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INTERVIEW: The Ladies of PRIME Productions on Little Wars and More

Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas in their apartment in the early 1920s; the pair hosted many dinner parties with literary luminaries. Photo by Man Ray.

It’s relatively uncommon for a new company operating under an Actor’s Equity Association contract to suddenly appear in town, so when PRIME Productions announced its launch in March, the announcement turned heads. A key part of the company’s mission is its focus on celebrating older women, who are frequently marginalized or simply not represented at all on the stage. The voices of women “in their second act” are at the heart of the company’s debut play, Steven Carl McCasland’s Little Wars. Basil Considine interviewed PRIME co-founders Alison Edwards, Elena Giannetti, and Shelli Place about this new endeavor.

How did you and the other founders of PRIME Productions come together? Was there a specific catalyst for forming the company in 2016?

Actress and PRIME Productions co-founder Elena Giannetti.

Elena Giannetti: I had been watching and personally experiencing the real struggle that women are still facing to this day, being relegated to a “less than” and weak status by society, not just in theater, or TV & film, but across the board. For me, it’s been simmering for over 5 years.

The catalyst for me came with feeling that I finally had a voice strong enough to be able to speak for the others that cannot. I was speaking to Shelli Place – whom I had directed in the Fringe show (ironically called) A Certain Age – about seeing yet another theater’s season announcement that featured less female actors than the year before and only one or two roles for mature women, and how frustrating it was becoming to continue in a career that we love.

Alison Edwards, having recently relocated here from New York, was standing nearby and walked up and said, “Have you ever thought about starting your own theater company?” Shelli looked at me and said, “Well, that can’t be a coincidence!” And that was it! That was when I knew that we could actually be the “agents of change” we wanted to see in the theatrical community.

We started discussions that afternoon and we became a machine… and here we are about to open our first Professional Theater Production under an Actor’s Equity Association contract!

Steven Carl McCasland’s Little Wars is a fairly recent work. How did you come across it and what made you decide to program it?

Actress and PRIME Productions co-founder Alison Edwards.

Alison Edwards: I was going back to New York to move out of the apartment I’d lived in for over 20 years, and leave the city that had been my home for over 35 years.  We’d compiled a list of plays we wanted to read and in the chaos of getting on the road and the anxiety of the change I was making…I forgot the list, and neither Shelli nor Elena had it or could recreate it.  So I went to The Drama Book Shop, hoping something would jog my memory – only to find that the plays were all alphabetical, not by title but by author. So I just began to scan the store in hopes that something would jump out.

On the Staff Picks shelves, I noticed a play with an intriguing cover. I immediately recognized that it was the Lillian Hellman’s “What becomes a Legend most?” Blackglama ad with her face erased (my first job in New York was for a furrier in the 1980s). So, of course I had to check it out and when I saw the cast list with those extraordinary women ranging in age from 22 to 62… I knew we had to at least read it!

Lillian Hellman’s 1976 ad for the Blackgama brand of mink fur coats. The tagline “What becomes a legend most?” has been used by the American Legend Cooperative since 1968, and also became the title for Alice Kessler-Harris’s biography of Hellman.

Shelli Place: After reading many other women centric plays, we decided that this play was the best fit for PRIME”s mission and goals. Story aside, the main reason for choosing Little Wars was the number of dynamic roles for mature female actors. And as a Director, I really wanted to sink my teeth into such an intriguing script and have a chance to work with some very experienced actresses.

The play is billed as “having the best what-if dinner party you can imagine” with a list of literary greats. If you were having your own dream dinner party related to theatre and other literature, who would you invite and why?

Shelli Place: Well, we all had our favorites but if we listed everyone we wanted to invite it would have to be a banquet! So we have decided to hone it down to contemporary women who are still living. Some are legends, some are pioneers but all are women who are all fearless, intelligent and have a twinkle in their eye of playful wisdom that we would love to soak in:

  • Actors: Helen Mirren, Bette Midler, Shirley MacLaine, Betty White, Carol Burnett, Susan Sarandon, & Kathy Bates.
  • Writers: Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Gloria Steinem, Paula Vogel, Fran Lebowitz, Isabel Allende, & hometown girl Sarah Pillsbury.

And who wouldn’t want Christiane Amanpour and Maureen Dowd added to the group! Of course, with a table like this, it would have be featured in Vanity Fair and we would love to have Annie Leibovitz shoot it!

One of the “about” texts for PRIME states that the company “seeks to explore, illuminate and support women over 50 and their stories.” I’ve often heard older actors speak of a narrowing of the roles that they can be cast in as they get older. What are some of the challenges of being an older actress in this field? What stories aren’t being told and/or told the way that you would like them? 

Little Wars director and PRIME Productions co-founder Shelli Place.

Shelli Place: It’s very simple: there are not enough roles written for the mature actress. There is an awareness of this out there, but the short-term remedy seems to be to write about women in rest homes or having their children trying to take over the family business or home or determine how they will live. These women’s roles are not usually that of the powerful “matriarch”, but rather marginalized as being “weak”, reduced to being a plot point, or even made “invisible” and just spoken about while “mother is in the next room” sleeping.

Our goal is to find plays with more meaningful and substantial roles of women over 50. To find playwrights who appreciate the need for such roles. To encourage women (and men) of a certain age through focus groups to come forth with the issues in their lives they would like to see portrayed on stage and through an annual play festival, [and] showcase this topic and concerns, so that more full-length plays can be developed and presented.

Your cast is filled with names that I recognize from stages and playbills. Given PRIME’s focus, how did you do casting for this inaugural outing?

Shelli Place: We posted an ad on Minnesota Playlist introducing PRIME Productions, the play, the dates of the Staged Reading and Spring Production, the character breakdown, and the opportunity for diverse casting. What was shocking was the number of responses we got. So many talented women, so many AEA professionals that I had never met, with decades of experience. After looking at all the resumes and specifically looking for women with period-style experience (the play is set in 1940), we called in almost 80 people. The actors all brought their “A game” and there was so much genuine excitement for the project. At the call-backs, I realized I could have cast this show 3 times over – it was amazing.

In some cases, there were two people [considered] for a role that I wanted, but [who] were available for the reading or the production, but not both. Greta Oglesby could only play Gertrude for the reading and Candace Barrett Birk was leaving for London and could only do the production. Bonni Allen could only play Lillian for the reading and Vanessa Gamble was only available for the production. All of these women know and adore each other, so I got the best of both worlds and it was a win-win for everyone! How often does that happen? The cast is rounded out with the terrific talents of Laura Adams, Elizabeth Desotelle, Alison Edwards, Miriam Schwartz, and Sue Scott.

The show banner for Little Wars.

Portraying well-known historical figures on stage has some challenges due to the interaction between audience expectations – however narrow or inaccurate they may be – and a tendency to reductionism in our culture. As the director, how are you guiding the characterization process for this play? 

Shelli Place: As the director reading the play for the first time and realizing how much I loved these characters and the potential of giving mature women the chance to play them, I had to make a decision on how to proceed. My decision was [that] this is not a documentary. We are not trying to replicate these ladies.

I realized early on that some the audience might know these the ins and outs of these women and we could never achieve the ideals they might have in their minds. But plays are about the dynamics between the characters and if the connections are believable, it will work. In the staged reading, we had Greta Oglesby, an African-American, playing Gertrude; the non-traditional casting brought a new dimension to the Gertrude and Alice relationship and their feelings of being outsiders. [Editor’s note: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were lovers and life partners, living together for almost four decades.]

Think of the era and how that relationship would be even more maligned. It has nothing to do with the woman we, historically, know as Gertrude Stein, but has everything to do with the relationship between Gertrude and Alice.

We can use a lot of the history about these iconic women to enhance the characters and their relationships, but, above all, even though most of them knew each other or had been in each other’s company at one time or another, this meeting is fictional, it never happened. Therefore, we invite the audience to sit back, delve into the creative maze of Steven Carl McCasland’s imagination and enjoy the journey.

Do you provide dramaturgical materials, send your cast outside reading, etc.?

Shelli Place: We did supply dramaturgical materials to the cast but these ladies are pros and started researching on their own as soon they were cast. I suspect they will know more about their characters than I do. In fact, I’m counting on it!

What’s up next for you?

Shelli Place: PRIME Productions is my main concern right now. It has to be: starting new business, even with three of us, is challenging and time consuming. However, we all continue to audition around town. Personally, I have a list of theaters and directors I would love to work with as an actor. I am also looking for future directing opportunities. Our company is not a vanity company, and we will not always be acting in or directing our productions. The only thing we have agreed upon is that one of us will be the Producer for each PRIME Production.

What’s up next for PRIME?

Shelli Place: [In] Fall 2017, we will present a number of staged readings, as we continue our effort to discover relevant material that serves female actors in their second act. We will also be working with our advisors on our long-term strategy that includes: an educational component, a touring arm and developing possible co-productions with other theater companies.

Spring 2018 will be the launch of our new works play festival in a non-traditional format: Little Plays – A PRIME Production festival of short plays. This will allow us to use a myriad of female actors “of a certain age” playing meaningful roles, along with their stage relations & cohorts (both male and female actors of various ages). The plays will address issues that have been discovered through the various focus groups that we have held this year.

[In] Fall 2018, we will produce our next fully staged production. Although we are into pre-production for our inaugural endeavor, we are also in the process of evaluating scripts for our next offering that meet our mission. [This is necessary] so that we may secure the play’s rights and venue, while giving us enough time to apply for grants and build our base of theater patrons interested in the values and goals of PRIME Productions.

Little Wars runs May 5-21 at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine