BWW Interviews: Jennifer Decker Talks Mildred's Umbrella's 2014 -2015 Season
Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company has a successful history of presenting Houston audiences with bold and innovative theatre, offering patrons an altogether edgy theatre-going experience. In addition to their 2014-2015 mainstage season, Mildred's Umbrella has just kicked-off their four play series entitled The Women's Project with CASSANDRA by Katharine Sherman. The Women's Project will feature plays that are written by a female playwright, or contain thematic elements that explore the feminine perspective. Furthermore, a portion of proceeds from each of the productions in The Women's Project series will be donated to local charities dedicated to women's issues. Taking time out of her schedule, Artistic Director and Co-Founder Jennifer Decker, met with us to fill us in on what Houston Audiences can expect from Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company's 2014-2015 Season.
BWW: Let's start this by filling in some of our readers who may not be familiar with Mildred's Umbrella. Let's talk about the brand of theatre that Mildred's Umbrella offers Houston audiences.
Jennifer Decker: Sure. We started out claiming to be edgy doing world premieres, new plays, and original pieces that we'd create together. That has always been our aesthetic from the beginning, but now we realized that we had actually premiered so many female playwrights in Houston and that I choose plays that are female heavy, and actors - I am a woman, maybe that's why - so we have altered our mission to be about also including a lot of female artists in our edgy, sometimes called avant garde theatre. That is our aesthetic now, and we are still doing world premieres, at least regional and local premieres, and creating new pieces with local playwrights as well.
BWW: That's great! So, this season is a special season because you now have the Women's Project that you are promoting as well. I know this is your first year for that, and in looking at the press release for your upcoming season, you have pretty much doubled the number of productions that Mildred's Umbrella will be doing this year. How are you preparing for that!
Jennifer Decker: Well, we're already in the middle of it. What I've had to do is make sure that I have lined up a lot of different people to work on things, especially when things are overlapping. Also, I've gotten a grant from the city, the Mayor's Initiative Grant through Houston Arts Alliance for the Women's Project. I have also paired up with some other artists and organizations as collaborations in the different Women's Project shows.
The first one, CASSANDRA, is with Wordsmyth Theater. The Company OnStage community theatre graciously gave us their courtyard space for free, so that helps since we have nine actors to pay in that one. (Laughs) The second one is FIVE WOMEN WEARING THE SAME DRESS, and it opens on June 12. That one is in collaboration with Rochelle Sanders who is a director. She was going to produce it on her own, but she asked me to actually act in it. So, when we were discussing it, I said that we could co-produce it as part of the Women's Project, and she agreed to do that, so my contribution is the space and part of the grant money to pay performers, and she's contributing to other aspects of the production.
BWW: It sounds like a wonderful cause, one that will benefit the local community as well as introducing Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company to a new audience.
Jennifer Decker: It's definitely an audience development exercise because we figure a lot of people on the mailing lists of the women's charities that we're supporting will learn about us when they might not have known about us before.
BWW: Let's talk a little more about The Women's Project. What charities are you donating to?
Jennifer Decker: The first two shows, CASSANDRA and FIVE WOMEN WEARING THE SAME DRESS are benefiting the Houston Area Women's Center. The third show starting in November, Sarah Ruhl's LATE: A COWBOY'S SONG, we're collaborating with 14 Pews. For that show, we are pairing up with AssistHers, which is a lesbian organization that helps women get medical care when they don't have insurance. The last one, BECKY'S NEW CAR, we don't have a definite on yet, but the production is not until next April. We might have a women's charity that we find before then, but we are also thinking about supporting a new charity called Feed The Future Forward, it's the guy who started an organization to help pay for the school lunches of the kids that can't afford it. It's not a women's charity, but it is a worthwhile cause. And it is still a play with a female main character.
BWW: What was the selection process for The Women's Project compared to your selection process for Mildred's Umbrella's main season? Or was there a difference?
Jennifer Decker: Well, CASSANDRA was brought to me by the girl who is directing it, Melissa Flower. She found the play. It was something on the desk at The Alley that had kind of been cast aside, when she was an assistant dramaturge there. She picked it up and loved it. It wasn't published, and we had to dig up how to contact the playwright. She didn't even know anyone had it. (Laughs) She liked the idea of the play being produced, so we got to do it. The play matches our aesthetic, and has a female director, so it fits nicely with The Women's Project.
The second play, FIVE WOMEN WEARING THE SAME DRESS, Rochelle was going to produce that one anyway, so I just adopted that one into the mix. That play has five women, there's one guy that comes in briefly in the end. CASSANDRA has a main character that is a woman. So, in the selection process it was more like the main characters are women, like the protagonist or the group, and they all have more women than men. Two of them have been written by women and two have been written by men. I have also got three female directors and one male director. We're not discriminating against the guys; we're just trying to support the women during this project. (Laughs)
BWW: Do you foresee Mildred's Umbrella doing something like The Women's Project again, or possibly gearing it in a different way?
Jennifer Decker: I actually think we will, because it's working out. I am going to see how it goes throughout the season, but I was very worried about the first two because they are really close together. However, it only made me realize that we now have so many people that can manage a production, and we have so many artists that are hungry for work, and a lot of the people that we are working with are new people that we are trying out and who we might use in mainstage productions later. I think we will do it again, but I think we might not do four next time. I'm thinking we'll only do two or three, which might be a little more manageable. (Laughs)
BWW: Talking about Mildred's Umbrella's mainstage season, one thing that I know a lot of people have come to look forward to every year is MUSEUM OF DYSFUNCTION. How long have you been doing that now?
Jennifer Decker: Since 2008. Basically, it started out at the museum, that's why we call it MUSEUM OF DYSFUNCTION. I had a lot of people, and we were only doing two shows a season back then, three shows max. Because of that, a lot of the actors in our company weren't getting to be in the shows, and they were going off and working in other places because they had things that they wanted to do. So, I got AvantGarden, the bar. Mariana, who owns the bar, has always been really amazing about letting people explore different forms of art at the bar. I asked everyone to submit to me what they wanted to do. One guy wrote his own monologue. Another person wanted to do a two person scene from a play, which I had to get the festival rights for that in order to do a piece of it. There were a couple public domain things that people wanted to adapt into something a little more avant garde, and then we had somebody make a short movie. We had a puppet show. We had about five or six different things, and people just did their own thing. What we did was walk the audience around AvantGarden with a tour guide introducing each piece as an exhibit in a museum. I loved that concept, but we had just too many people and not enough room. The second year we did it at a theatre, and we've continued doing it in a theatre.
Now, rather than just my company writing stuff, the second year local writers participated. It was going into the fourth year that we got Wordsmyth to send it out to their mailing list, and we got playwrights from all over the country. We had two hundred to choose from, and we had to choose twenty. Now, since last year, we are collaborating with Wordsmyth. They are helping us with the reading process. They have a panel that reads them and then gives me fifty to choose from.
BWW: This is probably a pretty unfair question because I am sure that you're looking forward to all of Mildred's Umbrella's upcoming productions. But, in this upcoming 2014 - 2015 season, is there any one production that you are looking forward to working on the most?
Jennifer Decker: Yeah. When we choose our season, I have directors that are company members, Rob Kimbro, Matt Huff, and Ron Jones sometimes, they will bring me plays and I'll give them plays that I think they will like. We go back and forth until we can both settle on one that I like and they want to direct. So, a lot of times they help me choose the plays that they direct.
The one that I chose this year is CLOUD TECTONICS by Jose Rivera, and I have wanted to do that play for years. It's beautiful. We didn't have our own space before to try to make the logistics happen. You have to have sort of a suspended bed. Also, Patricia Duran who was a founding member of our company had gone off to New York for a while, and now she is back. I've always wanted her to play the lead girl in that. So, I am directing that one and I chose that one. I am excited because I'm getting to work with all of the people that I had wanted to work with on it. It's just a really good play, and I don't really know why no one has done it here. Probably the same reason why no one has done any of the plays I pick, I may have weird taste or something. (Laughs) Maybe it's too risky, but I think it's a beautiful play.
BWW: That's definitely one of the reasons that I would recommend going to a Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company production because so often you present audiences with works that they haven't previously seen, and an altogether unique theatre-going experience. What are some other reasons that you would recommend people checking out Mildred's Umbrella this season?
Jennifer Decker: We're not scared of any play. We're not doing anything for money, and it probably wouldn't matter if we tried. (Laughs) In any case, we're willing to take a risk. They may get surprised about something, but we do keep everything high quality. Our actors are top notch, our designers are the best in town, and a lot of new people that you haven't heard of will show up every now and then to work with us. But at the same time, I am not going to do a play just because it's safe and might make us some money. I don't consider anything in our season a cash cow. Maybe MUSEUM OF DYSFUNCTION, it tends to make a little money because of low overhead, but as far as the rest of the plays, that's not why we do what we do.
Also, I guess in a way some people have criticized me for not always having a completely consistent vision all of the time. But, I am not a dictator in that way. I want it to stay within a certain aesthetic, while also being something interesting, edgy, and intelligent. That's what I want to put out there. I'm also not picking everything based on my own taste. I've got those other directors bringing me things, and sometimes company actors will bring me something, and I do read a lot of stuff myself. I want the directors to have a hand in choosing what they direct, so we kind of have sort of a collaborative vision in a way where I am just the leader. To me, it just makes the season more interesting.
BWW: Is there anything that I have forgotten to cover, or that you would like to include?
Jennifer Decker: I do want to say that another show that I am really excited about is POLLYWOG. That is going to be a world premiere. We got a grant to do that one to, and it is by a woman, Keian McKee. She wrote the play, and she has connected with Matt Huff who will be directing it, and that one she is workshopping with him. It's kind of exciting just because it's a process that we've done with our own company writer John Harvey before, but not really somebody from outside. We have two pretty well-known actors in that production, James Belcher and Celeste Roberts, and Courtney Lomelo is playing the lead. It's about a girl whose mother had a stroke when she was nine, and she had been teaching her how to swim. She's a grown woman now, her mother has died, and she's going to swim across the ocean and spread her mother's ashes. She's got two imaginary friends that help her on her journey. We have Jodi Bobrovsky doing our set, and I'm very excited to see what that's going to entail. It's going to be a really fun collaboration.
BWW: Is there any advice that you can offer any other theatre company that may be searching for grant funding?
Jennifer Decker: It takes a while to figure it all out. A lot of people start off with money, with parents or supporters to help them. When you have a solid budget and you have the right people on your board, it's a lot easier. People that give grant money want to make sure that they're giving it to someone who is going to sustain what they've been given. So, without being able to show money on paper, it's hard sometimes. But, there are some grants that you can start off with like Texas Commission on the Arts, and Houston Arts Alliance Art Project grants. If you have a project that's interesting, they like you to show that you're doing something that might attract people to the city. If it has some connection to raising awareness and support, it makes the project look more interesting to fund. Also, individuals can get their individual artist grant. They just have to write a good proposal, telling how innovative their project is, how it's going to benefit the community, and how it will help bring attention to Houston.
Now in its closing weekend, be sure to catch the first production in The Women's Project series. CASSANDRA will be playing at the Company OnStage Courtyard from Thursday, May 22 through Saturday, May 24, 2014. All performances are Pay-What-You-Can, but the money goes to an excellent cause. A portion of the proceeds from CASSANDRA will go to Houston Area Women's Center. For tickets, or more information on Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company's upcoming season, please visit http://www.mildredsumbrella.com.