Lunch with Garrison

The day was overcast but gentle when Kate Lohman and I met at Three Sisters Café in Providence.

I’d heard an anecdote from Kate years ago about an uncomfortable meeting with Garrison Keillor. It happened decades ago, but with his recent #metoo related status, it seemed to be a story with renewed relevance. I asked Kate if she wanted to tell us the whole story, and she agreed. Kate is a mother and has had a career in theater that spans acting, directing and producing, throughout New England and New York, and touching on other parts of the country. The story she shared is from the early 2000s.

Mike Ryan (Motif): We were talking about all the people coming out of the woodwork around all these celebrities, and looking for a local aspect to that, and partly remembered a story you’d told some time ago about a meeting you had with Garrison Keillor [Keillor, the NPR radio show host from Minnesota who created the Lake Woebegone series, is one of the people recently accused of inappropriate behavior].

Kate Lohman: The weird thing is a friend of mine who used to live in Providence, named Laurie Myers, has done a ton of activism in the Chicago area theater community. Her organization is called “Not in our House,” and they’ve got rules and regulations around sexual harassment and ways to govern really any situation in theater. Theater, of course, is a profession where this sort of thing is much harder to define; there are physical elements to the work and a certain vulnerability, so there are particular situations.

MR: So, tell me about your experience with Garrison Keillor.

KL: He was moving to Chelsea [where I lived]. He was working at The New Yorker so I wrote him a friendly note saying welcome to the neighborhood. Very simple. He wrote back just a nice note. And then some time later, maybe a matter of months, he put an ad in Backstage [the newspaper].

So he puts in an ad looking for a director for his Radio City Music Hall show and I remember thinking at the time, “Why does he need to post an ad for a director?” The three criteria were that you had to have knowledge of his work, directorial experience in New York and also some writing skills. Since I had this friendly communication with him before, I thought, “Why not?” I was working [at a company in New York] at the time and I had been doing theater work.

I get a call from this cheerful woman saying, “Garrison wants to meet with you at Chelsea diner.” What’s upsetting and annoying: I took a couple of days off from work and listened to all of his work and started to think about how I would work on this. I had about a week to prepare … I show up and its 3 o’clock in the afternoon and he had some wine and I didn’t, because I was here for an interview. I said no thanks. And he said, “They serve oysters here.” That’s the first thing he said. I thought, “Isn’t that an aphrodisiac? Why would you mention that?” I got the salad and he started eating off my plate and I thought he wouldn’t do that if I was a man. And I tried to talk about the play but he’d never talk about it.

It was a very weird experience. I don’t know if it was the Midwesterner thing, but he was very hard to read. I felt like there was a rock tied to my ankle and I was slowly going down. This goes on for an hour and a half. And he had just published a book where basically, the upshot of the whole thing, was how much he loved his wife.

So we go outside. He never said anything overtly. But he said, “So where are you going?” I said, “I’m going home.” And it was so weird that we never talked about the play.

An older male friend of mine the other day said, “You don’t know what he was thinking,” but I was there. The director he ended up using was the same director he always used. I feel like there was no intention of working with me. I feel like that wasn’t on the agenda.

The thing that bothered me about it, this is a pin on a map of a whole world. I have been sexually assaulted, and asked overtly, and that’s a whole other thing. That has happened. It’s all cultural in addition to the workplace things where you’re just not respected as a woman.

Even now with Garrison Keillor, it’s like I’m imagining things. It’s at best, you know, suggestive, but it’s — I don’t know. I feel weird about it. But I know that a friend [of mine] said, “Yes this is a real thing. He wanted something else out of that meeting.” And I’d be curious to know if other women answered that [ad].

MR: Does he have a different set of responsibilities in that situation than he would in others?

KL: [There are] power dynamics, sure, but to me it was just deceptive. It was a fishing expedition, because he didn’t have to read my resume — he wanted the interview. There’s a part of me that thought, too, [if I’d been clear on what he wanted] I might have done it: not for the job, but just out of curiosity. It’s not like I don’t like sex. But he was married at the time. But it just wasn’t even in the air like it could have been. It was just, it was manipulative and deceptive and — dispiriting is the word I come back to. Maybe at the time I wasn’t so confident, but I thought, “I deserve to have a discussion.” Back then he didn’t want to talk about work at all.

He had never done a show at Radio City Music Hall before. I said, “Are you trying to explore that world?” He wasn’t even engaged in that conversation because he already had a director. That was already done.

I do have empathy for, you know, if he wants to get laid, how do you send those signals without being inappropriate? It’s not under the pretense of talking about work, which was what we were doing. I want to be good at what I do and here’s someone who believes in my experience and that’s so exciting, and then to find out that it’s not about that at all. Like I said, in the constellation of all the other stuff in your life, like being disrespected or ignored or harassed, makes you want to say ah, fuck it. I’ll write my own play or start a theater of my own. Women’s ensemble theater. We’d call it WET because that name gives people an uncomfortable feeling. My approach to feminism is just act and go on, but that’s so not how the world works. And I know a lot of women just are sad.

MR: Were there any Garrison Keillor repercussions?

KL: I’ve been reflecting on that. I auditioned for him later for his radio show. I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to him, I just remember being anxious. But that was an audition, which was different. He said he remembered me, but I don’t know. There was no acknowledgement on either side. I didn’t say anything, he didn’t say anything. And after I said, “Why would I want to work with him?” Maybe the  repercussion was that I wanted to do my own work and get better on my own.

MR: It hurt your spirit?

KL: I think so. I don’t know.

MR: It does sound like there was an ulterior motive.

KL: If I recreated it with you, believe me, it was weird. Oysters, eating off your plate, looking at you. It was weird. “What do you want to do about the play?” He was just in another place. It was just creepy. I should playact it with you because it would give you a better sense.

Ms. Lohman demonstrates by coming closer, leaning in and stabbing some home fries from my plate, assuredly breaking the conventions of personal space. It is weird.

KL: I’ve got to get better at explaining, but it was just not a business meeting. It was about everything else.

Is it a gray area, or is it only gray because … you don’t know what he was thinking? But it’s hard not to doubt your own perception.

What else could it have been? Except if he thought I was too young. But it wasn’t that. It was an excuse to meet. And then he was going to see if … the meeting went on for an hour and a half. I don’t know if he was waiting for me to get the picture. And he asked where I was going, what I was doing.

In his book, he talked about how painfully shy he is and if I look at it through that lens, he could be saying, “I’m going to put this down, please pick this up.” But I wasn’t picking it up. I was there to get a job. This other part, you’re going to have to be a lot clearer. So that’s what it’s about. It’s about communication.

I can tell you that ad in Backstage, why would Garrison Keillor put that in Backstage? He doesn’t need that. I would be curious why he did that. That’s the thing. I’d rather talk to him. I’m not interested in drowning the guy. I don’t know. Any kind of punishment that falls on someone, is that going to rehabilitate him or is it going to make him bitter? I don’t know if it’s helpful to exile people. I think there’s gotta be a lot more. Putting your hand on someone’s back can’t get you fired.

But it was dispiriting and I missed a couple of days work and I wasted my time. That’s the problem. There could be backpedaling, but there was a loss there.

Leave a Reply

Prove that you are human *

Previous post:

Next post: