is heading into their 14th annual Summerworks
festival this week and it looks to be as good as ever. For the festival they’re mounting three shows with three completely different creative teams, each with a six-night run, and all stick to that unique Clubbed Thumb mission: “to commission, develop, and produce funny, strange, and provocative new plays by living American writers.” Below, I speak with one of the founders of the company and its current Producing Artistic Director, Maria Striar, about this year’s festival and more.
The L: For the readers who don't know much about it, tell me how the company got started.
We started in 1996, just about a year out of grad school for me, about two years out for Meg [co-founder Meg MacCary who is no longer working directly with the company]. We started really because one of my classmates in grad school asked Meg if she wanted to do a play and they asked me to direct even though I'd been in acting grad school and it started with this very local project that just blossomed into something entirely different.
What play was that?
It was Marie & Bruce
, a Wallace Shawn play, an American writer. It was a funny, strange, and provocative play, but not an original work – our mission has been honed over time.
In terms of your mission, how did that come about?
We didn't come up with a mission statement until we'd been operational for a few years, so we chose terms that described the work we'd done thus far and that we seemed to be drawn to. So I think that, as mission statements go, and they're always sort of a bit of burden, we did try to make it at least describe our aesthetic, as close as we could get to it.
And what does that mission really mean to you, because it could mean a million different things?
I think the fact that it starts with funny is important because I think that is the friendliest and the most visceral of the three terms. It starts with a relationship with the audience that is a generous one. Humor is very hard to fake, it requires both technical specificity and genuine connection and real chops. And it's a satisfying experience for an audience member. And then, there’s the strangeness and the provocativeness. Strangeness is also a visceral experience and strangeness is distance, and distance is in some way part of humor. It’s about dislocating the familiar ideas and tropes and then provocation is just about pushing them a little bit. So you take them all together and you have some things that are working harmoniously with expectations and some things that are jostling against them.
On the point about dislocating, in reading through the play descriptions for Summerworks 2009, it seems like, if anything, the one thing that all three plays share in common is that the central character finds themselves outside their comfort zone. In the case of Telethon [by Kristin Newbom] there's a strange convening of characters, a group of physically disabled fundraisers, in an odd location, a Dunkin Donuts; in Precious Little [by Madeleine George] there's a linguist in the cage with a gorilla; and in punkplay [by Gregory Moss] there's a 13-year old boy fed up with the suburbs who enters the world of punk rock. Or am I stretching too far with this idea of dislocation?
No, I don’t think so. I suppose I could perhaps generalize that that would describe most of the plays we do. Some of it is just about finding an interesting starting point for a story, finding a character whose got an arc that you're going to engage with, and some of that is always going to be someone who falls out of their normal track or is at odds with their environment, because there's a tension there that usually provides an interesting story.
And does that relate to the fact that you and Meg are actors – those tend to be very rich roles for an actor to play?
Yes, I do think the fact that we were trained as and are still, upon occasion, when there's time, actors, does inform the work that we do. I think that for all our aesthetic and intellectual interests, the material is grounded in performance and character and we look for dialogue that however lyrical is still grounded in some sort of specificity. We believe that plays are stories that are told by people interacting with one another, or, perhaps those are the kind we're most interested in producing. And certainly as actresses, there's not a lot of chance to tell stories. [Female roles] are so often providing a little bit of background to somebody else's story and there's so little agency. Which is just such a drag. It's not very stimulating as a performer, but in terms of representing more than half the world as basically partial or flat or part of the backdrop of other people's stories—there are just so many problems there. Perhaps because of that we're also so aware of what stories haven't been told and what stories are insanely familiar. And there are some wonderful plays that for me are just about recognizing that middle-aged man and his problems. I feel like I have that in me because I've been force-fed it for a long time. It's certainly not a surprising journey.
As a woman-led company looking specifically for new writing, do you find that you're getting submissions from a wide pool of writers? One thing that I've heard in the past from literary managers is that they don't get a lot of submissions from women and minorities.
I would say that most of the blind submissions are, in fact, sent by white men. That would be my guess after reading them. And I would say that the lion's share of them are not aware of the degree to which they are not able to write interesting, fully formed female characters. But that's really only one of the problems.
With Summerworks, are these three plays ones that's you've helped to develop from the beginning?
Nope. It's totally different every year. Of the three plays, [Precious Little
] is something that I read as a really solid first draft and the writer [Madeleine George] was interested in doing more work on it and we put it in one of our development programs and made great strides and we've continued to develop it. The other two are plays that were already in a pretty complete state. With one of the plays [Telethon
], the writer [Kristin Newborn] lives in Minneapolis and was mostly involved through long phone conversations with the director [Ken Rus Schmoll]. With punkplay
, the writer [Gregory Moss] has been very involved in the process and has made some amendments to the script and is very involved with making it into a piece of theater as well. One thing I would say, is that I don't think every play has to go through a development process. When we accept a play for production in Summerworks we're taking it at face value. We might have some great ideas or suggestions, but we’re very open to whatever the playwright wants. I'm okay with putting on plays that are not perfected, because I'm interested also in encouraging the writing of plays that are going to make for rich theatrical experiences, which means that they are collaborative, meaning that everything is not completely determined by the script. I'm much more interested in plays that have more than one possible approach. I think that's the problem with so many new play productions, especially by writers who are in the earlier parts of their careers – they get one production or two productions so they don't get to see the different ways that their play could be interpreted. Most writers get encouraged to control it all.
One of the things that's interesting to me about Clubbed Thumb is that you have a lot of affiliated artists. It seems like you're very successful at involving some interesting voices at the table, but I wonder practically, what does that look like? What relationship does an affiliated artist have? Do you all get together at some point during the year?
We don't really have any formal convenings, but because the world is small and we see each other's work, those conversations are continual. And perhaps because Clubbed Thumb is a company founded by actors, we maybe have a more collaborative approach to curation. We're small and flexible and we can put into action suggestions, visions, ideas and insights and we welcome them, to a degree, obviously.
Another thing that’s interesting to me with Clubbed Thumb is that you’ve managed to overcome some of the difficulties that larger theaters claim are associated with producing and selling tickets to plays by new writers. People come out because it's a Clubbed Thumb show and they've learned to know what that means and accept your choices, even if the material is totally unfamiliar.
Yes. I think in our way there's a certain imprimatur. I mean, we don't have a great deal to swing around, but we're thoughtful and experienced in the work that we choose and also in how we produce it.
How did the opening night of Summerworks go?
It was a lot of fun. We like to start things off with the idea that it doesn't have to be so serious or so hard. It's free. The boundary between performance and party is very fuzzy and I think it's a great way to kickoff this festival, especially because these are plays that have never had professional productions. They're short runs, so they're still finding their feet before the last performance and you want to signal to the world that this is the spirit in which we're doing this. Obviously, the work is much more thoughtfully crafted and we’ve put a lot into making these shows, but it’s in opposition to the process that so many new plays go through in other institutions.
It's an interesting comment because if you hang around theater people for very long the conversation inevitably turns, usually rather quickly, to the negatives of the contemporary theater world – it's really tough to get productions; the economics of theater are very difficult; the process is very difficult. There’s a sense that it's about constantly fighting an uphill battle. And of course not everybody feels that way, but it's very easy for us to get involved in self-pity.
It's true and it’s also the case that nobody's forcing you to be in the arts if you don't care for it or if it's not working out for you. There are plenty of other professions out there. I think we're very fortunate to be doing what we love even though the circumstances are less than optimal and there's not the support that we want, blah, blah, blah. We're doing what we want and we chose it and you have to sort of own up to that and accept it, because it's certainly not going to change. I mean, yes, theater is a ludicrously impractical form – the amount of people and time that it takes, let alone whatever material needs you have. It's not the most efficient thing in the world, but it can be more efficient than it sometimes is.
I guess that's what's interesting to me about the point you were making about it not having to be so hard. It's a schlep some of the time – the part at which you realize that you’re going to have to redo and entire scene and nothing's working and..
But that's of course what's exhilarating about it. I mean, I know that's why I like doing new plays and I know that's why I like doing new plays that haven't been staged for the most part or performed professionally before and why we're insistent upon bringing new people together. We won't just take a whole team, pre-packaged. There's no promise even if you're doing Hamlet with a company of people who have worked together a million times who are all geniuses. So there's even less promise that a production with much more wobbly variables is going to work. But that's what's fun, that's what's exciting – reaching for that and knowing that there are so many different ways it could get there or not.
And it does seem like audiences as well as theater artists are responding to the uniqueness and the playful aspects of a lot of work by small contemporary theaters right now.
For me I think it's about being surprised. We're all so easily bored. We're all so quick to disengage. If you can trap somebody for just long enough to just sort of throw them off their usual rhythm, I think that's very magnetic. It's a tight balance between orienting people enough that they can engage with what you're doing and then not just repeating the same old tropes and just showing people the same mirror or the same story told the same old way. I like to be surprised, and not in a silly or clownish way (like random bits of whimsy). I like to think, “I didn't see that one coming,” or to find out that something I was bewildered by, if I just stuck with it, got me to this whole other place. I think it's a question of whether or not you really want to engage. Some people would say you have to disable your critical apparati, but I think that in some ways it's the opposite, you have to engage it in a more flexible way, you have to take it off judge-and-compare mode and put it in creative, collaborative mode, which is certainly what we do when we look at visual art.
But with visual art it doesn't ask as much in terms of attention. Theater asks a lot upfront.
Right, yes, duration is the tricky one there. With theater you can't decide after two minutes, eh, I'm not going to look at that picture any longer.
What new pairings and new relationships are involved in this year’s Summerworks?
We have never worked with any of these playwrights before. None of these playwrights and directors, I believe, have worked together before, although, it may be that Hal and Madeleine have worked together, but not on a full production. And with all the casts and designers, there are some familiar collaborations, but not altogether.
And in some sense, that's what you like to use Summerworks for, right – to work with new artists?
Yes, both for us and for them. We want people to take chances, to work together with people they haven't worked with. With Summerworks we think of it as a creative community. Every year we give everybody involved free tickets to see each other’s work, and usually relationships are built, not just between the people who are working together explicitly, but also with people who are doing other things, because they're all part of this temporary community. And, you know, people just take chances where they can because so much of the world doesn't reward that. Although, to what extent it really doesn't and to what extent we just internalize a fear…
I think that's also part of the whole theater is so miserable and difficult discussion.
Right, everybody hedges their bets.
And in some sense, I think that one of the best things that's happened recently with theater, is that if you're adventurous and willing there's almost no stigma attached, at this point, to self-producing.
Yep, and tons of people have been very successful just doing it themselves.
One last question. Clubbed Thumb seems to have been quite successful so far, in terms of achieving and living up to your mission. But of course in America there's the pressure to grow, to constantly get bigger and do more and be more spectacular. Where do you fall at this point with Clubbed Thumb, in terms of that question of growth?
I think the question is just about making sure that you're still interested in the challenges that you're presented with. And some of the challenges, being a small company, are pragmatic and financial challenges that get tedious because you know exactly what it involves, and it involves me taking out the garbage at midnight, and that's not exciting or constructive at this point. Although, I do believe that people who run companies should actually do things. I feel like the further away you get from that, the further your work is going to get away from that. But some of it is just not creative fodder at a certain point. So I would seek greater financial stability, just greater means – I want to pay people better, I want less things to have to be pulled out of my ass, to be completely coarse about it. Because it's exhausting. But, I would like the spirit to be the same. I would like to build some bridges for our writers, for these plays, for these productions, because it is really such a tiny little window for these shows, especially for Summerworks. And you know, some of that's theater – it's ephemeral, embrace it – but maybe we could just make a little bit more of all of this work. Sometimes I fantasize about having a theater and I certainly would like to have a development space, that would make life easier in a good way. I don't think it would get so cushy that everything would be ruined.
Are there any companies right now talking about sharing spaces? With the Ohio Theatre [where Summerworks is being held], it's still not even clear if it's going to be able to stay open beyond the summer.
Yes, it is up in the air with the Ohio, I believe that they're trying to determine some of that stuff even this week. But I haven't had any conversations about physical spaces that are up for being shared. There just aren't that many and there aren't that many of us at our size who could in any way approach affording them. There would really have to be someone with a big idea and a big checkbook who would be excited to put something into motion. Because that stuff has just gotten really, really out of reach. Especially for people like us who operate within the absolute minimum. I mean, we're very fiscally conservative and we've never run a debt, but we're using every little penny we've got. So it's not that there's some big old pot sitting around that we just don't know what to do with that we could use toward that project. You have to have the staff and the energy and the opportunity for that. And at this point we don't, but you never know.
continues through June 27. Click here
for details and tickets.