Artistically Speaking: Part One: An Interview with Venus Theatre’s Deborah Randall by Cate Brewer

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Deborah Randall is the founder of Venus Theatre. Deb has been producing and performing around the DC area professionally since 1985. In 2012, Deb was the recipient of the Alumna of the Year Award for Visual and Performing Arts at UMBC, Director of the Year award for Devil Dog Six, and Best Actress in a Play in 2012 for Punk Rock Mom on DCMetroTheaterArts. Some of her directing credits include: Three Bad Girl New Play Festivals in the summers of 2002, 2003, and 2004. Cigarettes and Moby Dick in the Warehouse Theatre Attic (Curve Magazine Play of the Year Award 2005), Ugly Ducklings at the Warehouse Next Door (Curve Magazine Play of the Year Award 2004, nominated for an American Theatre Critics Award), The Molly Project (also written by Deb) at various venues and now published in an anthology entitled Anthracite!

Deborah Randall.
Deborah Randall.

As a performer Deb has worked in film and television and been seen on various DC stages. She has performed four solo shows, and toured two of them on the East Coast. At the Play Shack Deb has produced 46 scripts in seven years on C Street in Laurel, MD. The mayor and city council rezoned the area as an arts district and construction across the street is underway for C Street Flats. This will include 140 loft-housing units and increase the foot traffic and visibility of Venus Theatre Companies storefront sometime in 2014/2015.

Cate: How has the culture changed for women in the Washington area theatre from 1985 to now? What has improved? What has gotten more difficult?

Deb: Over the years a lot has changed. Almost everything. In the 80s and 90s you could come upon independent work all over the city. Today, there’s very little done that’s not under some larger umbrella. There were a lot of spaces left “in transition” so access was fairly abundant. Ideas were kind of popping. The 90s into the 2000s we saw storefronts drop roots, especially on 14th Street. The Studio Theatre was a corner storefront with an office maze upstairs. The Source Theatre was very similar; the stairway to get up to the administrative offices was a narrow and almost hidden thing. The entrance was through an alley. and Woolly was in the bowling alley basement with pillars in odd spaces. This cluster kind of represented what theatre can really do for me. It can break through the concrete floor, into the basement of a preexisting building and yield brave and risk taking work. As Douglas Development signs appeared more and more throughout the city the climate slowly changed.

I remember talking to HUD about that Wonderbread factory and taking polaroids all over the city of places I may land my company. I had no idea that performing in an upstairs corner of a bookstore in DuPont Circle, or in the back of 1409 Playbill, or for so long down the alley and into DCAC, or in every nook and cranny in the Warehouse would someday be something I looked back on with a kind of sentimentality. Then, these spaces that were affordable/accessible/incentivized were disappearing. So the back of bars became more popular. MetroStage was a great host. I remember hearing stories of baby monitors used as back stage warning speakers.

In 1999, I attended this forum at the National Museum for Women in the Arts. It was a panel of female directors speaking on their careers: Joy Zinoman, Molly Smith, Catherine Flye, and others. It was interesting how intellectual and formalized the theatre world was becoming. That was a critical moment for me because I began Venus officially after my experience at that forum.

Each time we structure, you know, we both lose and gain something. When I look around now and see chasm between the campus and the world it’s a bit jolting. Talking to Freeman Hrbrowski about it over dinner for the awards ceremony was really interesting. Seeing the place I trained now so heavily funded and speaking to the students has been a real gift. It’s difficult to summarize. I’d just say there’s value in being scrappy. But, that still needs to be funded. At that Forum Ms. Flye said, “Theatres are made of people, not bricks and mortar.” And, I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. It’s essential to have the key to the ‘Room of One’s Own ,’but it’s also essential to invest in the artistry over the ego. And, that’s something that I’ve been observing over the decades.

We often hear the repeated rhetoric that theatre is dying as an art form in America. Do you believe that? If so, what do you think can or should be done to restructure the models currently used in most regional theatres?

Wow, Cate! That’s a gigantic question. I wish I had the answer in terms of business model restructure. But in terms of art, no. I believe that there is a human need for it that goes back to the beginning of our collective experience. Because we need to connect, we need this vehicle of empathy; we need to process on a communal level. As artists we must create;as an audience, we must take the journey. I believe in the power of that immediacy and intimacy and I am certain that no other form can replicate it, much as they may try. Because what I do at Venus really does take much of my energy.

I’ve just had my first weekend off in five months and had the great pleasure to spend it sitting through the non-equity auditions. I really don’t have the information to speak on how others should run their businesses. But, they are businesses, and they have to survive. So, as the culture and the world changes, theatre structure must (I think) find the pliability to shift with the times. For me, theatre lives in the soul of the artisans so it won’t ever die in terms of that. But, I do think there is a missing language.

Looking at what Peter Brooks says in A Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate that one day there will be one theatre ticket worth millions of dollars and one person sitting in the audience to watch the show, I think he had his finger on the pulse of it. As commerce, it’s really tricky, and that’s not what I want to do. So, there’s the missing language. I think that theatre is so many different things, and when it gets whittled down to one narrow definition then it may go extinct, but that’s a matter of perception really. We are very politically correct. We don’t want to insult or hurt anyone’s feelings. And, that is not interesting theatrically. So, the safe stuff needs to die, in my opinion, because it’s just too dull to live.

I miss the understanding we used to have about the importance of the black box and the storefront, the innovation that came with that. You had to be on board with a true visionary. Otherwise it went flat. Now, we have so much technology. Venus is run off of two laptops now and we have full light, sound, and video capability. This is great. But, not having it forced me into see the work in terms of its own merit. I think we rush to fix things and sometimes they aren’t broken, and sometimes they are. But, becoming fixers is different than taking risks and sometimes intentionally breaking a convention. If anything will kill us it will be the ego of kindness that prevents the talent of the boundary pushers from being known.

How has your vision for Venus changed since you founded it – both the positive and negative changes?

There has been a fairly consistent movement from idealistic to pragmatic to nurturing in terms of my own approach to the vision, which has remained the same.

On a positive note, we’ve grown close to a hundred scripts and put hundreds of actors on stage. Negatively speaking, learning to guide and manage artists is a long journey. The Venus experience reflects the spaces and climates I’ve been dwelling in over the years as much as it’s simply a result of growing up. Growth is a choice, by the way. You know, you come out of the educational institution and you feel these tools are just waiting for you. For me, I expected without question a certain level of access and understanding, and it took about a decade to realize that some people simply didn’t know what the hell I was talking about or doing. The established people really didn’t care what I was doing because they were out to get theirs, and this sense of mentor apprentice only existed for me in educational institutions.

Then came the pragmatic phase. I remember having yard sales to pay rent and paying for space by the hour, $20 per hour. I remember rehearsing for free in the stacks rooms of libraries. Because there was no slack you know, everything was measured for me. I quite literally had to pay for every minute so if someone were 5 minutes late more than once, without calling, I likely would cut him or her out for wasting my time. Overall, there was just a wide space for misunderstanding because I had not accessed the language to describe what I was building. Without knowing it, I was operating out of a place of entitlement, and that is always a miserable experience. I had to find my own empowerment if there was any chance of empowering anyone else.

Deborah Randall (Jamie). Photo by Curtis Jordan.
Deborah Randall (Jamie) in ‘Punk Rock Mom.’ Photo by Curtis Jordan.

I think reaching the nurturing stage has come with having our own storefront space, which was a result of integrating decades of lessons. It’s a home base. And people feel that energy. Many artists say it feels like home. And visitors sort of claim it as their discovery. And that’s been a really beautiful experience. I think I can track the shifts with the decades. Going into my 20s – in the 80s and 90s – I romanticized the vision. I wanted to change the whole world. And, that left me sometimes bullied, sometimes uplifted. I think in my 30s – in the 90s and 2000s – I started to grow a backbone and had to learn retrospectively how to temper that. I once fired an actor on the sidewalk and as she was crying asked for her script back. When an actor was trapped in a bathroom because of a broken door lock, I kicked the door in. When a director continued to go backstage and give notes as we were opening, I banned her not only from the theatre, but also from the street. So, 20s to 30s were quite a swing for me. Looking back I see how intense and inappropriate my actions were at times. At the time I was ruled by passion and that passion fueled everything. I mean, it was hard to form a sentence without getting worked up into a lather. And if you were going to compromise my work or my people, I was going to compromise you.

Once I got into a more permanent space and put lots more work under my belt, in my 40’s something shifted. For the first time in my life, and this is the truth, I felt like I was home. The vision to be diligent about the work has never changed, but theatre has taught me a lot. I still cut an actor’s stipend in half because she was late for call four shows in a row and then she threatened to sue me. I was willing to go the distance. I think I’ve found a balance and I think the big realization was that in order to fulfill the mission of empowering women I had to BE empowered myself. So the creative teams and every single person that touches the work is essential. The question now always goes to entitlement vs. empowerment. And the litmus test is that people who are entitled begin sentences with, “I have to…” and people who are empowered begin sentences with, “I get to.” It’s about the energy in the room and now that I have a room I’ve been able to invest in that.

You know, building a theatre company takes a lot. And, when you are constantly reinventing the wheel by shifting from one space to another you are backsliding to begin again. That builds muscles of endurance but the frustration also builds. The same goes for funding. When I see the small black boxes of a few decades ago now standing tall as the dominant structures, I feel happy for them and resentful that those incentives are not in place for my generation of theatre builders, men, and women.

If you could somehow change the current theatre community for women for the better – what would you do?

During the month of December I’m working on writing a piece that will put into terms what it is that I am building. We need to shift the language. Without that we are trying on age-old polyester bell-bottoms and wanting to talk about contemporary fashion. You know, it’s incompatible. It doesn’t work. As women in theatre we are essentially small minority business owners. And that’s very different than theatre corporations. Wrapping our brains around that is essential because it’s very much akin to living in a corporate world where there is an expectation of competing with the corporate car service, while trying to keep our old clunker on the road. They are quite different animals. We’re always hearing about small business being the backbone of America. That’s what independent theatre is to the corporate theatre model. And, they’d just as soon crush it and renovate their two-year-old structure as drop a dime in the small business vending machine of survival. I’d like that to be understood very clearly and without sexist interpretation painting women as being emotional over this.

Someone once told me that it was okay that I went without insurance and much of a living wage because I was “living my dream”.. I say, “Tell that to the mortgage company when the bill is due or my tires when they go flat or the Dr. bill dare I have any kind of ailment.” As women, we need to figure out how to stop paying our way with cell tissue. You know, we sacrifice too much. We need to talk numbers and ask for what we are worth. And we do, often times. The problem is it continues to fall on deaf ears. There’s nowhere to put what we are saying. No true receptacle. So we have to create our own models and build our own structure – build our own audiences and believe in our own knowledge rooted in our own experiences. Even critical analysis after a work is (miraculously) produced is sometimes rife with misunderstanding over what the show was supposed to be. Because the language is still largely absent.

I’ll add some advice too: I’ve spent years being annoyed by people who take an idea of mine and then create some derivative watered-down version while trying to push in front of me in some strange perceived line. Usually, it’s another woman doing this. I’ve had all kinds of reactions to this over the years. But, I would advise anyone in my position to engage in the race. I mean, SPRINT! I mean, give them something to steal, something really pure to imitate, and keep running like hell, because we cannot have enough women on stage. We can’t. It’s really not a contest. And, if these people who take on my model and then experience the lesson in reality that comes with this life can stay standing…more power to them! This perceived line of status is a red herring to keep us divided and powerless. And if we insist on putting strong women on stage long enough; if there are enough of us who can somehow find a way to remain standing; if we collectively add pressure the effing glass ceiling; if we evade the victim mentality while understanding the sacrifices must be made but cannot be permanent, then we will create a whole new industry. Creating that new industry is the absolutely only way to truly move forward – as far as I’m concerned.

At UMBC I was invited back to speak as an entrepreneur, and that felt really wonderful. I think that as opportunities have vanished, new ones have arisen, and I want to frame that based on 30 years of experience as a female theatre founder. We get to build whatever we want, you know? I want to put more diverse women on stage, and I want to not care if this personality validates it or that publication deems it real. I want to create on such a level that the walls shake and the earth moves and everybody starts to dance a little and they don’t care why. I want to believe that as my friend Carolyn Gage says the work IS the reward. I believe this will happen by opening up our respective channels of creativity to some connection to our own truth and then investing in technique and craft until it’s no longer detectable. I believe theatre is alchemy and for women, that it is here to tell us that we are beautiful, and powerful, and intelligent, and sexier with every year.

What are some advantages for female Artistic Directors who are working in Washington, and what are some disadvantages?

The advantages with the ‘good old boys club’ is if you show enough leg and cleavage they’ll pay attention to you, which is also exactly the disadvantage because they aren’t really listening. So, what’s the point outside of an exercise in amping up an insecure ego? It is about as far away from being about the art as anything could possibly be. There are more and more of us, and we are supported by wonderful friends and family who love us and believe in us. And, I think there’s power in that. For me, I’ve produced work that people sometimes remember decades later. And that’s where the power lives. In DOING the work. How to bring it to the surface remains the battle. The only thing to do is change the paradigm. We are standing on the shoulders of giants. We need to honor them and their work. We need to lose the collective amnesia fueled by some engrained conditioned legacy of self-hatred and empower ourselves to get far far away from the entitlement mindset. It’s a process and it takes time. We have to love ourselves unconditionally. We have to love our work collectively and grow into the women we were born to be because now we can. Many died so that we could have this opportunity, and it’s nothing to take lightly.

Deborah Randall.
Deborah Randall.

Are you proud to be a female Artistic Director? Do you think that fact strongly influences your season selection and mission statement?

Without a doubt. I don’t know what else I would do, I mean if I were a male or a transgendered person I think I would still do the same work. I don’t think we should focus so much on what’s behind the zipper…said my 20 and 30 year-old self. But today, I think bringing the female perspective into a tangible language is absolutely critical. I had an incident during a show this year where I attempted to explain to a male actor that 80% of women are survivors, so, that if he were to overplay his role to amp up the anger, not only is it bad acting – but it actually will trigger people.

This was a difficult experience for me. I had to come out of my artistic role and really try to find a way to speak for the majority of women to a man who brought a rape energy onto my stage that he wasn’t even aware of. There were a lot of emotions to sift through in doing this, the least of which was coming to terms with the fact that I had to have the conversation…AGAIN…after a lifetime of integrating. It brought up a lot of frustration, fury, feelings of inequity. Looking back, I think it was a gift, because people who haven’t lived it usually don’t know it. Those of us who are lucky enough to still be standing also have the ability to express. And what theatre does, unlike anything else in the world, is build the empathy muscle. And, that’s what I get to do with my career – build empathy muscles by doing everything in my power to create strong and compelling work.

If you could tell potential audiences anything about Venus, what would it be?

CIMG2959.220123108_stdWell, by the summer of 2014 Venus Theatre will have produced more shows on C Street than I will have walked years on this planet. We will close 2014 with our 50th script, so this is not a startup, and it’s not the idea of random groups of people. This company has a vision. We only seat 30 people and our lobby is called the Shacky Chic Boutique. It features 7 female artisans and their handmade upcycled one-of-a-kind wares. Venus has produced writers from all over the world. It’s a place to visit if you are an adventurer, if you want to experience theatrical risk-taking, and if you believe that love wins. Always.