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INTERVIEW: Amber Bjork on the Winding Sheet Outfit and Cooking through a Pandemic

Veni, vidi, workspace. A 3D arrangement of notes used by Amber Bjork when working on the 2019 theatrical show You Are Cordially Invited to the Life and Death of Edward Lear.

Mention the name Amber in a Twin Cities theatre and the theatre people will know exactly who you mean. Outside of a global pandemic, Amber Bjork is an arts administrator by day, helping to keep the Minnesota Fringe Festival’s moving parts going. By night, she is in award-winning director and curator of highly distinctive and engrossing theatrical experiences, notably with her company The Winding Sheet Outfit.

How has pulling the theatrical equivalent of a double shift worked out? Pretty well, if you look at the stack of awards. Under Amber’s leadership, The Winding Sheet Outfit became one of just three companies to win a pair of awards from this publication (for 2017’s The Memory Box of the Sisters Fox and 2018’s Blood Nocturne). Their show You Are Cordially Invited to the Life and Death of Edward Lear, which Amber directed, walked away from last year’s Fringe festival with a pair of Golden Lanyard awards. To crown 2019, City Pages capped off the year by naming Amber a Twin Cities Artist of the Year.

If art imitates life and life imitates art, however, both have been vying for “most interrupted” in Minnesota life these past two months. The Arts Reader spoke with Amber about the show she was preparing when life (and live, in-person entertainment) ground to a sudden halt.

Amber Bjork: award-winning director, arts administrator, and show creator.

Before Governor Walz’s first order banning large gatherings, what did you have planned creatively for 2020?

The Winding Sheet Outfit was one of the companies slated to perform in Five Fifths (the annual Fringe Fundraiser), and of course, we were already getting ready for our Fringe show in August. I had also been in talks with an organization that was interested in a later remount of that show, as well as a possible return of our tent/shanty show The Theatre of the Tiny Clandestines. I had also applied for Twin Cities Horror Festival, hoping to have a project out in October. (Even though they had not made selections for this year, I had my fingers tied in hopeful knots for that.)

I actually threw a lot of irons into the fire this year hoping that at least a few of them would happen and help us gain momentum…and then because of COVID-19, none of them did.

Tell me about ÅRSGÅNG: What You Follow Follows You, the show that you had on the slate for the 2020 Minnesota Fringe Festival. What inspired this particular show? 

The idea for ÅRSGÅNG came from a podcast where a host mentioned the Swedish tradition of the Year Walk. It caught my attention because I love mythology, superstitions, folk beliefs, all that, and I’m of Swedish decent…but I had never heard of the Year Walk before.

I asked others who might have better mythology knowledge than myself, and it was new to them as well. It is so dark and weird that I went searching for information, but there’s not a lot out there. The practice was considered divination (and therefore witchcraft), therefore technically illegal under older Christian laws at the time…so nothing was really written down. Everything about it was handed down orally and, because of that, the particulars vary from region to region.

I discovered pieces of it coming together in handed-down New Year’s traditions of people I knew with Nordic heritage, and caught sideways mentions of it here and there in researching some of the creatures involved. Our shows come out of learning and these moments of unexpected wonder, and so it was the natural next topic.

Where was ÅRSGÅNG in the development/rehearsal process before things came to a pause?

We had actually done a workshop showing of 10 minutes of material for Minnesota Fringe’s Drafts & Draughts last April. Since we want to play with uncomfortable silence and genuinely reacting to the sounds around us – including the shifting of a human audience – we used the showing as a true workshop to see what could be done with that.

The patron feedback was exactly what I was looking for, so we moved forward and planned for it to be our 2020 show. Our cast is set. Our costumes, masks, props, set, musical instruments all ready to go. The research is almost done and the plot and characters have been outlined. All we needed was the time to get into the rehearsal room and build the show together.

A set of masks created by Derek Lee Miller for ÅRSGÅNG: What You Follow Follows You, The Winding Sheet Outfit’s planned show for the (now cancelled) 2020 Minnesota Fringe Festival.

You co-founded The Winding Sheet Outfit circa 2012. What were some of your goals for the company when you started? How have these evolved since?

It’s funny you ask that. In this time when everyone is being generous to theater performers and companies, I have had patrons asking me how they can donate to The Winding Sheet Outfit, and they’re surprised when I tell them that they really can’t. TWSO is a company name for a group of people that like to work together, but is funded by one individual. We are not a non-profit, so we cannot take donations; we can only make money by selling tickets, merchandise, and writing grants for individual artists. And, weirdly enough, that was always my goal.

When TWSO started, I was part of Theatre Pro Rata and my partner (Derek Lee Miller) was a company member with Sandbox, so I had a lot of experience and knowledge about the hard work it takes to run a non-profit theater company. Those companies are still like family to me and I am still invested in supporting them to progress and succeed. But I knew right away that I never wanted TWSO to get to the point where anyone involved had to think about it like a business.

One of the most fulfilling theater experiences of my life was being in a cast that had to do a performance for an audience of two very rapt patrons that braved a blizzard just to see that show. The combination of their appreciation of the show and the cast’s mutual giving of their best performance for just two people was something I will never forget.

I’ve learned that when it comes to making art I am more interested in the emotional margin than the profit margin, where I measure success by the ability to twist a heart than the number of butts in the seats. When it comes to money, I can make theater with very little spectacle–I just need brilliant, willing artists who want to tell a good story. My primary need is to be able to pay my people, because they are the magic that makes the show. Everything past that is gravy.

In that sense, with our successes at Fringe and in projects like the Art Shanty Projects and Springboard’s Irrigate, TWSO has surpassed all the goals I ever had for it. Now I just want to keep working with wonderful people and making good stories, and get to a point where I can pay them more. I have so many more ideas in the pantry. If I had to stretch a wish out into the universe, the next thing I’d love is a residency….so, y’know. Everyone’s golden dream.

Speaking of pantries, home cooking is enjoying an unusual renaissance (complete with a preceding plague) right now in Minnesota. Have you embarked on any culinary or baking adventures since stay-at-home orders began?

My favorite non-fiction tv genre is cooking shows. A good chef is like a magician to me, and watching them work effortlessly with ingredients and measuring by eye is like watching an alchemist at work. I’ve never been much of a cook and wish I had easier skill with it, but I’ve definitely gained new confidence in the kitchen in the last few months.

Preceding the pandemic, I went through some health issues and went on a gluten-free diet for a while. That forced me to make a lot of my own meals and prepare to bring food with me where I went. Now that I’m actually able to make a good meal for myself, my main challenge right now is figuring out the puzzle of 14 day planning. I only want to go out to the stores once every two weeks, but I want to gather and use fresh ingredients. So I like to plan out the order of my meals to make fresh food, but use everything efficiently before it spoils. If I run out of something, I challenge myself to sidestep or substitute and see how that goes. I’m slowly learning; the best teacher is necessity, right?

(To expand on how to support TWSO, we are asking people to donate to Minnesota Fringe. With our limited budget, they are one of the only ways we can afford to produce right now, so helping Fringe to survive helps TWSO to create.)

On the About Us page for your company, you include an expansive “Past Collaborators” list. In the context of The Winding Sheet Outfit, what does the collaborative creation process look like for a show?

Generally, I approach some artists with an idea and hope that they like it enough to come and work on it with me. I do a lot of research, bore the cast to tears with too many details, and then we play. I’ll come into the studio with a moment that needs to be built and throw some words at them, give them time on their own to create some movements, do improv, or free-write. They’ll present their work to each other. We’ll talk about it. I’ll go to my computer with all of their words and ideas and form it into a scene or a song and bring it back to them the next day. And we massage that.

Then we do another moment. And another. They become scenes and then more scenes. The rehearsal room is a very safe place, so everyone is free to try anything and make mistakes, because sometimes it’s the mistakes that are the funniest/most beautiful/most sincere. They can be really honest about what they like or don’t like, what works for them, or what they feel might be missing.

As director, I try to glean suggestions from everyone and use the things that touch them the most–the artists are as much a test audience for their work as they are the creators. It’s my job to shape the creation along the lines of the story into something accessible for our audience, and make a map for an emotional journey, but it’s the artists who collaborate and do the building. That’s why they often feel so perfect for their roles – they are their roles. They are the show.

While I can prepare background information for a show, give it a concept and a few set characters or plot points, I never get too far beyond that before I go into the rehearsal room. There’s no way I could write a script that would be anywhere near as beautiful or weird or wonderful as what a handful of really open hearts in a rehearsal room can make with a few prompts. (And maybe some sticks and a toy piano.)

A visual synthesis of audience feedback for ÅRSGÅNG created by A Visual Spark by Amy Spark at the April 2019 Drafts & Draughts event hosted by the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

You studied English Literature at the University of Minnesota Duluth. What process brought you down to the Twin Cities?

Well, that’s a long and winding road! It was theater in Duluth that brought me to my then-fiancé, and that guy convinced me to move halfway around the world and use my degree to teach English with him in Seoul. I was there for two very formative years of my life; I was over there for 9/11 and the 2000 election.

I made friends with other teachers from all over the planet and traveled extensively during that time. I learned so much about different cultures, what makes us all the same, about love and regret. My fiancee and I learned enough about ourselves that we broke off our engagement but remained very good friends. He returned to Minnesota. I stayed to teach another year.

When I came home, I stayed with my parents for a while down near Rochester. I was aimless and depressed and he reached out with his big ol’ heart. He was going on tour with Troupe America and told me – nearly ordered me – to come up to the Cities and take care of his apartment for the month, look for a job while I was here, and get settled. I’m so grateful to him for pushing me to come here. After being here for almost 5 years, I ended up moving to L.A. for a couple of very miserable years, only to realize that Minneapolis was my home. The theater community welcomed me back, and I will forever love it for that.

At what point did you start working for the Minnesota Fringe as a staff member?

I started working at Fringe in September of 2014. At that point, I’d been a patron for years, performed in a number of Fringe productions and directed a few. As TWSO, I’d only produced Birds of Passage (Fringe 2012) and The Theatre of the Tiny Clandestines (Irrigate 2013). I didn’t have any plans for more TWSO shows at that point and was concentrating on directing at small theater companies around town. I kept applying to be in the festival though, but didn’t get chosen again until 2017.

Basil Considine