Women continue to make up more than half of theater audiences. And yet, when it comes to working as directors and in powerful positions in the theater, women are in the minority. However, Clubbed Thumb, a risk-taking and daring theater company, has a history of supporting and working with directors who are women.
“Women are underrepresented in the field of directing, especially at its most prominent and lucrative levels. And their underrepresentation has ripple effects for women writers, choreographers, actors, designers and stage managers,” says Maria Striar, Clubbed Thumb’s founder and producing artistic director. “So that’s a course correction that interests me. And to some small degree I can affect that.”
Founded in 1996, Clubbed Thumb is devoted to hiring women as directors, playwrights and actors. “Our inclination is to lean heavily in hiring women in all areas—including directors, but also encompassing actors and playwrights—which is a canny investment,” says Striar. “It’s a rich pool of talent, more broadly available than it should be.”
To that end, in this season’s Summerworks program, every play is directed by a woman. Known for its guiding mantra to develop and produce funny, strange and provocative new plays by living American writers, Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks Program is now in its 26 season.
Over the years great writers like Jaclyn Backhaus, Clare Barron and Gina Gionfriddo have made their professional debuts though the Summerworks Program. And in 2017, Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me debuted there. (The play ultimately went to Broadway and was nominated for two Tony Awards and became a Pulitzer Prize finalist.)
This season Clubbed Thumb commissioned three new plays: Work Hard Have Fun Make History by Ruth Tang, directed by Caitlin Sullivan; Deep Blue Sound by Abe Koogler, directed by Arin Arbus; and Grief Hotel by Liza Birkenmeier, directed by Tara Ahmadinejad. To design sets and props for all three productions, Clubbed Thumb collaborated with Dots, the design collective which focuses on recycled and reused materials to help limit environmental footprints and keep costs down.
All three directors believe that Clubbed Thumb has been invaluable in the process of creating the works. Although Arbus instantly knew she wanted to direct Deep Blue Sound, a play with a cast of nine, she was unclear at first how to tackle it.
“I didn’t know how to realize the world. How to design the production, stage or cast it,” says Arbus about the play that takes place on a small island in the Pacific Northwest as the locals lives intertwine in key and delicate ways. “Clubbed Thumb was incredibly supportive during our pre-production process. We did many developmental readings, and two staging workshops which really enabled Abe, the creative team and me to make big discoveries before rehearsals began.”
And when so many small theater companies are struggling to stay afloat, especially since the pandemic, Clubbed Thumb nurtures playwrights and artists in profound ways. “Clubbed Thumb is an incredible company—supporting many of the most important writers in American theater. Their producing model is nimble and ambitious,” says Arbus.
Also, Sullivan welcomes how Clubbed Thumb supports work that isn’t always linear. “If stories have to be told in a certain way there is an immediate limit on the kinds of stories we’ll tell,” says Sullivan. “There has to be a space for larger acts of imagination, real expansion and re-envisioning.”
Tara Ahmadinejad observes that Clubbed Thumb makes her and her collaborators feel supported so they can focus on the pieces they are creating. “They do a lot with a little. Their producing is very robust for such a small outfit,” adds Ahmadinejad. “Clubbed Thumb talks about wanting everybody to have a good time. They say this to all of us at the beginning of a process, as part of their producing ethos. And this really extends to the audience.”
Also, as Sullivan observes, Clubbed Thumb welcomes extensive exploration during creation of the works. “Clubbed Thumb is a place where it is genuinely ok to not know,” she says. “Many people will tell you they want you to experiment but so often they also want you to project a sense of certainty while doing it. It’s hard to get somewhere new if you have to know where you’re going the whole time.”
When Sullivan first read Work Hard Have Fun Make History, which she describes as “an existential farce about what it feels like to live in a world made by Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk,” she was excited but nervous that she didn’t immediately have a clear concept. “Maria suggested that was part of what made the project exciting,” she recalls. “And she was right.”
Grief Hotel, the show currently playing at the Wild Project theater, centers on a group of individuals whose lives intertwine as they struggle with intimacy, grief and loss. “Grief Hotel is difficult to describe. There’s a plot, but describing the play by describing the plot is misleading,” says Ahmadinejad. “I like to say that there’s definitely a plot but it’s not a plot-driven play. The play deals with how grief impacts identity, relationships, and memory. But also, and this is really important, it’s also funny.”
Jeryl Brunner: Can you talk about the process of making Grief Hotel?
Tara Ahmadinejad: One guiding principle for me in staging this piece has been about preserving some of that blurriness you experience when reading it. I liked not always knowing exactly where people were when, and the play unfolds in delightful surprising ways because of the tension around that. Another challenge in the piece that I love is navigating the tonal shifts that happen.
This play is very moving and very funny. And a lot of those tonal shifts are rooted in the reality of the characters, which makes it that much more satisfying. The characters themselves are often directing their pain or feelings of loss in strange ways, and their actual feelings leak out in certain key moments. Navigating where to hold back and where to let it leak is a challenge in making the play, but also in life. And it’s the whole reason one might need a Grief Hotel to begin with.
Brunner: What inspired you to direct Deep Blue Sound?
Arin Arbus: Maria asked if I’d be interested in reading a play they’d selected for Summerworks. I’ve always wanted to work at Clubbed Thumb so I was excited. But then I read it. Oh my. I was knocked out by [playwright] Abe Koogler’s incredible world. I’ve rarely read a play as gorgeous as Deep Blue Sound with the language, humor, structure, characters, their tragedies and triumphs, their achy longings.
Whether dealing with ones own death or the changing natural world or determining whether you are a good dancer or not, the islanders are dealing with big things beyond their control and understanding. The ways they come together or struggle to come together or refuse to do so in the face of tremendous uncertainly and confusion is so funny and beautiful as depicted by Abe. It’s a play that blows open your heart. I wanted to direct it immediately.
Brunner: And what an incredible cast of actors.
Arbus: We were lucky to get that genius company of actors. Legends. Individually, they are each so brilliant and captivating, bursting with humanity, but then you put them all together and goodness me! What an orchestra they make! That was a big challenges of the casting — we needed to make a whole community with a cast of nine. The characters are so vividly written, they are each such particular humans. The play truly lives or dies upon the performances. This company brought so much life to it.
Brunner: What went through your mind when you first learned about Work Hard Have Fun Make History?
Caitlin Sullivan: I was first introduced to [playwright] Ruth Tang and their work by our mutual friend and collaborator Sarah Einspanier. Work Hard Have Fun Make History caught me immediately. The play is funny, smart and cracked open new ways of feeling into things I spend a lot of time thinking about. There is a single stage direction that made me desperate to direct it. About a third of the way through the play, Ruth writes “This is the first time the bodies on stage are the bodies that are also talking.” I had no idea what that might look or feel like, what it would mean for the physical and emotional life of the piece. But the formal provocation totally hooked me. It ignited my curiosity.
Read the full article here