Those of us in the performing arts are finding ourselves facing a new reality. As a member of the theater community, I’m lucky enough to be able to speak with leaders of artistic organizations all over the state about how they’re coping and what their plans are for the future, and I think it’s important we start having those conversations in more open forums, which is why I’m grateful my friend Lynne Collinson was able to speak with me this week. Lynne Collinson is one of the Founding Mothers of WomensWork Theatre Collaborative (WWTC) in Cranston.
WWTC shares a space with my theater company, Epic, at the Artists’ Exchange on Rolfe Square. We’re creative neighbors, and I love having all of them close by because they’re made up of some of the most talented women in the state. Other Founding Mothers include Carol Schlink, Rae Mancini, Juli Parker, Gayle Hanrahan, Peggy Becker, Joanne Fayan, Margaret Melozzi, MJ Daly, Paula Faber and Sharon Carpentier. Their group is dedicated to serving an often overlooked demographic by tackling work by and for women over 40. They’re also a newer company on the scene, and I was curious to see what it’s like for a group that’s just getting started, especially one that’s gotten such positive feedback from the community for productions like My Left Breast, Last Lists of My Mad Mother and The Madwoman in the Volvo.
Here’s what Lynne had to say:
Kevin Broccoli (Motif): First off, how are you doing right now?
Lynne Collinson: I’m well — fighting bits of anxiety, like everyone else. Stepping away from the computer and out into the fresh air helps.
KB: I know that WWTC is unique in that it’s a real collective where there’s a lot of collaboration and input from all the Founding Mothers. Have you all been keeping in touch as things have progressed to make decisions and come up with plans for the future?
LC: Luckily, performances of The Madwoman in the Volvo got in just under the wire in March. We’ve been on hold since then, but we have a Zoom meeting scheduled soon. It’ll be good to connect and brainstorm. There are 11 of us, so there’ll be lots of great ideas to collectively find our way forward.
KB: Your production of Hitler’s Tasters by Michelle Kholos Brooks was postponed due to the pandemic. Are you still planning on producing that when you have an opportunity to do so?
LC: It broke my heart to postpone Hitler’s Tasters, and I hope WomensWork will still produce it when the time is right. Written by a woman, with an all-female cast, the play is a powerful story set during World War II, but the similarities to today are startling. There’s lots of humor – selfies and talk of movies stars – but danger is ever present. It’s a play I feel passionately about bringing to our audiences.
KB: WWTC’s work is geared toward creating theater for and with women over the age of 40. Has having a specific demographic in mind informed how you’re looking ahead right now?
LC: The over-40 female demographic is always front and center for us, because women are often devalued just as they reach the height of their talent and expertise. WomensWork wants to amplify voices of women of all ages, while putting the decision-making in the hands of older women. Looking ahead, the WomensWork team will search for and select plays they want to direct, design, act in, work on and bring to the audience. And with women over 40 picking the plays, you can be sure the focus will stay fixed on finding opportunities for older women.
KB: Of all the groups I’m checking in on, WWTC is the one that was formed more recently, even though its artists are all local luminaries. Is it particularly difficult to have to take a pause so early in the group’s journey?
LC: It’s frustrating to pause just as we’re hitting our stride. We had a successful soft open last year with My Left Breast, but this was our first full season. Both Last Lists of My Mad Mother and The Madwoman in the Volvo were well received, we were finding our footing, getting our message out, and building momentum. WomensWork is all about stepping up instead of sitting back, so it was hard to hit the brakes.
KB: What do you think the gap is going to look like between the time when the government says it’s safe to do theater again versus when audiences will actually be comfortable going to the theater again? Do you think this will have a permanent effect on theater attendance?
LC: There may be a long gap before we feel safe coming together in tight quarters, but we need to gather. I keep thinking of my kids sitting in a circle at story-time at the library years ago. Whether we sit in a story circle or staggered seats in a black box, we need to share our stories together in the same space. Necessity will make us re-imagine or re-configure that space, but theater folk are resourceful – we’ll figure something out. Attendance could suffer in the short term because of safety concerns, but theater will go on. It has to.
KB: I know you’ve had an incredible career both onstage and off. As someone whose spent a significant amount of time behind-the-scenes looking at the business side of theater, how are you feeling about what it’s going to take to make it to the end of the tunnel with many theaters still financially intact? Is this something organizations can withstand?
LC: The business of theater is precarious in the best of times, and I fear for the large institutions with payroll, lease, utility, insurance and other ongoing obligations. Small theaters that live lean have better odds for survival. It’s especially tough in a little state where so many are competing for a small pool of donors and grant funding. I hope for everyone’s survival, but dark days are ahead.
The immediate future is likely minimalist – small cast shows, spare sets, limited seating, tight finances. WomensWork specializes in intimate, small cast plays, professionally produced on shoestring budgets, so we’ll be ready as soon as it’s safe.
KB: Has having to be away from theater changed your mind about what kind of future projects you want to work on? For all of us, losing time to be pursuing our passions is difficult, but do you think it’s going to force us to start to prioritize the kinds of plays we produce, act in and direct?
LC: These lock-down days have given me plenty of time to examine my artistic priorities. I keep coming back to the cliché “Women’s work is never done.” Our stories need to be told, and I want to help tell them in a collaborative process that nurtures, encourages and empowers women. I want to work again, as soon as I can, and I want every play I work on to be worthy of being my last project. I want to fully invest in it, to be proud of the effort – whether it succeeds or fails. Another priority will be watching lots of work by local artists – I think I miss that most of all.
KB: Has WWTC thought about venturing into the digital content realm? Have you had conversations with the other Founding Mothers about that?
LC: Digital programming is open for discussion. I applaud the effort of theaters to put out content and stay connected, but I’m old school. I’ve enjoyed watching it, but it doesn’t replace what I’m missing – live theater. Some of the Founding Mothers are more tech savvy than I am, and they’ll drive the decision-making in this area.
KB: How can people help the theater right now? What are the donation links, and is there anything else they can do other than staying home and staying safe?
LC: We can raise awareness by liking and sharing the social media posts of our favorite arts groups. Most of us can’t financially support all the organizations we support emotionally, so pick one or two, and give what you can.
WomensWork is lucky to have a place to play without the burden of a lease, thanks to The Artists’ Exchange, an organization that champions arts for all abilities. You can donate to this worthy organization at artists-exchange.org
And vote. Please vote.