The Bounty of Big Institutions and the Glory of Grass Roots
Martha Lavey, the artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company, called me on my cell when I was standing next to a borrowed white pickup truck double-parked on First Avenue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She was calling to tell me that Steppenwolf would open their next season with my play Detroit—I’d heard this news from P. Carl a few days before, but Martha was calling to make it official. I was thrilled, I thanked her, I hung up my phone, pulled another 3-foot x 6-foot red wrestling mat out of the truck, and handed it to two of the dancers who were performing in my show at PS122 that night. I knew I also needed to send my intern to buy four bags of marshmallows, drop off press kits at the box office and, oh right, re-park my friend Charles’s truck before curtain. Crazy. And also thrilling.
Since then, Detroit enjoyed an awesome run at Steppenwolf, supported by a six-figure budget, a crew of at least forty with audiences numbering in the thousands. Three weeks after it closed, my husband Brendan Connelly (of Theater of a Two-Headed Calf) and I self-produced our new mini-musical in the New Orleans Fringe Festival, in a converted storefront called Party World. The budget was exactly $1,812. We oversold two of our three performances in our 80-seat house. We grossed $1,072 at the box office.
I’m sure some people think I am crazy for moving back and forth between these two worlds. Once I’ve gotten in the door of a theatre like Steppenwolf, shouldn’t I be putting all my effort into getting more gigs like that? Well, I won’t turn them down, but this year has made me realize that both worlds—the grass roots and the big institutions—have been a crucial part of my past as a playwright, and both are essential if I am to lead a healthy and productive life as a playwright into the future.
Why do I love the grass roots? Those of you who know me already know the answer to this question. I “grew up” making theatre in alleyways in Austin, parking lots in Minneapolis, under bridges in Portland, Oregon, and in movie-palace-turned-rave-clubs in New Orleans. These experiences usually began with me and a collaborator (usually Katie Pearl) sitting in a park or a coffee shop or the cold floor of an empty dress shop that had been given to us and saying “So. What do we want to do?” We could imagine our project from the ground up, no guidelines, no expectations, no limitations (except for maybe a $200 budget). The budget wasn’t an issue though: since we started with nothing, the stakes were only as high as our own aesthetic ambitions. We could do anything: experiment with form, language, audience interaction, and so on.
Working on low-budget, grass roots theatre has made me a more flexible artist.
When P. Carl first lured me into the world of Steppenwolf with a commission, I was skeptical. I had avoided big institutions my entire career. I had great admiration for Steppenwolf as a trailblazer, but their push-it-to-the-edge naturalism seemed a strange match for my angular, more stylized writer’s voice. But I said yes, mostly because I have infinite trust in Carl, and also because hell, I needed the dough.
The road to Detroit being produced was faster than either of us could have imagined: Detroit was not my commission, but a play I had just finished, and Steppenwolf read it and pretty much decided to produce it instantly. There was part of me that was like “Well, sh**. I’m going to get eaten alive by this institutional beast!” I quickly learned, however, that I was being ruled by my assumptions about what a “big institution” was. In my first few visits to Steppenwolf to workshop Detroit, I was amazed by the way they engaged with their audiences—there are audience discussions after each show—and how they involved me in every step of the process. They also seemed eager to bring up my more experimental, interdisciplinary work in video and program interviews. In short, Steppenwolf seemed ready for dialogue, and interested in who I was as an artist. All I had to do was be me, as clearly as possible.
Working on low-budget, grass-roots theater has taught me what it means to be a part of a community: to ask for help, to give help, to never feel alone and powerless.
Now I’m not saying that working on my first show with Steppenwolf was a total breeze. It was a new relationship with a theatre that has been around a long time. I had a lot to learn about when was the best time to ask a question, and who to ask it to. And there were times when I felt intimidated by the experience and clout of many people who work there. But I always felt empowered to question and participate in everything from marketing to dramaturgy to set design. This was in part because I was invited, and in part because I had such a strong background in knowing what it takes to collaborate and get the job done from the ground up.
Working on low-budget, grass roots theatre has taught me how to ask the right questions and clearly state my needs when working in a larger institution.
When my show with Brendan, Du Fu, Mississippi was accepted to the New Orleans Fringe Festival, we were thrilled and also a bit daunted: it had been three years since I had worked in New Orleans, and I needed help on all fronts. I didn’t want to seem like an outsider barreling into a scene I hadn’t been a part of for a while. I started by asking my dear friends at ArtSpot Productions for help—ArtSpot in many ways started the experimental/interdisciplinary scene in New Orleans fifteen years ago, and have developed a large and faithful following. One of their ensemble members wound up being in the show; another agreed to design our set; both were working for a nominal artist’s fee and an even more modest set budget. Another friend from New Orleans Mondo Bizarro joined the cast. Both companies helped with marketing and promotion and Mondo wound up saving the day by helping us document the show on video. When I couldn’t find a costume designer who did I turn to? Mom, of course. She made Christmas pajamas for me when I was five, why not sew costumes now that I’m forty? Throughout the whole process: a feeling of effortlessness, of resources existing to be shared, of a community of artists who know what it takes to make a thing of beauty.
A good example of the New Orleans team effort (which, like almost everything in that town, somehow manages to feel like a party): I hired my friend Zack Smith to do a photo shoot for our promotion. We met Zack at his apartment in the Bywater—he knew like, two sentences about the show. He stood on his front porch and said, “Okay, give me the scoop.” I told him it was a show that transported 8th century Chinese poetry to a front porch in contemporary Mississippi—think front porch Buddhism, Zen mixed with Appalachian folk. “I got it,” he said. “Let’s throw some things in my truck.” We set to work—me, Brendan, the cast—gathering up old rocking chairs, cinderblocks, toy parrot puppets, statues of the Buddha, bamboo and more, and tossing it into the bed of his pickup truck. He told us to meet him at the abandoned golf course at City Park—where ArtSpot had recently put on their hit show Loup Garou. We drove our cars out on to the middle of the overgrown green, set up our props, and started shooting. An hour later, we were packing up with a ton of amazing shots to use.
Something that informal yet effective could have never happened at Steppenwolf. It would have taken countless emails, a props budget, permits to shoot on city property, perhaps extra money to pay for the actors’ time. At the grass roots level, there’s more room for improvisation. And perhaps, for the sheer enjoyment of pulling something off beautifully out of thin air.
Working on low-budget, grass-roots theatre has taught me what it means to be a part of a community: to ask for help, to give help, to never feel alone and powerless.
The trick: in general, I would say that “grassroots” and “big institution” theatre people stay entrenched in one world. Those working with few resources can get burnt out and feel resentful of the theatre people with money. Those working in the big institutions can get burnt out and look down on the “storefront experiments” of the smaller companies. And how on earth would you ever find the time to work in both worlds anyway? A theatre career of any sort takes every ounce of your time and attention, right?
I see progress—theatres like Steppenwolf are co-producing shows with smaller companies, which naturally mixes audiences and brings artists from these different worlds together. But the divide is still huge. I wonder if playwrights are the artists who can truly bridge the gap? Who can move between both worlds and perhaps be secret ambassadors for each way of doing things? It’s clear to me that I need both worlds in order to survive aesthetically, spiritually, and financially. Do other playwrights feel the same way? Is there value in trying to encourage these two worlds to collaborate more fully? Or are the lines too firmly drawn, the categories too firmly entrenched? Playwrights, what are your thoughts?