Marin Theatre Company’s young artistic director has big plans
So far, over the two seasons Minadakis has been MTC’s artistic director, four of ten plays performed have been extended for extra performances.
“Extending a play compares to a performance receiving a standing ovation,” says the unassuming Minadakis. “The community is telling you they really liked what you did—and there’s more support for it than you thought you had.” That said, he goes on to say, in so many words: “But you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Currently, the Marin Theatre Company is producing Lydia, by the San Francisco playwright Octavio Solis. It recently opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre and opens soon at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. According to Minadakis, who’ll direct the production: “It’s being compared to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; this is one of the most important American plays written in the past ten years.”
MTC follows that with Magic Forest Farm, the winner of its first annual Sky Cooper New Play Prize ($10,000) in which 875 entries were received from throughout the country. “It takes place in the modern day,” says Minadakis, “and focuses on a commune in Northern California and the children of parents who lived there.” The author here is Zayd Dohrn, son of the much-in-the-news Bernadine Dorhn and William Ayres, founders of the 60’s radical group Weather Underground. Note that MTC’s staging of Lydia is the play’s West Coast premiere—and the much-heralded Magic Forest Farm will receive its world premiere at Marin Theatre Company.
Jasson Minadakis, the person most responsible for garnering such acclaim, is 38-years-old—one of the youngest artistic directors for a theater of MTC’s size in the United States. After graduating from James Madison University, with a major in English and theater, Minadakis co-founded the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival before being named artistic director of Atlanta’s Actor’s Express Theatre Company. He came to MTC in November of 2006, after the much-admired Lee Sankowich left to pursue other interests.
Marin Theatre Company, now in its 42nd year, is the largest professional theater company in the North Bay. With an annual budget of $2.5 million it produces more than 200 performances a year on its two stages, the 231-seat Boyer Theatre and the 99-seat Lieberman Theatre. According to Artistic Director Minadakis: “We’re the fifth largest theater in the Bay Area, behind A.C.T., Berkeley Rep, San Jose Rep and TheatreWorks.”
Let’s start by you describing what an artistic director does? He or she is responsible for everything that goes on the stage, from selecting plays to hiring a costume designer. The artistic director handles everything in terms of artistic output into the community. That said, we have an interesting partnership at MTC. Usually, a theater’s producing director handles finances, marketing, and development. At MTC that’s Ryan Rilette, whom I have known for years. We worked at similar theaters in all kinds of responsibilities and always dreamed about working together. Now that’s happened and we’ve blurred the lines of responsibilities a bit. Ryan has as much artistic input as I do—and I help him with the finances, ect. We respect each other; we’re the same age; and our families know each another. I think the emergence of MTC this year, both critically and in the community’s mind, is a testament to the support we provide each other. It’s made for a very healthy organization.
That said, along with everything else, both you and Ryan are directing plays this season. What is the role of a play’s director? A director’s most important job is to make sure all of the actors are working to a common point; that a play’s center thread is always maintained. It’s to see that the costume designer and the scenic designer are in harmony; that the clothes and the set work together. Overall, a director is what I like to call the ‘most informed member of the audience.’ The job is to help actor’s understand the choices they’re making and how those choices are going to play with the audience. A director gives the actors feedback on how their on stage choices are playing with someone who is sitting away from it. In many ways a director and a conductor are similar. You have these brilliant people who know how to play their instruments, your job is to keep them all together so the music goes as a whole from individuals on stage out to the audience.
As a director, do you attend every performance of the play you’re directing? No, normally I get a show through its opening night and at that point the cast has already had several performances in front of an audience; it’s time for me to let go. We’ve worked together for four or five weeks; I’ve established the parameters in which the actors are playing; and now it’s time for me to trust them—they need the freedom to work together. Like most directors, I go back before a play closes to see how the actors and the play have grown in a positive way since I’d left. But that’s it.
What have you found to be the strengths of the surrounding community? This is an extremely literate community. They read a lot; they’re well informed about national events and about the arts. In getting to know the community I was fascinated how many attend A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre), Berkeley Rep, and go up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. People who live in Marin are very protective of their community; they take care of their organizations, which is incredibly beneficial to an arts organization—you do not see that much anymore. I think Marin has a very strong commitment from its people to keep the county a good place to live.
What concerns you about Marin? Forty-three years ago, when Sali Lieberman founded Marin Theatre Company, it was organized as a community theater. Then over 20 years ago, our board decided to make MTC a professional theater. We now employ 80 percent equity actors—and have since 1985—however many Marin people still think of us as a ‘community theater.’ It’s a bit of a challenge to change people’s perceptions, but we’re definitely making progress. We’re trying to help people understand that the same quality of performances seen at ACT, or Berkeley Rep, or up in Oregon, they can see right here in Marin.
Is Marin’s aging population a concern? At first, it concerned me a lot. I think that’s one reason the directors were interested in me as artistic director. My taste is toward newer works from younger American playwrights, it’s a little edgier, maybe more adventuresome. Some patrons have been thrilled with this shift; to others, it wasn’t their cup of tea. That happens when a new director arrives. However, we’re now seeing more people coming to us than we’re losing. When shows are extended, it’s a sign something is going right. The folks attending an extended performance aren’t, as a rule, a theater’s season subscribers—they’re mostly new patrons. And there are lots of them. Come to a MTC performance now and you’ll see a different demographic than before.
In closing, what’s does the future—short and long term—hold for the Marin Theatre Company? I can tell you that our 2009-10 program starts this September with the West Coast premiere of My Name is Asher Lev, based on the novel by Chaim Potok. MTC’s performance precedes the play’s going to New York. Also exciting is the Bay Area premiere of Boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, a Marin native. It’s about a marine biologist discovering that an asteroid will soon destroy the earth. Next is the world premiere of Sunlight, by our 2009 Sky Cooper Award winner Sharr White. It was written in early 2008 but looks ahead at the post George W. Bush era. Then comes Equivocation, a fantastic story about William Shakespeare’s first script. And we close with Woody Guthrie’s American Song; it chronicles the folk hero’s life through his words and ballads, which have astonishing relevance today. We’re very excited about all of them, there’s something for everyone.
Over the long term, what Ryan, I, and our board of directors hope to do is grow Marin Theatre Company to being without question the first choice for all Marin County when they think of going to the professional theater. We would love to become a very important theater not only in the Bay Area but also on the national landscape. And frankly, based on scripts playwrights have trusted us with, I think we already are. In addition, we’d like to expand our work a little bit so that we can serve more people in Marin County. We feel we’re Mill Valley’s theater company and we truly want to be Marin’s theater company. This county is so incredibly fortunate in so many of the facets that make life better, and Marin Theatre Company wants to become a bigger and bigger part of that for more and more people in Marin.