ARTICLE BY GAIL SMOGARD
Gail Smogard is a theater professor and director of the theater program at Metropolitan State University. In addition to writing a number of plays, she has served as a director/dramaturg for the Guthrie, Playwrights Horizons, New Dramatists, and many others. Her experience directing for the Guthrie 2 in the late 1970s brings to light an era in the history of the Southern Theater that many may be unfamiliar with. —Mike Wangen
When I was at the Southern in 1977–78, it was known as the Guthrie 2. I was there along with Scott Rubsam as part of a grant the Guthrie had received from Medtronic to do some kind of outreach to seniors and other individuals in the Twin Cities who might not normally consider going to the theater. Apparently, far too many pictures had been taken of our audience members in tuxes and other pricey clothing standing around the Guthrie’s main stage lobby. That and other factors had increased the intimidation factor, so the concern that the Guthrie was increasingly being perceived as an elitist organization was high.
Consequently, I had been hired onto the artistic and outreach team to help combat this perception, and to help create some kind of workshop or production that would link the community more closely with the theater and help break down that barrier. I was just out of grad school and was ready for something new, so I was happy to go out into the community and poke around to see what I could find. My friend Scott was there already directing a touring production, so I asked him to join me and we began the hunt for senior citizens and their stories.
Our primary approach was to contact community center activity directors for referrals of active and interesting “older” members of the community. We had no idea what the outcome of this would be, and thought that perhaps we would have to see many, many people. But our interviews were long and in depth, so we found stories with almost everyone we spoke to. The long tapes were transcribed for us back at the Guthrie, and then we went about the process of editing the stories down to one transformative incident or a strong perspective that generally explored some time in their lives when there was a singular challenge—and what it took to make it through—and their long, lived perspective on that now.
It became clear that the individuals we spoke to needed to agree to appear as themselves and to speak their own words as we had edited them. This was quite the undertaking: Our seniors ranged from 55 to 90, and each one had his or her own set of issues and opinions. So our rehearsal period was long. Adam Granger and Pop Wagner provided the musical interludes to this bevy of seniors, often filling a “gap” as needed (“We’ll wait just a few more seconds here, as Myrtle likes to take her time crossing the stage.”). For each of our “characters,” we had converted photos from their lives into slides which were then rear screen projected onto 7-foot-tall screens. The slides were on a carousel projector (also old), and conditions were such that those carousels (which were remotely cued as each story was told) were also highly unpredictable, noisy, and off-balance. We carefully weighted them with various sizes of potatoes—which seemed to help.
The two productions finally loaded into the Southern—then the Guthrie 2—as part of the season. Flashbacks: A Scrapbook of Personal Portraits and A Christmas Past Christmas Present were a huge hit and cutting edge at the time. The response from the community was terrific, and the shows helped bring in an audience that would not ordinarily consider attending a Guthrie production. Highly accessible and powerful, it was also rehearsed within an inch of its life in order to appear to be perfectly natural. Now you see this kind of autobiographical storytelling in any number of theaters but, then, it was new, it was real, and it was important.
It was also highly unpredictable. And between our fear every night about our dear seniors making it through the show alive—and our worry that the slides would not appear on cue because the potatoes had shifted—I can’t recall a more stressful directing experience.