Crystal theater wants to give more jobs to women, and pay them fairly
"I can't tell you how cool it is to be in an audition room, look around and think, 'Wow, there are a lot of ladies in here,' " says Christine Wade of Theatre Elision.
Creating more of those cool rooms is just the start of what the fledgling theater company is trying to do.
She and husband Harrison Wade, as well as Cindy Polich and Lindsay Fitzgerald, run the Crystal-based company, which debuted in 2017 with the goal of producing off-the-beaten-track musical theater that focuses on female characters.
"The women here are at such a high level," says Wade of Twin Cities performers. "It feels wrong that we have so many more talented women in the industry and so many fewer opportunities. Women have to compete at a different level than men. So we thought, 'Let's create opportunities and also try to work with an age range, so it's not all 20-year-olds.' "
Elision's No. 1 rule is that every show must feature at least half women, but it's usually more — of 25 actors last season, 17 were female.
The effort counteracts an imbalance that goes way back, according to Wade, who is Elision's vocal director and a performer. "We always lamented in high school that all of the ladies were competing for lead roles. Then the one football player who had never done theater before would walk in and get the lead because he was the only guy who auditioned."
The women-and-women-first ethos has produced such shows as the all-female satire "Ruthless," which Elision produced in July with a cast including Susan Hofflander and Greta Grosch; this month's world premiere of "If the Spirit Moves" (about a female artist), and "Ghost Quartet," a moody piece the company is remounting in October.
The "Ruthless" cast included big-name union actors who appear on stages such as the Guthrie Theater and Chanhassen Dinner Theatres more frequently than smaller companies like Elision. There's a reason for that, and it's something Wade is passionate about.
"It's important to us that we pay fair wages to all our actors, whether they're union or nonunion," she says. (Elision works with an Actors Equity contract that allows them to employ both.) "It's really hard to find a place in town that will pay artists more than $100 for the whole run of a show, and I don't think that's fair. You're doing the work, you're making money for a theater, and you're not being paid a fair amount?"
Wade knows small theaters often depend on artists who are willing to work more for love than money. "I think it's predatory," she said, "especially to young performers who are in that place of, 'Well, I need to get experience.' We'd love to give that to them and actually pay them what they're worth."
The reason? "If we are willing to pay someone next to nothing, then we're teaching them that they are worth nothing. That was so important to us that we felt like if we couldn't pay our actors well, then we should not be running a theater company."
That doesn't mean Elision actors get rich; the casting call for this season listed a minimum salary of $263 a week. Still, paying union-level wages is ambitious, especially for a new company. Elision, which has an annual budget around $100,000, doesn't spend a lot on sets or costumes, so it can afford to pay actors (the company is funded by private investors). That's also the way other small companies, including Ten Thousand Things and Dark & Stormy Productions, attract top actors.
The wish to get more bang for its buck is also the reason Elision ended up in Crystal, 15 minutes northwest of downtown Minneapolis.
There are two Elisions, actually. Managed by Christine Wade, Elision Playhouse is a 9,000-square-foot, for-profit entity that rents its two theater spaces and two rehearsal rooms to other groups and theater companies. After purchasing a former auto mechanic/textile factory for $500,000 last February, the playhouse's investors renovated the space, bringing the final cost to more than $1 million. Elision Playhouse's tenants include the not-for-profit Theatre Elision, which rented spaces throughout the Twin Cities before settling in the 'burbs.
So far, Crystal seems to be responding. "Ruthless," the first show in the new space, is also Elision's biggest hit.
"The community has been overwhelmingly positive," said Wade, who has visited with local groups to get the word out. The troupe offers $5 off its regular $25 ticket price to theatergoers who live in Crystal, Robbinsdale or New Hope.
Not everyone has been welcoming — Wade recalls seeing a comment on the Nextdoor social networking site that predicted Elision won't last and thinking, "Um, thanks for your vote of confidence. We've been here a week!" — but the Wades have put their money where their mouth is by moving to a house down the street.
Christine Wade knows Elision is biting off a lot — "another hill I'll die on," she says, is casting actors with a variety of body types. It's also clear she feels lucky to be able to do so.
"Not everyone has the resources to produce theater that is new and different," Wade said. "Realizing that actions speak louder than words really got me off my butt to stop complaining about these things that I don't like and say, 'Let's do weird theater. Let's hire women. Let's work with great people.' "