Sightlines: An Interview with Leslye Orr

Interview with Leslye Orr, edited with introduction by Mike Wangen

Leslye Orr began her theater career in the mid seventies as an intern at Children’s Theater in acting and dance.  Legally blind, she looked for ways to contribute there and studied to become a vocal teacher for actors, serving in that role for 10 years with CTC as well as performing her own work.  She was, and is, a strong advocate for people with disabilities working in the arts and in the population at large.

Today she and her husband, Zaraawar Mistry, operate Dreamland Arts, a small performance space in St. Paul dedicated to producing their own work as well as giving a creative outlet to many other local artists.

Leslye Orr.  Photo by Lauren B. Photography

Leslye Orr. Photo by Lauren B. Photography

I grew up in Sioux Falls SD. And our high school used to sponsor class trips to Minneapolis to see shows at the Guthrie Theater.  I believe it was in 1972, we would get on the school bus at 4AM to drive to Minneapolis, watch a matinee at the Guthrie, eat dinner, and then watch a second show there in the evening.  The Guthrie was a Repertory company then so they would be two different shows.  I remember seeing actors like Frank Langella and Peter Michael Goetz in shows like A Midsummer Nights Dream and thought it was the coolest thing ever.  So, I thought of studying theater at the U of M.

My mother had seen an article in the Minneapolis Tribune about the Children’s Theater Co. which was going to build a new theater near the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and we began going to shows there.  We loved the shows there, and,  I found out that they had a Summer Institute program which I began attending.  So I began spending my summers here.  The night before my first class I had seen Oklahoma at Chanhassen Dinner Theater and had met a dancer there who was stretching in the lobby.  It was Myron Johnson.  The next day I discovered that he was teaching my dance class at CTC and I was petrified to go up to him because he seemed like a movie star to me.  I had a red gingham body suit and blue nylons, not having anything else to wear, but, was quickly told about the Danskin dance clothing store.  At the end of the summer I was asked to stay on as an intern as they were opening the new theater and needed help with that.  When the theater opened in the fall we discovered that the winterized bricks meant for the outside walls had been put on the inside and they had to spend the next 2 years fixing that.  The concept for the theater was that it was meant to be warm and womb-like with all rounded edges.  Unfortunately, the beautiful granite walls along the side had no handrails and kids were constantly running into them and scraping themselves, so, we had to set up a temporary first aid station.  The first show in the new space was Pinnochio, I was in it as a townsperson.  We had all sorts of live animals onstage and on opening night someone forgot to catch one of the chickens and during Gepetto’s workshop scene it began walking around the outside of the orchestra pit toward the audience, clucking all the while.  All of a sudden there was a loud squawk as the assistant stage manager had grabbed it and dragged it into the pit.

I was legally blind at the time and had a hard time working with the various costumes we were put in as well as the very precise choreography  there and I began thinking about what I could do to contribute more effectively.  There was no one at CTC that taught voice and I wanted to try that because I loved working there.  The only person in the Twin Cities that taught voice in the 70s was Fran Bennett at the Guthrie so I asked her where she had learned.  Her teacher had been Christa Linklater who had come to Minneapolis with Tyrone Guthrie in 1963 and had left to start a new group in New York called the Working Theater which was set up to give vocal training to actors who could then teach it to others in repertory companies  around the country.  I was given a scholarship by the State Services for the Blind to study vocal coaching with her in New York, but, before I left I made CTC sign a contract saying that they would hire me when I came back.  I needed a job!   When I came back, I taught voice at CTC for the next 10 years.

One of the things I liked about CTC in those days was that, in addition to the classes and shows, you could stay in the building whenever you wanted to work on your own projects and I became fascinated with doing my own work.  I began working with Carroll Hauptle, a stage manager there, who had met Samuel Beckett in New York and we began working on a Beckett piece called Not I which we performed at the Olympia Arts Ensemble around 1980, where I met you.  It’s a piece where the only character is a mouth sticking through a black curtain.  The set was designed by Cork Marcheschi, an instructor at MCAD, who was an accomplished neon artist.  He designed a circle of neon which framed my mouth and just popped on in the darkness.  It was beautiful.  Beckett once said that what inspired him to create that piece was listening to a homeless woman talking to herself on a park bench.  Beckett’s use of language was very precise.  It’s “whatever you mean is whatever you say when you’re saying it.”  People are always interpreting things like Shakespeare monologues without thinking that the playwright wrote those words in that order for a specific reason.

What was very special to me about the 70s and early 80s was that it was a time full of energy, creativity, and beginnings; Penumbra, Mixed Blood, Actor’s Theatre, Brass Tacks, At the Foot or the Mountain, Jeune Lune, Illusion, and others.  We all felt that we could do anything we wanted.  There was no clause saying that anything was owed to a board of directors.

When my husband, Zaraawar and I started Dreamland Arts  in St. Paul, one of our motivations was to be able to perform our own work as we liked without having to be accountable to an outside board of directors, something which is very difficult to do in some of the larger arts organizations here.

Things have changed a great deal today.  I recently took my son to see The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins at CTC and everything was amplified.  When we did it the first time in the seventies the only person in the show with a mic was Barthlomew because he was a small child.  I had to really work at vocally training everyone else, especially because Dr. Seuss himself was coming to see the show.  Some of this change has to do with the technology that was available then versus today, but,  I feel that we have really lost something today with everything constantly amplified.  What is with the whole cast wearing mics nowadays? Can't people listen to natural stage voices as well as they did before stage mics took over?  

Getting back to when I was working at CTC, I was cast as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker and I kept thinking that her story was more interesting than Helen Keller’s.  I know audiences wonder what it would be like to be inside Helen Keller’s head and that gave me an idea for developing a piece of my own where the audience sat in a semicircle of chairs with their eyes closed and I would pass out props and then act out the story of Helen and Annie.  This show became one of the first tours that CTC created and I feel that I was at the forefront of creating an awareness of people with disabilities in the general public.  It’s a trend that has developed very nicely today.

When I was at Children’s Theater Bain Boehlke was there and he was a major influence on my work.  He would tell me to go off and develop three pieces and then come back and he would direct me, and he did.  He would help everyone.  He loved theater and was fascinated by it.  I know some people are put off by him, they feel he wants to control everything, but, he’s just this guy and he has an orchestra going on in his head and that’s the way he hears it.  I asked Bain recently why he was moving to Seattle and he said “well, I’d like to go to film school” which is great.  It made me so happy,” you’re 78 and you want to go to film school!”

I love the way that we are passing our love of the arts on to our children.  [Lighting Designer] Michael Murnane’s daughter is friends with my son and she is in school studying fashion design and comes home and assists her dad.  Steve Yoakam’s daughter is studying dance, ballet and neuroscience.  I love talking with teenagers today.  They are so articulate and aware of the world around them.  It’s beginning to energize them much like the 60s and I’m very positive and excited about the future of art here.

Original Post Jan 6 2016
Edited Jan 8 2016