By any measure, theater artist Austene Van appears to be thriving.
She directed two high-profile shows in the past year — “Annie” at the Ordway Music Theater in St. Paul and “The Royale” at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo. She acted in Danai Gurira’s hit play “Familiar” at the Guthrie and then in Seattle, after the production transferred west. She recently originated a lead role in the world premiere of “West of Central,” Christina Ham’s noir thriller, at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis.
So why is she feeling restless and ornery?
“I want to be in my own home,” said the director, actor and writer. “It’s great to get a chance to work all over — I relish that. But I want to create opportunities for women, people of color and queer folk, not just hope that others will provide them.”
Van, who is in her mid-40s, is launching her long-dreamed-of company, New Dawn Theatre Company, with a fundraising concert Saturday and Sunday headlined by Jevetta Steele, Regina Marie Williams and Thomasina Petrus at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre, where Van is a longtime company member.
Landing at a time when there is heightened national awareness around issues of gender equity and parity, New Dawn is just the latest Twin Cities theater company aimed at broadening opportunities for an overlooked talent pool.
Prime Productions, dedicated to “celebrating women in their second act,” recently launched its second season with the drama “Two Degrees” at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio. And Dark & Stormy Productions, while not explicitly feminist in its mission, has carved out a niche over the past six years as a female-led, artist-driven company, winning plaudits and fans alike.
“These theaters are being founded as answers to a lack of opportunity,” said Mary McColl, a former Twin Cities arts leader who now runs the 51,000-member Actors’ Equity union. Acknowledging that the politics of the moment have women fired up, she said she sees these companies as crucial “for the industry to become more inclusive and equitable.”
For decades, women accounted for the majority of the U.S. theatergoing audience but only a minority of playwrights and directors. That picture is changing.
Women wrote eight of the 11 most produced contemporary plays in the current season, according to American Theatre’s tally of the nation’s largest nonprofit theaters. And 11 of the 20 most produced playwrights were women, including Twin Cities writer Ham (“Nina Simone: Four Women”).
In the Twin Cities, women are smashing the glass curtain, too. Female leaders succeeded the male founders of midsize playhouses Penumbra, the Jungle and Pillsbury House, updating the programming to attract younger, more diverse audiences. Guthrie alum Marcela Lorca recently took the helm at Ten Thousand Things, founded by a woman, Michelle Hensley. As it celebrates 30 years, Frank Theatre continues to be led by Wendy Knox.
Even so, challenges remain in a field trying to expunge baked-in bias and misogyny. These new companies have found a surprising welcome.
“We’ve struck a nerve, and we’re also benefiting from this moment in the culture when people want to hear these stories and more voices of women,” said Elena Giannetti, who founded Prime with two other theater professionals — Shelli Place and Alison Edwards — to provide opportunities for women over 50.
Giannetti grew up in the Twin Cities and went away to act. When she returned, she asked herself: “Where are all the women I used to see onstage?” She said it “boiled down to the fact that there weren’t enough opportunities for actors of a certain age.”
The results have been encouraging for Prime’s founders. Their first show, “Little Wars,” opened in May 2017 for a three-week run at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. It had a $33,000 budget, the same figure as its second show, “Two Degrees,” which just closed after exceeding its goals.
“We are far ahead of our plan,” Giannetti said. “We’d intended to be at the Guthrie by year three, and here we are. And we’d planned to do one show a year; now we’re doing more.”
The company is in the process of getting nonprofit status and building a board. “It’s a stretch, as we’re three hardworking, unpaid volunteers trying to fundraise and make it all happen,” she said. “But it’s worth it.”
Out of the box
They may look to Dark & Stormy for inspiration.
Through tenacity and grit, actor/artistic director Sara Marsh built her company to the point that it now has a $100,000-plus annual budget. She pays herself the bare minimum for her work in running the troupe, conserving money to hire top-notch talent and rent space in the Grain Belt Warehouse in northeast Minneapolis.
Marsh launched Dark & Stormy to create opportunities for actors and other theater artists, herself included.
“This is a tough industry,” she said. “There may be great work out there, but it’s just not right for you. For me, I just wanted to have some agency over the kind of work that I was doing and the kinds of roles that I was being considered for.”
The company does searching, sometimes dark plays, such as “Extremities,” a drama about power and sexual violence. “I wanted to do stuff outside the box — that’s how it started,” Marsh said. “Now it has turned into an opportunity to create jobs and develop talent.”
The company is closing out its sixth season with its third production of the year, David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” about a 27-year-old woman meeting her abuser 15 years later. Opening Dec. 13 and co-starring Luverne Seifert, it runs during the holidays.
If that seems like counterprogramming, it “happened by accident,” Marsh said. “We’re always artist-oriented and wanted to hire the people when they were available.”
For the long run
Dark & Stormy has been an Equity company since its second production, paying at least union-scale wages plus pension benefits. It added health benefits in 2016.
Getting to that place is a goal of Prime and New Dawn, too. In the meantime, Prime’s founders believe they are influencing other theaters in town to select plays with meaty roles for mature women. In January, the Jungle in Minneapolis is staging Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children,” about three aging nuclear physicists — two of whom are women. Prime considered doing the show.
New Dawn also will feature underemployed actors, but it hopes to build new stars, too. Each season, it plans to partner with established companies to do a big musical, a straight play and a devised piece telling the stories of incarcerated women (a personal mission of both Van and Petrus).
“Austene is an amazing, efficient machine,” said Faye Price, co-artistic director of Pillsbury House Theatre. She is part of New Dawn’s founding company, a roster that includes Petrus and Williams as well as established actors Kate Guentzel and Laura Esping.
Price was present at the creation of two venerable local theaters, Penumbra and Mixed Blood. But they had more traditional, male-led structures.
“I was an actress and I had nothing to do with funding, or any decisionmaking — not that I had much knowledge then,” Price said. “New Dawn is a more collaborative effort, and now I have a little more to offer.
“The goals for New Dawn are ambitious, but with all of the talent that’s involved, we could meet them.”