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Gavin's Underground

Pygmalion Theatre Company

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2009-09-06 -

As many theatre groups are now preparing for the new season to begin next month, everyone is making an effort to top the successful run all groups enjoyed during the last round. But one in particular not only had a great year, it was practically showcased in the spotlight by all local media, seemingly from out of nowhere. Even though this secret gem of Utah stage has been a part of Rose Wagner since 2002.

The Pygmalion Theatre Company has been producing works focused on both the female perspective as well as the GLBQT viewpoint, opening audiences up to very unique works and performances that other companies don't offer. And with new found exposure from last season's works, this upcoming set looks to continue that tradition while entertaining the many who have just discovered its shows. I got a chance to chat with the company's Artistic Director, Fran Pruyn, about Pygmalion and its history as well as her time with them, plus thoughts on local theatre and the upcoming season.

Fran Pruyn

http://www.pygmalionproductions.org/

Gavin: Hey Fran! First off, tell us a little about yourself.

Fran: I was a military brat; grew up a little in a lot of places (Germany, Ohio, Alabama) and mostly in Denver. I graduated from a small liberal arts College known as Colorado Women's College, which is now part of the University of Denver, with a BA in Theatre. Little side note here, CWC's theatre department was co-educational, because it is hard to do much good theatre without both sexes. The women's college thing however does figure significantly into the Pygmalion theme - because it was there that I realized that when women don't have men around they are forced to take leadership positions because they don't have the option to abdicate those positions to men. I had started this little theatre company, called New Shakespeare Players (and later called TheatreWorks West) as my MFA project. It was exhausting and exhilarating. TWW moved off-campus, and then lost our space. I went into theatre semi-retirement - doing a show here and there - sometimes as a TWW project, sometimes for other companies until Pygmalion. I have been on several non-profit boards: KRCL (I chaired that one for quite a while), Utah Cultural Alliance, SMPS (Society for Marketing Professional Services), Swerve and others. I am currently the Chair of the Board of the Utah Pride Center. Oh and I am the Entertainment Director for the Pride Festival - so I get to book folks like Paula Poundstone. I taught Gay and Lesbian Theatre at the U for the last couple of years, which was a great ride. I am on the Intermountain Wild Horse and Burro - Mustang Drill Team!!! We (my partner and I) have 6 equines - 5 horses and 1 burro. I get to ride in parades, which is totally amazing; the best!

Gavin: For those who are unaware, what is Pygmalion Theatre Company?

Fran: Pygmalion is a Salt Lake City-based professional (which means we pay our actors) theatre company that is a tenant of the Rose Wagner Theatre. Our mission statement is "to produce plays which reflect issues, concerns and shared experiences in the lives of women."

Gavin: How did the company originally get its start?

Fran: Nancy Roth and Reb Fleming started the company in Ogden in 1995. They wanted to do theatre that wasn't "feminist" as much as from a "decidedly feminine prospective". They moved the company from Ogden to SLC in 2002 and began to do shows at the Rose Wagner Theatre. Nancy and David Roth really were the heart that kept the theatre company going - both spiritually and financially. When the audiences weren't there at first, they were to make up the difference, and take care of the cast and crew. Reb brought enormous artistic integrity to the company: in the scripts she found, the performances she gave, the sensitivity and professionalism she brought to the work.

Gavin: What's the response been like in being a theatre company that specifically reflects on the female condition?

Fran: Sometimes I don't think the response has been any different - people come to see shows they want to see, actors audition for roles they want to play, and doing any art form is difficult whether you are female or male or anything in between. I think what is important is that the mission keeps us focused on what we think are important stories that should be told - women's stories, and it gives more women an opportunity to work in the theatre. Theoretically, it should also give us a niche market… we probably need to work on that angle. Nancy and Reb never wanted a "feminist" theatre company - and honestly I think we really aren't in the business to make overt political statements as much as to do good theatre from a female perspective, and well yes, that do have at least subversive political statements. The thing is… theatre is a male-dominated industry. Most of the producers are men, the directors are men, most of the published writers are men -- and they want to do shows that reflect their concerns, their point of view. Who doesn't? But, statistically it is women that come to theatre. Well women, and gay men, and actors. So we think: let's do theatre that gives women an opportunity to tell their story and to act, and direct, and produce. Our thinking is that we would let those women (who come to the theatre) see stories about themselves, AND let women have big roles and production opportunities. This in no way excludes men. What good would that be? Women live in a world with men - and mostly men they really enjoy. Heck, Sister Dottie is a show written by two men and performed by two men (in drag). But it is from a woman's point of view - and that, for us, makes all the difference.

Gavin: The theatre has held a strong relationship with the GLBQT community over the years. What's your take on the mutual support you've had?

Fran: What is the line from Mel Brooks film,
To Be Or Not Yo Be? "What would theatre be without the Jews and the Gays?" So many of our best actors, writers, playwrights are gay it is no wonder that they have produced some of the most popular plays, which are, in turn, attended by gay people and their families who gay people drag to see shows about themselves. I'd be hard pressed to see a theatre company without a deep relationship with the GLBQT community. On a more personal Pygmalion note, well, hell, I'm queer. The first play I ever directed was The Children's Hour. I am the Chair of the Board of the Pride Center and truly believe that "the personal is political." I guess this is my story, my cause, my life, my friends… so I guess that translates into my art. I actively look for opportunities to tell GLBQT stories - particularly those that resonate beyond the gay community and work toward equality.

Gavin: How did you first get involved with the company?

Fran: My good friend Barb Gandy was in a Pygmalion Production --
The Food Chain by Nicky Silver - and when the director they originally had selected to do Beyond Therapy had to cancel, she recommended me. I did the show… it sold well (but that is because it is a really, really funny show), so they asked me to be on the board.

Gavin: What was it like for you directing your first production with them?

Fran: Great! They took wonderful care of me. They were kind and generous; they took care of all the production stuff, and I just got to direct a wonderful cast in a very funny script. It was a delight. I think Nancy and David took us all to the New Yorker after the final show. Wow!

Gavin: Do you believe it a natural fit for the company to take up home in the Rose Wagner?

Fran: It is a great place to be. The County has a very good sense of what it takes to do performances. Of course, it is a multi-use facility, which makes it a constant juggling act. But it also means we don't have to have our own space, provide for its upkeep, pay for someone to pay the bills, and pay the bills. The Rose Wagner staff is really very supportive. For a small arts organization it is the perfect scenario - and I believe it also serves the community because it allows small companies with access to good artists to present good offerings. It would be ever so much harder without a professionally run, attractive venue in which to perform to attract an audience.

Gavin: In total you have twenty productions to the company's name. What do you think of the impact they've had on local theater?

Fran: Salt Lake City has such a wonderful tradition of great art, of great theatre - I think we all have had an impact because we bring stories to life. Our stories are women's stories and I think that broadens the depth of offerings. I would like to also think the impact that we have had is that more women have had more on stage, back stage, and directorial opportunities.

Gavin: The most recent play to achieve major attention been The Passion Of Sister Dottie S. Dixon. Where did the idea come from for the production?

Fran: Troy Williams and Charles Frost brought the concept to the Board of Pygmalion. Sister Dottie was a personality that they developed for KRCL-FM, and they did many, many five-minute "Dottiesodes" on RadioActive. This premise: to tell a Mormon woman's passion (in the Joan of Arc tradition) was clearly within our mission statement. And let's face it Mormons and gays usually sell well in Utah. And it was a comedy, what could be better? Dottie was already very popular - particularly in the GLBQT population, and with KRCL listeners. We signed on to produce the show, and Pygmalion became a key player in the development process.

Gavin: What was the reaction to its success when it was finished, and how has the company been affected since wrapping up the last season?

Fran: Certainly heightened visibility; which is a great thing! We got three Arty Award nominations - also very nice. The show was our biggest money-maker, but also cost us the most (the films, powerpoint, photography was not inexpensive), and we brought in some out of town talent to help us get the show mounted (Laurie Mecham - script doctor and co-director). The show really got us noticed. How the company is affected really remains to be seen this season. What will sales be like for all our shows? How will season ticket sales go?

Gavin: You're about to enter the company's ninth season. What have you got coming up this year?

Fran: We are bringing back Sister Dottie this Fall -- Charles and Troy have tightened the first act, added a new film portion - "The History of Mormonism in one minute" and a new scene for Act II. This winter, we are doing
Lady Day At Emerson's Bar & Grill - a cabaret-type show about Billie Holiday. It is one woman and a piano player - representing one of Billie Holiday's last gigs in the last year of her life - 1959. It is a remarkably joyful show about this iconic American singer. The spring show is Sordid Lives. We did it a couple of years ago, and it was such a hit we really had to bring it back. The tag line is that it is a "dark comedy about white trash.” It is a funny, funny show - the women's roles are magnificent - but so are the men's. Brother Boy, who has a spiritual connection with Tammy Wynette is a lovely, touching, silly character. Generally we wouldn't do two repeats in the same season, but we had already slotted Sordid Lives for a come-back, and we just have to do strike while the proverbial iron is hot with Sister Dottie, before she goes on tour. We are also work-shopping a wonderful script about growing older and leaving the family home: The Coming Ice Age by Elaine Jarvik. It is slotted to open our 2010 Season. It is a gorgeous piece of writing that we are going to have the privilege of helping her turn into a lovely play. In the summer we plan to work again with the Utah Pride Center to bring The Breast Dialogues to the stage. This is the fifth year that UPC has sponsored the one-day only performance. Women perform their own monologues about their relationships with their breasts - which are very, very varied. UPC received a Susan Koman grant to help develop the scripts, which are written with the help of the Community Writing Center. Last year Pygmalion sponsored the evening at the Rose Wagner Black Box, and Shellie Waters - from our Board - directed the performance as part of our donation to the event.

Gavin: A little state-wide, what are your thoughts on local theater, both good and bad?

Fran: There is a remarkable amount of good theatre in our itty-bitty state. What Fred Adams did in Cedar City is monumental - who'd have thought he could make a Tony-Award winning Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, Utah? The edgier stuff, of course, is in Salt Lake Valley. Several theatre companies produce thought-provoking theatre, most of which is written by non-Utah writers. This is good; Utahns need to have their world-vision expanded. Mind you, I don't know that Utahns are much more provincial that most other Americans, but we are certainly provincial. Ironically, the LDS Church is the biggest arts supporter in the state, but they also have a very conservative idea of what is appropriate art. They encourage their children to learn how to act and sing and dance: to perform. As a result - we have an amazing talent pool, particularly for a state our size, and very good training programs. But an awful lot of what is staged is musicals and time-honored comedies. Most of what goes on the stages in Utah (and probably in a lot of America) is "safe" theatre, and by safe I don't just mean language, sex or violence -- I mean safe in that it doesn't really challenge the audience to think outside their comfort zones. In my humble opinion, Americans have a pretty anti-intellectual tradition: we get bored easily; we want to be entertained. I do. I think any theatre producer who needs to fill a house has to recognize that. This year we are trying to do some of both - entertainment with social commentary. A lot of the best original theatre we do in Utah is commentary on our own culture … the challenge is making it universal enough to have it translate outside the Zion Curtain.

Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to improve it?

Fran: I don't know that we need to improve it, maybe just broaden the selections. That said, I wish our state would do a better job of selling how great our art is to the local audiences. We have fabulous theatre happening at the larger venues as well as the smaller stages. I see PTC and the Shakespearean Festival bringing some great classics -- and in PTC's case - original and new work to audiences. The smaller stages have the luxury of doing the riskier stuff because we don't have to sell as many tickets. We do have to sell enough tickets, however, to stay in business. The County did a study that indicated a need for more "Rose Wagner" type facilities across the Valley. I hope, that if those spaces are built, that in addition to seeing more
Forever Plaid and Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, we will see companies who are daring to do more adventurous work -- even in the suburbs. We just need to find a way to entice enough people to see more than the old chestnuts, or Broadway musicals.

Gavin: How do you feel about the recent moves to “bring Broadway” to Utah?

Fran: Well, it certainly won't interfere with Pygmalion audiences. The bigger question is can Salt Lake City support a huge theatre downtown, as well as the other existing venues? I mean this both in terms of the actual physical space as well as programmatically. Utah constituents might want to see Broadway musicals in a wonderful new theatre, but I doubt they want to pay for the on-going operations and maintenance of said space. And, if I were in the business of producing those big local shows, I would be very concerned about it siphoning off audiences. I remember a structural engineer once telling me that, "we save our money to go to the really good shows when they come to town - you know Cats and Les Mis. In this economy of limited discretionary time and income, it is a big concern. One would hope that there would be enough butts to put in all the seats, but I am really leery. I know how hard it is to sell tickets. Of course, if it is built, we'd love to be on the architectural team...

Gavin: Do you feel like local high schools and colleges do enough for their performing arts departments as of late?

Fran: Probably not - but that is a pretty intuitive answer. I can only speak to personal experience with the University of Utah's Theatre Department - which is seems quite under-funded - and has much less enticing facilities to work in than many of the high schools in town and virtually every higher education institution in the state. But, with the U and all these publicly funded programs and facilities, where is the money going to come from for more programming, more faculty and better facilities, particularly now? It would be great to pour more resources into our public performing arts education. I think the students would benefit, the audiences would benefit, even allied fields would benefit. Elected bodies, however, see the benefit as very secondary to educational fields that put students immediately into the workforce. I think there is a lot of evidence of positive economic impact in our community through the performing arts, but in these hard times money is going to go first to medicine, the sciences and applied technical fields. I always say that art doesn't cure cancer, but it might make you feel better for a little while. That isn't a really persuasive argument to the legislature.

Gavin: What can we expect from you and the company the rest of the year?

Fran: I hope to continue to attract people to be involved in the company as artistic staff, board members and volunteers who are dedicated to both good theatre and our mission. That is perhaps my largest goal in the coming year. I am stoked about
The Coming Ice Age - and seeing it develop and change through the year. It is a type of interactive, on-going artistic process of theatre that I hope to always be a part of. It is going to be great to work with such a gifted writer as Elaine, and see where her vision takes her. As for me … well, I am directing two of the shows, finishing up my term on the Pride Center Board, trying to sell a lot of green architecture, and perfecting my trot to canter transitions on my horse.

Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?

Fran: Funding for the arts and arts education; and the return of the two-party system in Utah!

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