think we can do more to showcase the process of creation, instead of just the product.

Have you been inspired by any local comedians or performers as of late?

Amanda Gremel and Samantha Cormier, who starred in Always! Patsy Cline at Live Theater Workshop. The two of them really wove this beautiful story using humor and music. They both blew me away with the way they connected with the audience and each other. Samantha Severson in Stupid Fucking Bird at Winding Road. Vulnerable, powerful, and moving. Clair de la Vergne and Nicole DelPrete in Blood wedding. They were so, so, so lyrical and strong and truthful.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects that you want our readers to know
about?

Sure! I’ve got a few:
Tucson Fringe is putting on an incredible event July 20th at Steinfeld Warehouse. It’s called B/lending Forms. Visual artists, performing artists (actors, singers, dancers, acrobats, jugglers, musicians, etc) and spoken word/poetry performers partner up to devise a unique multimedia performance for an exciting new project that blends art and expression. Presented to an audience in an art-gallery style walk through. It’s going to be incredible!

I’ve just started work on a devised piece of theater that will debut next season at Something Something Theatre! My intent is to take an age-old female trope and look at it from a feminist angle. It’s an exciting project and I’m really thankful to Something Something for the opportunity.

I’m also in rehearsals with the troupe I direct, Unwritten. We create a fully-improvised, full-length play using a theatrical form called The Woolf. It’s super engaging and really difficult to do well, but they really dig in and knock me off my socks every time they perform. We will be appearing at a to-be-named theater this fall. People can check out our Facebook page if they want to know about upcoming performances.

 

The spotlight series is an on-going series where we spotlight local female and non-binary artists in the Tucson Community.

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