Twin Cities theater founder Kirby Bennett would rather have you compare her plucky performing arts company to the Whitney or Venice biennials — big, ambitious art happenings — than to the life cycle of cicadas.
Both are apt, though. Every odd-numbered year since 2005, Bennett’s Girl Friday Productions has put on a big, splashy show in the warm months, making a lot of noise before going dormant again to rebuild its strength for its re-emergence two years hence.
This weekend Bennett opens “Idiot’s Delight,” Robert Sherwood’s 1936 Pulitzer-winning play that was turned into a movie starring Clark Gable. Set at a resort hotel in the Italian Alps where trapped international guests bicker and flirt on the brink of a world war, the play was a big deal in its day but has fallen by the wayside. Which makes it a perfect Girl Friday work.
“I love going through these dusty drawers and finding these wonderful plays,” said Bennett, who has a small role in the show. “And this one, which is all about a world under threat, has many themes and situations that speak to us.”
A Minneapolis native, Bennett went away to college at her parents’ alma mater — all the way to St. Paul (Macalester). She underwrites her theater passion by working in development for Twin Cities Public Television.
She founded Girl Friday with Natalie Diem, whom she met in a production by Joel Sass’ old Mary Worth Theatre. She and Diem (who has since moved to California) wanted to stage works that would provide opportunities for women actors, as well as an environment for friendships to flourish.
“What I love about doing this is that it gives me an opportunity to also give back,” Bennett said. “I’ve worked with some extraordinary people.”
Finding her niche
In a crowded theater market, Bennett has carved out a unique niche. Most small companies choose not to put on big shows for obvious reasons — they are expensive and complex to mount. But Bennett has made that her specialty. “Idiot’s Delight” has a cast of 17, including Bonni Allen, Addie Phelps, Kory LaQuess Pullam, John Middleton and Stacia Rice.
That niche means embracing the expense. Most Girl Friday productions fall into the $40,000-$55,000 range, said Bennett. Ticket sales only cover part of her costs, so she raises money through crowdfunding and grants from the state, the city of St. Paul and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, among others.
She’s also pretty much alone in presenting old-fashioned plays with big casts. That means she can take her pick from among a raft of dramas that, for whatever reason, aren’t as popular as they once were. Girl Friday has staged works by Elmer Rice (2011’s “Street Scene”), Tennessee Williams (2013’s “Camino Real”) and Thornton Wilder (“Our Town” in 2007, “The Skin of Our Teeth” in 2009 and “The Matchmaker” in 2015).
“As someone who also founded a theater, I can tell you that what Kirby is doing is pretty special,” said Rice, founder of Torch Theater and one of the headliners of “Idiot’s Delight.”
“Idiot’s Delight” director Craig Johnson has been in several Girl Friday productions and won a coveted Ivey Award in 2011 for his staging of “Street Scene.” To him, the attraction of this play is its mix of entertainment and glamour. The resort denizens of “Idiot’s Delight” include showgirls, with a live pianist for the musical numbers.
“The play is a big fruit soup with a bunch of different ingredients — romance, quirky characters, comic moments, all against this foreboding framework,” Johnson said. “These people, representing the international world at that time, are in limbo, sitting at the top of the world. They are stuck together and have to deal with each other.”
Bennett likes that takeaway, too.
“The play says that we’re all in this little world together,” she said. “It’s all we’ve got.”