The Artistic Case
Aditi Brennan Kapil is the Playwright-in-Residence at Mixed Blood Theater Company through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about her residency experience here , and learn about the impact of the program at large here.
Since the 2011–2012 season, Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis has practiced Radical Hospitality, providing no-cost access to all main stage productions for any audience member.
This fall Mixed Blood Theatre is premiering a trilogy of plays in repertory by Aditi Brennan Kapil. The Displaced Hindu Gods trilogy consists of Brahman/i, a one-hijra stand-up comedy show; The Chronicles of Kalki; and Shiv. There are three directors, one design team, seven actors, some of whom are cast in more than one show, and the theatre is being reconfigured into a cabaret-style space for the run, which includes festival style weekends where you can see all three plays with fifteen-minute intermissions between each.
This initial conversation between Artistic Director Jack Reuler and Playwright-in-Residence Aditi Brennan Kapil examines the artistic case for a theatre in Minneapolis to charge no admission, program ambitious new work that stretches its aesthetics, capacity, and resources, and perhaps more importantly, why this matters?
Jack Reuler: As the Artistic Director of Mixed Blood my real job is mission realization through quality programming, and providing vision and leadership to get to that, and I’ve been doing it for thirty-seven years. In November of 2010 the Board voted unanimously to institute Radical Hospitality. We had had a series of focus groups, and asked the question, “what are the obstacles to people attending theatre?” We got all kinds of answers, but the one through line with everybody was cost. So we made a list of hurdles we wanted to overcome, and we decided to start with the hardest item on the list; to start by eliminating cost as a barrier. It’s worth noting that in all our discussions, we didn’t start with “how are we going to pay for it?” We decided that we were going to do this before there was any money. The question was in a model of the American theatre that is clearly broken, how do we be the best Mixed Blood we can be. That’s the question that the board asks itself and that I ask of the board and the staff. We really feel that purpose and principle supersede survival. We’re going to live life on our own terms, and if tomorrow is the last day, we will have done it the way we intended to do it.
The greatest sign of success for Radical Hospitality would be somebody coming to a Mixed Blood show without paying and becoming a subscriber at another theatre. That’s the best trajectory we can imagine.
In a world in which anyone can see whatever they want whenever they want to see it for free on their cell phone or tablet or laptop, how do we make the case for traveling through the snow to a particular place at a particular time and plunking down a bunch of dollars?
The statistics have been both breathtaking and heartwarming in terms of what we were trying to do and what has happened. Over 50 percent of the people entering by way of Radical Hospitality are under thirty, 37 percent of them make less than $25,000 a year, 30 percent are people of color, 9 percent claim never to have been to a live play before. So we’re developing audiences for Mixed Blood, but we believe we’re developing them for everyone. The greatest sign of success for Radical Hospitality would be somebody coming to a Mixed Blood show without paying and becoming a subscriber at another theatre. That’s the best trajectory we can imagine.
We’ve entering our third season now practicing Radical Hospitality, and overall, the idea that more people would come if you took out the financial barrier has proved itself out. And the composition of the audience has changed.
Aditi Brennan Kapil: Radical Hospitality has really revolutionized the audiences at Mixed Blood, it’s palpable, you feel it when you’re in the house, you feel it when you’re on stage, performing is different, the dialogue changed almost immediately. They’re the youngest, most diverse, audiences I’ve ever performed for. They’re loud, present, leaning in, engaging… I feel like the Mixed Blood audience has a lot of fun, and they have fun together, in relationship with, not only with what’s on stage, but with each other. One of my favorite outcomes of Radical Hospitality is that people come to shows they like multiple times. Who does that?
Jack: We kicked off Radical Hospitality by doing a season of work that was going to challenge the audience. One of my favorite early moments was in the first show of the first season of Radical Hospitality. It was the fourth week of Neighbors by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, which was a difficult show. In the post-show discussion, and probably ninety people out of 200 stayed for the discussion that night, on a Wednesday, and it was not a short play, a woman got up, and she was angry. She said, “I hated this thing! I can’t believe you’re doing it! I came last week and I brought seven people back to see what it is you’re doing on that stage!” And I thought, “I love you! This is exactly why we’re doing this!”
Aditi: That’s another aspect of this that is so satisfying to me—the new work aspect. I feel that my role, as a playwright in this world, is to be in active dialogue with my community, with other artists, with the world around me. Conversation is how we evolve, how we weave connections, it’s an essential part of a healthy society. And there’s something stunted about the idea of the artistic discourse being reserved for only the segment of society that can afford to participate. For a playwright writing toward an active dialogue with the present, a diverse audience is a huge gift. The fact that I know I’m creating for audiences who will educate and inform each other just by being in the same space together, engaging with a piece of art together, opens up what I do artistically. I’m not in a vacuum at all, I’m right in the mix. The fact that Mixed Blood does new work, feels like an essential value.
Jack: When we started, what this theatre was about, our mission, didn’t have a canon of literature that spoke to it, so from the very first season, in 1976, new plays have been a necessity for mission realization. One of the great things that has happened at Mixed Blood, and it’s been punctuated by Radical Hospitality, is that marketing and programming are joined at the hip. I hear organizations say, “how do we find new audiences for the programming that we’re already doing?” We’re going to do Prokofiev as usual and try to get twenty-three-year-old Latino professionals to come to that, and that thinking feels disjointed. We’re saying, “who aren’t we speaking to that we’d like to, and let’s together make efforts to find that audience, with programming being the lead vehicle to find that audience.” They just aren’t separate mindsets or efforts for us.
Aditi: I also feel like Jack invests in artists long-term, he invests in their journey. And that feels incredibly valuable to me, having started here as an actress, then transitioned to actress and director, and now my relationship with the theatre is actress, director, and playwright. Mixed Blood programs a great deal of new work, and they also commission a great deal of new work and, specifically as a playwright, what I deeply appreciate is the trust he has for me as an artist. It’s a crucial distinction to me that artists be the thinkers of a society as well as entertainers, writers, designers, implementers of the actual craft of the art form. Commissions are beautiful things that allow me to pay for childcare and write, but I have this ferocious need for the independence to do the work that I feel is important, to generate the dialogue that feels most essential to me right now, and from the start Jack has made room for that. We have this, slightly peculiar, system where I’ll start working on something, if I think he might like it at some point I’ll tell him about it, and if he’s interested, he offers me a commission, with all the amazing support that involves. But we don’t commit before the thing already has an identity, and that way I’m writing what I need to write, and he only has to sign on if he’s into it, and we’re doing right by each other. That said, I came of age as an artist at Mixed Blood, my work frequently is a pretty good fit, this place is in my veins.
Also, my plays are hard, they tend to be complex, but that doesn’t scare him off at all. All my commissions have resulted in productions when the plays were ready, it began with Love Person in 2008, then Agnes Under the Big Top, a tall tale in 2011, and now the upcoming trilogy this October—three plays at one time!
Jack: I like my new plays hard. The field really only progresses through the production of new work, it’s about stretching the mission, changing it up, pushing the theatre in directions it hasn’t gone before. I never want us to be a hyphenated theatre (race-based, gender-based, etc.) I really want to meet any other theatre at the crossroads of quality and exceed them. And sometimes that is in the writing and the ambition of the work. And the goal of a commission is opening night.
Aditi: When I first started writing the trilogy, which has been a long and winding road beginning with my McKnight year at the Playwrights’ Center, I tried to squeeze every complicated thought I had about my Indian heritage into one play, which didn’t do well under the weight, which led to the realization that I needed to fracture all those ideas into three separate plays. If a storyline was starting to overload one play, maybe it belonged in one of the others? And it was fun work; they’re all in really different styles: a stand-up comedy routine, a comic book style girl gang thriller, and a post-colonial fantasy. I imagined them as all standing alone, because I wanted them produced, but also as coexisting in the same cosmos, with threads running through all three, little Easter eggs, on the off chance that anyone might ever see all three. Originally, I think Jack and I had talked about doing them over the course of several years, but at some point the conversation evolved to premiering all three in rep. And that kind of changed everything, it alters the scale and ambition of your work, when you know it’ll have a home. I mean I suddenly had this triple deadline, but for an artist, that is amazing, to get to create something so immersive and huge, an experience for an audience, a really amazing ride. It still blows my mind that I’m going to get to see them premiere together, in front of this audience.
Jack: I look at the trilogy as both three separate plays and also as one epic play. There will be front-of-house challenges, the show has specific casting needs, as does every play, and for that you have to cast a broader net. Of our seven actors, three are from out of town, and all three of those are South Asian. We keep year-round apartments for out of town actors, and it’s not out of lack of commitment to the local talent pool, but an acknowledgment that the work we pick isn’t always supported by the local talent pool, it’s just part of the cost of doing business. We had to create schedules that would allow all three shows to rehearse in the same rehearsal period, and knowing that there was overlap in casting, to work with the directors to say, “who can you live with for how many hours and still succeed in getting the work you want done?” And then work with the union to say we’re really treating this as one thing and here are the hours. It took a couple of concessions, but happily this year they added a new rep component to the Small Professional Theatre contract that solves a lot of our problems. We’ve always paid people significantly more than scale, we have span of day issues, and days in a row without days off issues, that we had to deal with the union and pay accordingly, but it’s all been within what we had budgeted. I think that probably the scenic designer had the biggest challenge because I imposed a configuration of the room that we’ve never done before, the room will be set up as a cabaret, and that had limitations for the designer who has just sat there and went through problem after problem and solved it with each of the directors. There are challenges, but they don’t feel like a hardship to me. This is the work that we want to do.
As far as audience and marketing, the joy and the challenge are one and the same, as is often the case. Each of these three plays wants a really distinct audience. When we say, “who’s needed for the room to ignite?” it’s different for each show, so then when we say “let’s do these three shows in a row, simultaneously,” how do we have that ignite for the whole five hours? But I do think that Aditi’s work, unlike others, has in its crosshairs the traditional theatre-going audience as well, which I think for every other theatre is the easiest thing to find and attract, but for Mixed Blood it has over time become the hardest. We need to work harder to access the traditional theatregoer!
Aditi: That’s an expression that Jack uses that I really love, “who needs to be in the room for the work to ignite,” and he includes artists, audience, community leaders, and all of that is the theatre’s job, bringing that experience together. I love that because it really acknowledges that theatre, at its heart, is experiential, that’s what makes it unique.
Jack: I think that once you answer that question, it’s quite freeing. The overall experience of coming to a Mixed Blood play has three components: the neighborhood through which you travel to get to the theatre, the people who sit next to you in the seats while you’re seeing the play, and what happens on stage. Being in Cedar-Riverside, which is so reflective of the world view and mission of the organization, is an essential piece of our identity, and has really become cemented over and over again, by board after board. And then doing a better job of seeking audiences to be who we want them to be so we don’t become a minstrel show if what we do on stage has nothing to do with the people who watch it. That people lean in to watch it, and don’t just sit back and absorb it.
Aditi: And I really feel like Radical Hospitality has created that environment.
Jack: Radical Hospitality won’t be radical for long. The lesson being learned is not whether it works, but how do we take a model that is broken and adjust it to serve our organization, our aesthetic, our ambitions. Different people are doing that in different ways. You examine what are the barriers, who would you like to have in your audience, why aren’t they coming? The goals are completely attainable, but you have to rethink a lot of assumptions. The overall mindset of the organization now is that we plan, we implement, we analyze how it went, and then we replan, as opposed to keep doing it until it’s broken.
Part 2 will examine the pragmatics of how Radical Hospitality works, “The Financial or Business Case,” in conversation with Managing Director Amanda White-Thietje and Marketing.