Ben Layne is the co-founder and co-artistic director of Freshwater Theatre which focuses on producing work that originates in the Midwest. The following interview is the first of two interviews with Ben. In the first Q&A (below) he shares why the newly commissioned musical Pioneer Suite was chosen to start Freshwater's 2015-2016 season, and he gives an inside look into the process of bringing this production to the stage.
Stay tuned for the second interview with Ben where he will delve into his own artistic mission, what it's like to start a new theater company, and more! Sign-up for email updates from Artfully Engaging to be alerted when new arts posts become available.
Ben: My first love was being onstage and I went to college for theater performance. I enjoyed creatively telling stories and that feeling of entertaining others, and I still do. I like the feeling of live performance; it can affect the audience in very fascinating and sometimes profound ways.
Since starting Freshwater Theatre I have been onstage less as I have found tremendous fulfillment in producing and directing, enabling others to do their best. That is at the core of what we do at Freshwater Theatre. By not only producing theater, but prioritizing the production of new work, we are constantly trying to be a facilitating force for artists in every facet of theater-making: actors, directors, designers, stage managers, and playwrights.
We work primarily on plays by writers located or originally from the upper Midwest so that we can hear our own stories onstage. So many plays are set in New York or Los Angeles, and they're great, but that ignores the experience of the rest of the country.
We really take that old Joan Miro quote to heart: "The more local something is, the more it is universal." That's what inspires us.
Ben: Our process is a combination of a lot of things. Sometimes we come up with an idea for a show just from an internal conversation like we did when we created Better (or) Worse, which was an anthology show about marriage that we produced right around the time Minnesota was voting on whether to amend our state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Sometimes we choose something that was submitted to us, like we did for The Gifted Program, which was submitted to us by playwright Ruben Carbajal basically after a random Twitter interaction he and I had about basketball, of all things.
Ruth and I try to read all of our submissions and when we read something we both like we bring it to the rest of the company to do a reading. Then we decide whether we want to include the work in a future season.
We also have a couple in-house playwrights at Freshwater Theatre: co-artistic director Ruth Virkus and company member J. Merrill Motz. The Beacon From Belle Isle was a play we commissioned from Motz a couple years ago, because he had written a few great short plays for our anthology shows. We thought that he would come up with something fascinating if he did a full play made up of a series of short plays around a theme. Given how Michigan is another "freshwater" state and Motz's home state, we thought turning our attention there seemed like a good change of pace that would fit our mission. Then, as America was still reeling from the aftereffects of the Great Recession, and Detroit in particular started making headlines, we found that the play was very timely.
Pioneer Suite is another commission, springing from a piece written by Keith Hovis for our anthology show, Archival Revival. The piece was Mrs. Housel: A Suicide Suite, inspired by news clippings from the late 1800s in Minnesota. Mrs. Housel was amazing and confirmed for us that Keith was a remarkable budding talent. We had seen his musical Teenage Misery in the 2013 Minnesota Fringe Festival and we were really impressed, so when Housel came along and blew us away, we knew we wanted to see what he could do with a full-length piece. We asked him to expand on Housel and what he came back with was Pioneer Suite.
There are so many playwrights here, thanks in no small part to the existence of the Playwrights' Center. We are really proud to be a local company that produces good works from local playwrights. We are always accepting submissions via our website and we hope to keep getting more new work from local writers who can knock our socks off like Keith did.
Can you give us an sneak peek into what audiences can expect when they attend Pioneer Suite?
Ben: Bring tissues. Keith's music is powerful and we have an incredibly talented cast. Pioneer Suite features the compelling stories of real women from Minnesota history.
Mrs. Housel is a one-woman musical about a woman who attempted suicide nine times. She witnessed her husband killing a man and went to authorities about it but because of her "reputation" nobody believed her. And incredibly that's just part of her story.
Martha, Who's Happy takes a look at Martha Dorsett, the first woman accepted to the Minnesota State Bar Association, and her relationship with her husband, C.W. Dorsett, who was an incredible partner and champion for her cause. While it's very much a story about a powerful woman who blazed a trail and made history, it's also about how a truly great partnership can make big things happen, and can sustain you, through good times and bad.
The third piece, Melancholia, is about Mary Carpenter, a pioneer farmer's wife whose correspondence with family and friends comes together as a 13-year record of what it was like to live on the prairie and all the hardships thereof. It is also likely that she suffered from clinical depression in a time when there wasn't a term for that. We really don't know how many lives were lost to the hardships and isolation of life on the prairie and it was their struggle to survive that paved the way for the life we live in this area today.
The heart that is at the core of each of these pieces is so big. They're all very human stories about real people. And because it's about women and their struggles against the society they were born into, they're still very relevant, even as life changes with technology and changing norms and belief systems, their struggles are still very relatable today.
What's your favorite line from Pioneer Suite?
Ben: There is a line in one of the songs, "you can choose to be happy, or not," which relates to Martha Dorsett and her choice whether to keep practicing law despite all the roadblocks set in front of her or to change careers. That line speaks to me on so many levels.
We all have to go through those questions at different points in our lives, whether to keep chasing dreams or to shift directions into a different life. We have to follow our heart at times and our head at other times, and that means making really tough calls. Sometimes that means staying the course, but sometimes it means admitting that you're tired of being Sisyphus, or tired of dealing with the same crap every day, or that you need a change of pace, or whatever it is. Sometimes choosing to be happy also means putting down your burdens or your crusades and choosing a different path.
Life is so short. We might as well enjoy it along the way.
Can you explain more about running in rep (repertoire) with yourselves?
Ben: Yes, we run in rep with ourselves on every show, giving us a chance to expand on the conversation started by our "mainstage" offering with smaller pieces that might be good opportunities for younger artists just starting out to get some experience or for experienced artists to try something new and different.
This fall we are presenting a remount of Pocahontas, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mouse, which was chosen as the winner of our fourth Fringe Consolation Remount. We had a great group of applicants for it this year and we are excited to give another young composer a chance to produce their work with us. It's a really funny skewering of our American tradition of cultural appropriation told as a musical.
And we have our Night Swim series, which changes every time out to fit the theme of the shows we are doing. This time, since we are producing in October, we thought it would be fun to invite folks to join us to tell ghost stories again, so we have a night of ghost stories set up for after the performance on October 9. It will be a fun time.
What has been one of the more successful tools you have used to promote your theater work and engage your audiences?
Ben: We have leveraged Facebook quite a bit in promoting our shows. This time around we have a great preview video (below) that has gotten a lot of attention on Facebook, which has been gratifying. People have been watching it, liking it and sharing it. This has helped improve the visibility of our show.
Ben: It's such a robust community and there is such a variety of work being done. It keeps growing and changing all the time and it does really feel like a community, too. I think most people in the community today truly want to see one another succeed, because that means we all succeed. I know we at Freshwater feel that way, and we've seen that reflected back at us over the years.
Ticket Information: Pioneer Suite
October 3-18, 2015
By local writer and composer Keith Hovis
Directed by Ben Layne
$15 with Minnesota Fringe Festival button
$15 Student/Senior discount
Pioneer Suite details the lives of three women who settled the Minnesota prairie in the late 1800s and sheds a light on the powerful stories of pioneer women forgotten in Minnesota’s vast history.
Follow the conversation by following Freshwater Theatre on Facebook and Twitter (@FreshwaterTC) and with the hashtag #PioneerSuite.
1517 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55413