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INTERVIEW: Carin Bratlie Wethern of Theatre Pro Rata

Some of Artistic Director Carin Bratlie Wethern’s notes for Theatre Pro Rata’s 2022 hit production of Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando.

In a 2011 article for The Guardian, Lyn Gardner asked, “Why do some arts organizations survive and thrive while others wither and die?” This was not idle speculation: coming in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Gardner was commenting on a shrinking arts environment under attack. With the COVID-19 pandemic, answers to Gardner’s follow-question seem especially important: “What are the secrets of longevity and continued creativity?”

In many ways, the challenges from a decade ago seem very familiar in the Age of COVID: shrinking and aging audiences, competition from new at-home entertainments, loss of traditional funding streams, and widespread and ongoing economic disruption. If you were looking to start a theatre company – or keep an existing one in good health – it would not be a bad thing at all to look at the companies with a track record of electrifying success, avid donors, and eagerly returning audiences. One such standout company is Theatre Pro Rata, a still-scrappy arts organization whose lean but powerful approach to arts-making has filled Twin Cities stages and seating for two decades.

Founded in 2000, Theatre Pro Rata (the last two words generally translate to “in proportion”, often referring to how both benefits and responsibilities are assigned) has been led since its inception by artistic director Carin Bratlie Wethern. Over two decades of productions, the company has visited the Minnesota Fringe Festival, set up in residency at Gremlin Theatre and Park Square Theatre, and birthed critically acclaimed production after production.

The Arts Reader’s Basil Considine spoke with Carin Bratlie Wethern as part of a new series spotlighting the creative leadership of Minnesota-based performing arts organizations.

Carin Bratlie Wethern, the founding artistic director of Theatre Pro Rata.

You’re the founding artistic director of Theatre Pro Rata, with a history with the company going all the way back to 2001. What was TPR like in the early days, and how is what you do now different from your work as artistic director back then?

Pro Rata is as scrappy as it’s ever been, but over the past two decades we’ve worked to refine our process and make as much as we can better. We’re always reaching out to our artists to see how we can improve our work.

You’re a member of the Society of American Fight Directors. Given all the other things demanding your attention as artistic director, is this a creative outlet that you get to exercise very often?

I’ve let my SAFD work go fallow, so it’s an easy answer. I just use that knowledge for TPR projects, and I don’t accept outside work at this time.

I have a young daughter, and part of my refocus on family was to let some other things go… fight choreography, freelance directing, and teaching theater were some of them.

One of the works in the next season, By the Bog of Cats, is fairly well-known in Ireland, but not frequently produced in the United States. How did you first encounter this play? What are some of the factors that led it to being included in the season?

We read Bog of Cats in our play reading series a few years ago. The consensus at the playreading was very positive: it’s moody, tragic, gothic Irish; and while echoing Medea, it chooses not kings and queens, but ordinary people to embody the everyday tragedies of ordinary lives. The characters are clear and specific but still recognizable.

There is a strong love of language woven throughout the play.The single day timeframe allows the various back stories of the characters to emerge in compelling ways. We knew immediately that it was the right fit for our artists and audience. We expect it will elicit the same audience and critical praise as our other classic-based and Irish Gothic productions:

  • The Convent of Pleasure – “A company that’s been doing good work for 20 years, a strong cast, the feminist theme, and the promise of laughs make this a must-see.” – Cherry & Spoon
  • The Minotaur – “A curiosity that revisits a mythic story with fresh concerns and insights. While its execution is lighthearted, the heart of the matter contains some serious questions and ideas.” – Talkin’ Broadway
  • The Beauty Queen of Leenane – “A beautifully written play that’s as funny as it is devastating, that bittersweet uniquely Irish feeling, a terrific cast, spot-on direction” – Cherry & Spoon

What are two theatrical productions with other companies that you are very interested in seeing this year – and why?

Sandbox Theatre is doing some collaboration with aerialists this season, I’m excited to see what they create. Although the Playwright Cabal isn’t an official production company, they are nurturing some great local playwrights and connecting them with producers all over the country. Worth checking out!

Name a favorite coworker at TPR – and why.

I like them all.

TPR has its Company Mentorship program. When and how did this come into being?

We started the Company Mentorship Program about a year ago. We saw a number of new small companies coming out of the pandemic and wanted to give them support as they are starting out. It’s our way to support emerging companies in our Twin Cities theater community and pay forward the knowledge we’ve learned to the next generation of small theater makers. More info is on our website.

Basil Considine