Interview: Elizabeth Carter of STEEL MAGNOLIAS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Explores the In-Between Places That Foster Community

Carter directs a new production of the much loved play in Mountain View June 7th to July 2nd

By: May. 18, 2023
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Interview: Elizabeth Carter of STEEL MAGNOLIAS at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Explores the In-Between Places That Foster Community
Elizabeth Carter, director of Steel Magnolias at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
(photo by Lisa Keating)

Hair is personal - as director Elizabeth Carter intends to show in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's new production of Robert Harling's perennially popular comic drama Steel Magnolias. How we style it can show who we want to be. Sometimes, big changes in life accompany big changes in hair. Hair can be political--choosing between natural, straightened, cornrows, braids, curls, and myriad other styles can make a statement to the world. Hair is also community, especially for the women of Steel Magnolias. Showcasing the play from a multicultural lens and featuring a diverse cast of theatre veterans, Carter's production will not only spotlight the community built in the salon, but also illuminate how seemingly different people can connect and build thriving friendships.

Carter is a Bay Area actor/director whose recent directing credits include Sweat at Center Repertory Company, Stoop Stories at Aurora Theatre Company and the virtual production of Feel the Spirit for Shotgun Players and Colt Coeur. She has directed numerous productions for California Shakespeare Theater Conservatory and served as the Associate Director of the Theatre Department at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco. As an actor, she was nominated for both San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC) and TBA Awards for her performance in Marin Theatre Company's The Convert, and received an SFBATCC Award nomination for her performance in Aurora Theatre Company's Wittenburg. Carter was also chosen as the first SDCF Lloyd Richards New Futures Resident Director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I caught up with Carter by phone last week while she was in the excitement of attending to last-minute details two days before rehearsals were to start. We discussed her concept for this production to make it a more accurate depiction of how different communities intersect in the real world - while still retaining all the "laughter through tears" that has made the play such an enduring favorite. We also talked about how her connecting with TheatreWorks Artistic Director Tim Bond at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival led to this production, her long tenure as a theatre educator and her love of an artistic challenge. Carter is one of those naturally creative and ebullient people who seems to carry a million different thoughts in her head at all times, so even a simple question is apt to elicit a cheerfully complicated and thoughtful response. The following are edited excerpts from our conversation.

You've acted onstage at TheatreWorks before, but I believe this is your first time directing for the company?

It is. TheatreWorks was a place that I worked a lot early in my career. I think my first production was The Grapes of Wrath. Omigod, that was a long time ago! This is my first time coming back to TheatreWorks after a long period of not working there. That's exciting for me because it feels like a familiar place, but also different because I'm in a different role, getting to lead. I'm very grateful to Tim Bond for the opportunity to come back in this way.

How familiar were you with Steel Magnolias before signing on to direct it?

You know, I think I was as familiar as most people are. I saw the movie and remember thinking "Oh, this is really fun." But to be honest with you, I didn't have a super strong connection to it. I liked it, but really all I remembered was Julia Roberts died. Then when Tim asked me to read it and think about it, I was like "Oh, it's an ensemble piece!" There were so many good actors in the movie, but I think because I was younger when I saw it, I identified with Julia Roberts because she was younger. Now as a mature adult, I can see the ensemble-ness of the piece, which is what really attracted me to it, that there were so many threads of change in it.

Tell me about your concept for the production.

I told Tim, "I have find to my way in, because as a nostalgia piece it doesn't grab me." The idea of having a mixed cast and trying to really show a more realistic view of the South than your Chantilly lace kind of version was really interesting to me. We always think about the South as being black and white and very divided, right? But there's a lot of communities in which people are more integrated, because of the history of civil rights. There was a lot of segregation, but there were also ways in which people did interact, and especially as we got into the 70s and 80s people were finding their way into more integrated communities so there was more interaction. Your home base might be within your community, but you have these other relationships, and I was really interested in that.

Our beauty shop is a Black-owned beauty parlor in a converted garage. M'Lynn and Shelby are mother and daughter, Black career women, and I kept thinking about the TV series In the Heat of the Night. It was something I grew up watching because it was in the 80s and it had all of these Black women lawyers and professionals and they also were in Mississippi. They were existing in this racialized place, but they also were still very strong, and I think about M'Lynn in that way. Here's this woman who's a professional and she's given her daughter everything, she's done Jack and Jill, which is a Black-oriented social organization around sort of a debutante kind of thing, but more for the Black community, that gives a lot of scholarships and spans a little bit wider range of socioeconomics.

Clairee and Ouiser are older white ladies who have made a place in this community, this shop which feels like it's in between a more middle-class mixed neighborhood and maybe a little more upper-class neighborhood, kind of right on that border. And - Truvy does great hair and she's really welcoming. Truvy's is a place where people can meet, and I feel like they've forged these relationships despite their individual perspectives on the world. They've bonded over weddings, over funerals, over recipes, you know, over a little bit of gossip, over these things that women connect over even if they see the world slightly differently, even If they have different reactions to pieces on the news, right? We're kind of living in a world right now like that.

And then we have Annelle, our newcomer, who is played by an Asian American actor. I felt it was really important to have someone else in there that was raised a southerner, but also might have a slightly different perspective on the world, and is struggling right at this moment. I just love the idea that Truvy gets so connected to Annelle she's like a second daughter to her, and how she teaches Annelle how to do Black hair. My hope is that through Annelle's eyes we can kind of see this world and where she fits in and how she gets brought into this community. It's that idea of belonging. We all want some belonging, but you can also be your own individual. You can be an insider and an outsider at the same time. I think most of us are insiders and outsiders at different moments, sometimes in the same space.

Are you keeping the 80s setting?

I am keeping the 80s setting, because it's really fun [laughs] but it's also a different era, a different way that we related and that I remember. I grew up in a predominantly white town and we had a lot of friends, we had some friction, but also had a really strong community around us. I mean there were potlucks for Presidents Day, there were Easter egg hunts, like probably eight significant neighborhood gatherings a year that were pretty regular. And we had caroling parties - for 25 years I went and caroled in the neighborhood, you know?

Where was that?

Eugene, Oregon. My father was a professor at the university and we had this little neighborhood that for some reason - I don't think that every neighborhood was like this - but ours was definitely that one where we would do these things. It was kind of interesting and it was a fun way to grow up because you knew you could go to a neighbor's house, and you knew which neighbors not to go to. That sense of community building has always been something that's interesting to me.

But I want it in a context where no one's shutting down who they are, but at the same time we acknowledge that we are different. That's always been my interest in terms of identity onstage. I'm very conscientious about who the people are that are embodying those characters and how we allow that to make sense in the story, that we are not pretending they are something else, that we are fully inhabiting that and making decisions based on that, that make sense in the world that we are creating.

Because that feels real to me. I'm interested in the in-between places. I'm interested in the complexity of identity, why you can love this thing and also have these other [more complicated things going on]. I don't want to make life simple, because I think when we make it more complex the rest of us can see ourselves better onstage. At least that's my hope.

Are you making any changes to the script?

At this point, no. I mean, there's some references that are interesting, but I think actually lend to the world that I'm creating. The one thing - it is a Black-owned beauty salon so we're definitely not making M'Lynn a blonde - things like that. [laughs] You know, little tiny things, but the script pretty much holds true and has some wonderful things that allow us to see that era but also feel a familiarity.

Like everybody has a Ouiser in their neighborhood, that person who's really upset when somebody's garbage can falls over and if you don't clean it up by the end of the day they're ready to go over there and be like "You need to clean up!" That are particular and set in their ways. I had a neighbor like that and who I loved dearly, but would come over and sweep our leaves to under our tree because it was driving him crazy. [laughs]

In addition to being a director and actor, you also have quite an extensive background in theatre education, including a long tenure at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco.

Yes! I taught at SOTA from 2003 until 2021. Shakespeare is a huge specialty of mine, and I was teaching Shakespeare performance and Voice there from 2003. I took over the department in 2018, and then they kind of reshuffled the leadership and were planning on combining Musical Theatre and Theatre, so they needed somebody, basically, with a little bit more of an administrator mindset. So I was head of the department for two years and then I moved to Associate Director and then I got this beautiful residency through SDCF [Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation), the Lloyd Richard's New Futures Residency, with the artistic director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, so I decided to step away from teaching after 20-something years and really give myself the opportunity to fully be engaged in that residency.

So that's how that chapter ended, but I have loved and given much of myself to SOTA over the years. I'm still in contact with a bunch of the students, and my favorite thing is for them to come back [from college] and say to me "Oh, I took this class, and I know way more than most of these students know. I already knew all the scansion." It makes me really happy. I feel like I have these children all over the place because of all the young people I've been able to work with over the years.

You were Tim Bond's Assistant Director on How I Learned What I Learned at Oregon Shakes last year. How did the two of you originally connect?

Well, because I was working at OSF, I had these wonderful opportunities and I actually turned down some things to work on How I Learned What I Learned. It was the pandemic so I was going back and forth to Ashland, and Nataki [Garrett, OSF Artistic Director] suggested that maybe I might want to assist Tim, and actually I'd never assisted anyone before. Then I talked with Tim and we really seemed to click.

That was such an amazing experience because I was working with Tim, Steven Anthony Jones from the Bay Area (Love him! We worked on a couple of things when I was much younger.) and then Constanza Romero, August Wilson's widow, who is an incredible human being. I wish you could have been a fly on the wall to have heard all the conversations we were having. The three of them in the room together, I was like "I'm just gonna sit here and listen because you're telling me like literally Black theatre history that you lived."

It was during that process that Tim was like "Let's see if this [Steel Magnolias] might work." I felt really grateful for that connection, and I'm so excited that he's here because he has just so much experience and history. He is a very savvy, excellent director so we're really lucky in the Bay Area to have him spearheading TheatreWorks.

As a director, are there any plays that you'd especially love to have a go at?

I'd love to direct anything by Star Finch again, because she wrote the first thing I directed, and she's a local playwright. And then I love this play Eve's Song [by Tamara M. Williams]. The last two shows I've done, Sweat and then this one, are very realistic locations and realistic in terms of timeline and anchored in something much more tangible.

I really love plays that have a mystical, a spiritual [aspect to them], that are sort of Afro-surrealist and span time in a way that loops on itself. I'm really interested in things that have unique structures and really play with liminal spaces, with what we know as real or not real. I'm directing Wolf Play for Shotgun Players later this year, and that falls in that realm.

And then in the classical realm, I would really love to direct The Winter's Tale. It's my favorite Shakespeare play. It's problematic, but I've always really liked it because you get the drama and the tragedy and the comedy, all entwined in an interesting way. And I always thought I wanted to be in Antony and Cleopatra and play Cleopatra as an actor, and I'm starting to think maybe I want to direct it.

I'm also interested in the possibilities of adapting things. I really love interdisciplinary work so I'm super excited about this new thing that has popped into my head, which is I want to direct something that is heavily movement-based and experimental. I like to live on my edge - that's what I always say. I like to push myself. If it's something that I don't think I can do, and if somebody asks me and it scares me, I usually say "yes." So - artistic directors out there, if you want me to do something on a trapeze, I might do it! [laughs]


Steel Magnolias will be presented June 7 - July 2, 2023 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets and more information, visit or call (877)-662-8978.



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