THERE'S LITTLE DOUBT on a September afternoon who is most enjoying the south Minneapolis rehearsal space/storage heap occupied by Frank Theatre: artistic director Wendy Knox's golden retriever Moe, who patrols around picking up everything he can get in his mouth (a hairbrush, assorted scraps from previous Frank productions). Finally he goes too far.
"You can't have that," Knox scolds him. "That's (Jungle Theater co-artistic director) Joel Sass's egg from Venus."
She refers to the play, not the planet, and it's an apt allusion. Frank's 2006 production of Susan-Lori Parks's drama about a South African woman trapped in a Victorian freak show encapsulates much of what Knox's theater is about: raw immediacy, high-impact symbolism, and a wedding between the aesthetic and the political located in authors as diverse as Sam Shepard and Bertolt Brecht.
This time out, Frank is staging Danai Gurira's Eclipsed, the story of five women living as "wives" of a military officer in Liberia during its recent civil war. Intense but poetic, written in dialect, the work stares down injustice and tenuous hope without a note of condescension to the characters it portrays.
"I didn't know the play, although I knew vaguely what it was about," Knox says. But after corralling some actors to read it around a table, "I had a sort of feeling like what I imagine a Frank Theatre audience member must feel like. It was like, 'Ouch, oh God,' and wanting it to stop, and then wanting more, peeking through my fingers because I was afraid of what was coming next."
Watching the Eclipsed cast later that afternoon rehearse a tricky scene, in which two crisscrossing conversations shifted back and forth from line to line, it is evident that Knox can be as cerebral as her productions are intense. She listens for long stretches, saying little, then interjects with thematic observations that seem rooted in her desire for each actress to locate the emotional core of her character.
At one point, a performer asks Knox for very specific direction on when to look at her counterpart in the scene. "I can do that," Knox explains. "But I hate to do that." She suggests that the actress dig into the core of the exchange between the two characters; the little things, she suggests, will follow. Knox, who is known in the theater community as a talker with scarce regard for her inner censor, turns out to be quite an active listener as well.
"At Frank, we generally have a pretty horizontal power structure in the room," Knox explains after the rehearsal. "But in the end, it boils down to the fact that everybody does have a job: actor, set designer—we all have our jobs to do. I'm anything but 'my way or the highway,' unless push really comes to shove. We try to digest ideas and find a way to put it in the pot and make it work—but in the end, directing is like being an editor. You have to make a call."
Knox's approach works more often than not. The company staged its first production in 1989, and in recent years has been itinerant, staging works in locales as disparate as its rehearsal space, the Guthrie's Dowling studio, and an empty Pillsbury mill by the Mississippi River.
"I wish I could have that fucking mill," Knox says wistfully. Eclipsed is playing in the considerably more straightforward space at the Playwrights' Center.
Knox is more than willing to break out of the roaming theater model, and she cites Frank's 2007 production of The Pillowman at the Guthrie as "really important for our currency." She has also directed outside the Frank tent, most notably on local stages for The Sound of Music at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts.
"We've all been whores," she says cheerfully at one point. "I directed The Sound of Music."
THE CONVERSATION TAKES an interesting turn when we begin discussing her directing of The Santaland Diaries later this year at Hennepin Stages. She directed David Sedaris's comedy last year, with commercial success, in Syracuse, New York, and Portland, Oregon. But when she approached the Guthrie about staging it in the Dowling Studio, the organization balked. Despite a 20-year directing track record, she says that major players on the local scene have "commented on my lack of chops to direct on big stages.
"It chaps my ass," she adds. "Give me a fucking job."
Knox walks a continuous artistic line between love of theatrical text and a willingness to see it wander into borderlands where unexpected meanings and subtexts appear—which probably scares off theaters focused on filling big rooms. Of course the question arises: Is that fear founded? Or is a willingness to challenge audiences as great a virtue as the impulse to please them?
For her part, Knox is sanguine. She notes that she's heading off to Portland to direct Santaland after it opens in Minneapolis.
"Better keeep workin' that Santaland gravy train," she says with a laugh.
In the next breath, though, she's describing the play as "an alternative to holiday saccharine," along with a few choice words about the Guthrie's trumpeting its latest incarnation of A Christmas Carol.
But while Knox can be as unstinting and acerbic as the shows she directs, she's also warm, open, and thoughtful when discussing the possibilities of theater for expanding audiences' expectations of art and life. She is the engine that drives Frank, but she's at her most sunny, almost giddy, when talking about the community of performers and technicians who have come with her on her journey (during the Eclipsed rehearsal, she takes a moment to lavish a love bomb on actress Shá Cage, who clearly reciprocates). And speaking of Sedaris's play, she accentuates its sense of compassion and connection.
"In that piece, Sedaris makes these outsider observations—but he doesn't do it to necessarily put people down," Knox observes. "He's kind of delighted by the absurdities, and he knows about doing it with some sort of love in your heart."
A warm and fuzzy from a director who loves to outrage, and who doesn't back off from speaking her mind about the price she's paid for her uncompromising vision: It seems Wendy Knox is a tangle of contradictions (just like the rest of us). She's also one of the most purposeful, relentless, and consistently surprising artists in town. Ultimately, though, it's clear she's not inclined to beg your pardon.
Eclipsed plays at the Playwrights' Center through October 10. For reservations call 612.724.3760.