BWW Interview: Johanna Gruenhut Readies Everyman Theatre's Female-Led SALON SERIES
Theatre has always been a lens through which to view the current world. Productions such as RENT, illuminated issues like the AIDS crisis in ways that hadn't been seen before on a stage. Audiences confronted these issues in a very real way, and one would hope that they learned and grew from the experience. We're in another turning point in time right now, in the midst of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements. Women are standing up and resisting in droves. It's a powerful statement on the endurance and the drive of women. So it seems only fitting, that for the third year, Everyman Theatre is producing a SALON SERIES of readings of plays written by women, and directed by women, allowing the women of the company to "stretch that directing muscle" and take a step outside of their comfort zone.
The producer of this series and director of one of its plays is Johanna Gruenhut. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Gruenhut about the plays that were chosen, working with the Resident Acting company of Everyman and how these readings relate to a larger narrative.
Before jumping into that larger narrative, I was curious to hear what went on behind the scenes in deciding what plays to produce for the 2018 series. How were the plays chosen and was there a theme throughout the plays? Ms. Gruenhut shared that the decision on the works was made in the summer of 2017, and it was a fairly easy process. The team read through many plays and decided what spoke to them. The group joined together and threw out ideas of what shows may be a good fit. Everyman had mounted a full production of THE ROOMMATE in 2017, and the cast and crew had enjoyed that playwright's work. So a reading of another play (THE MOORS) written by Jen Silverman seemed like a good idea. The women from the Resident Company then divvied up the plays and chose what they would direct. At that time, the women's rights movement that is happening at this moment, hadn't really begun. So the choice of plays focused on a larger theme of the everyday life of a woman.
Ms. Gruenhut and the company chose different aspects of women's lives as a connection between the works. The play readings will cover topics such as job loss, motherhood, women's health, sexuality and love. Women (and men) are living their lives and facing sometimes impossible choices each day. So in a way the plays are highlighting the everyday lives of women that could be any of the members of the audience or someone that they know. And through that connection, audience members are given a way to address these issues with their friends and neighbors. The works provoke discussion and become interactive, which is not only interesting for the audience but also for those performing the works.
After we discussed the choice of the plays, I was interested to hear how directing and producing a series of readings differs from directing or producing a full production. I assumed that the process would be different, but I was shocked to hear just how different the director and the actors' journeys are. Members of the Everyman stage company are given first choice of roles, and then outside actors are cast to fill in the gaps. Then rehearsals begin - on the day of the reading. The actors and directors join together on that day for roughly 5 hours and read through the play as a company. They tweak and finalize certain aspects of the show. Then a few hours later, they perform the reading they've just finalized. I've always been surprised at the amount of work the resident company manages to squeeze into a year, but this quick turnaround makes their work all the more impressive.
In regards to the direction of the reading, the approach, in the case of SWEAT directed by Ms. Gruenhut - is a bit hands-off. She prefers allowing the actors a chance to share their initial response to the material. By doing this, actors are able to express what jumps out at them most from the play. "Raw emotions without censorship" are allowed to shine through. The actors are talented storytellers and are seasoned at their craft. Their initial thoughts are usually right.
With the thought and care that goes into choosing and producing these readings, I wondered if there was ever an opportunity for Everyman to mount a full production of them. Ms. Gruenhut noted that it has happened in the past, and could happen again. INTIMATE APPAREL by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage was produced as a reading in the Salon's first series. At the time it was directed by company member Dawn Ursula. Then, during the 2017-2018 Everyman season, a full production of the heart-breaking play was led by the phenomenal Dawn Ursula, this time in the starring role as opposed to director. In other words, these readings are often a "stepping stone to something more" which is the very reason readings exist in the theatre world.
As I mentioned before, the #MeToo and Times Up movements may not have led to the choice of the shows in this series, but it is not hard to see the significance of these plays written and directed by women, for women. The current environment is slightly more charged and it is difficult to not relate these readings to an over-arching world narrative. That's why series such as this are so important to a bigger conversation. In a Broadway season that saw only one production directed by a woman, allowing women directors and actors a chance to be in the spotlight is not only the right thing to do, but is also necessary to advance the roles of women in theatre and beyond.
The SALON SERIES is playing on Monday Evenings through April at Everyman Theatre's Rehearsal space. Call the box office for tickets.
- SWEAT by Lynn Nottage, directed by Johanna Gruenhut - February 5, 2018
- CRY IT OUT by Molly Smith Metzler, directed by Dawn Ursula - February 19, 2018
- DEAD AND BREATHING by Chisa Hutchinson, directed by Megan Anderson - March 5, 2018
- THE CAKE by Bekah Brunstetter, directed by Deborah Hazlett - March 19, 2018
- THE MOORS by Jen Silverman, directed by Beth Hylton - April 2, 2018