Nov/Dec
2018

Women behind the Curtain: Rochester area theatre directors

Written by Debi Neville Photography by dawn sanborn Photography
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THE TITLE “ARTISTIC DIRECTOR” IS LISTED IN NEARLY ALL PROGRAMS OF LIVE THEATRE, FOLLOWED BY A NAME. Sometimes the first page contains a note from the director with thoughts about the playwright, the actors or the overall production. That’s about all we know of the person behind the curtains—the one who assembles the designers, cast and crew; the one responsible for helping each actor realize their full potential resulting in a remarkable, memorable and profitable show; the one who quite possibly is entrusted with the fate and future of the theatre itself.  

It’s a long and winding road that leads a director to be the driving force behind the curtain, and for women sometimes the road is fraught with bumps, twists and turns. Southeast Minnesota has numerous women who have traveled the road and are now successful and prolific theatre directors.

SHE PAID HER DUES
Cheryl Frarck has worked her magic on numerous stages. “I began as a drama director while teaching at a high school,” Frarck says. “That was almost 50 years ago. I was frustrated with the lack of importance the drama department was given and subsequently the lack of respect for the drama director.” She wanted to focus on educational theatre, to “create generations of theatre lovers.” Frarck made an impact on the high school stage for many years before making the transition to community theatre.

 

“There was a dinner theatre in Rochester, Top of the Rock, and the gentleman involved gave me the opportunity to act and then, in a leap of faith, direct. I had to pay my dues so to speak,” Frarck explains. That leap of faith has led her to the stage in Mantorville, the Rochester Repertory Theatre and many others. Is it more difficult for a woman? She says, “Maybe, maybe not. Multitasking is the key.” 

Frarck has written her own scripts and prefers to direct a play that asks for “the truth of human response” whether drama or comedy. “It needs to speak to me,” says Frarck, “help me learn something about myself and others.” She still hopes to direct Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.”

OVERCOMING CHALLENGES
Perhaps you have heard Laurie Helmers sing, seen her act, noticed her name on programs from Spring Valley to Rochester and points west and south. She began by playing Daisy Mae in “Li'l Abner” in college. A voice and piano teacher, Helmers says her directing career kicked into gear when Stewartville Community Education wanted to do a musical and she took on the director role. 

“It’s a challenge for any director to get actors, volunteers and crews. A director puts on whatever hat is necessary,” Helmers explains. Having directed in many venues she finds it most challenging to work with schedules of facilities and actors. “I’ve had to practice in my home, on a lawn, a church basement, you name it. It’s like putting pieces of a puzzle together. I love directing; the nuts and bolts of it are a challenge. Women bring sensitivity to the direction, finding the special moment that makes everybody involved feel important.”

One of her favorite productions is “Suite Surrender” at Rochester Civic Theatre. As director and actor, she says it was a perfect blend of actors, set and script. Always on the lookout for the next good script, she is open to different opportunities.

FROM ACTOR TO DIRECTOR
Having performed and directed in many rural communities as well as Rochester, Suzie Hansen brings a wealth of experience to the newly formed Absolute Theatre as one of its founding members.

“Going from acting to directing seemed like the natural thing to do. Being able to create the overall picture in your head is rewarding. You have access to every character and can influence the interpretation. Yes, lots of work and pressure bordering on craziness, but rewarding,” Hansen states. 

“Women bring awareness to the audience. A subject might be sensitive, but if the audience needs a laugh, we laugh. It’s entertainment,” says Hansen. “Men and women have different views on the same subject, so a play will look different when in the hands of two genders.” 

The musical “Robber Bridegroom” is much loved, and Hansen has directed it multiple times. She’s written numerous mysteries and performed for charities. Opening night, she says is “nerve racking,” but she tries to sit back and enjoy it.

BRINGS LIFE TO THE THEATRE
Talent behind the scenes and on the stage speaks for itself. Such is the case with Misha Johnson. After college, and a lengthy stint in a theatre company, she returned to her hometown of Rochester. Putting her musical, acting and directing talents and experience to good use in a variety of ways, she likes having her hands in all of it. “A director’s job is to bring theatre to life and life to the theatre,” Johnson states.

 “Challenges I have faced are not so much as a female director, but being a young director,” claims Johnson. Taking on the bigger, more nonconventional musicals and presenting them in a unique way has been her most recent forte. “There is no one way to direct. Scripts may have stage directions that can be followed or used as a guide or ignored. The beauty is that each is open to interpretation.” 

Johnson has offered innovative programs for youth in Rochester and Denver, Colorado. She cites Rochester as a fertile ground with room to grow.

LIFETIME OF CHANGES
Jean Skattum has directed for somewhere around 60 years. “Boy, I’ve seen a lot of changes in that time,” she explains. A theatre major in college, she often worked with the local community theatre in Winona. She gained experience as a high school teacher and drama director.

Her love of theatre led her to work with the people who were involved in Rochester’s Top of the Rock Theatre. They decided to start a professional theatre company. “We quickly learned it was not profitable but wanted to continue so we formed a nonprofit and became the Repertory Theatre.”

“The theatre itself puts their trust in you when you direct, as well as the actors, and in the end, the audience,” Skattum says. “It’s a tremendous responsibility.” Soon, she will be directing “Avenue Q” at the Repertory. Laughing, she explains, “That deals with current issues through the use of puppets, monsters and actors. It’s funny and inspirational.”

One of her proudest moments was when she directed “Wit,” and Mayo Clinic asked them to perform for their staff. It then resulted in taking the play on the road. “It’s a legacy I won’t forget.” 

FINDING THE LITTLE NUANCES
“Carousel” was the first play Kathy Keech directed. “It was a big project my brother in Chatfield sort of coerced me into,” Keech admits. Theatre was her major in college and after graduation, she was busy with theatre in New York and the Guthrie in Minneapolis. When not offered a directing opportunity, she was more likely to be building sets. She also taught, acted and choreographed, which are more traditional roles for women in theatre. She returned to her home territory to work and raise a family. Taking an eight-year hiatus, she returned first to acting, then directing.

“I like seeing the growth of the actors when directing. It’s an enjoyable process to put together a group. Everyone in community theatre has limited time available,” she explains. “It requires major organizational skills, finding the little nuances that enhance the show, with the focus on audience entertainment.” 

One of her favorites plays is “Children of Eden,” while “Mamma Mia!” is on her bucket list. She will be directing “Blood Brothers,” an engaging but ambitious production at Absolute Theatre. “I never take directing for granted,” she adds.

YOU CAN NEVER DO ENOUGH PLANNING
What began as a plan to become a commercial artist turned into a theatre degree after Joan Sween accepted a role as Joan of Arc in college. “I was seduced by the group of people who worked together and became a family. It was a lot more fun than standing in front of a canvas,” Sween recalls. 

Her directing debut was a murder mystery performed in the Saint Marys School of Nursing. She has directed and performed in several plays in numerous locations. “I enjoy seeing your personal interpretation of a script come to life,” she says. “If I have seen a play I want to direct, I aspire to do it better.” You can never do enough research or planning, she advises. A major issue is scheduling. Allotting enough rehearsal time with so many actors leading busy lives makes it a major challenge.

 

“Miracle Worker” and “Inherit the Wind” remain two of her favorite directing experiences. Sween's background includes being a successful costume company entrepreneur, business owner of Feast and Footlights Dinner Theatre in the Holiday Inn Downtown Rochester and the originator of a widely acclaimed national playwright contest. Now semi-retired from directing, Sween is a prolific playwright and artist.

Debi Neville shares her experiences with Local theatre

I was a learn-as-you-go director. Finding myself back in my hometown of Spring Valley after getting married, my love of theatre led me to found Brave Community Theatre. There weren’t many community theatres or female directors. My youth and inexperience made me blind to the odds of success. 

With the help of a dedicated “family” of actors, a supportive family at home, and despite the difficulties of space, money and time, Brave Community Theatre is finishing its 46th year.  During that time, I have had the privilege of directing high school plays, working with other theatres in numerous capacities and having my original plays performed.

Theatre is a major part of who I am. It can make reality more real, examine stereotypes, blend pop culture and politics with floodlights and enable us to laugh and cry and truly see ourselves. 

Directing is a marvelous journey with an exciting destination. Bravo to these directors and many others who continue on the path to another opening night!

Debi Neville is a freelance writer of poetry, plays and stories. She lives in Rochester with husband, Pat.

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