Breaking All the Rules

Following a different script: Workhauss Trista Baldwin, Deborah Stein, and Dominic Orlando
Richard Fleischman

Every theater company, large or small, regularly faces the same dilemma: how to put warm bodies in the seats while staying true to its mission, its artistic aspirations, and every artist's compulsion to reach out and communicate with other humans. While no one has found the template that works every time, the local Workhaus Collective is staging its first full season with a dauntingly ambitious agenda: It's putting playwrights in charge of the creative process, and it's staging works that have never been seen elsewhere.

"We're talking a lot about getting the audience into that locker room of new play development," says Workhaus's Trista Baldwin. "Seeing things less dressed and more raw."

Along with Baldwin, playwrights Dominic Orlando and Deborah Stein form the core of Workhaus. All three were brought to the Twin Cities because of foundation grants, and after deciding to stick it out, they brewed up the Workhaus paradigm as a way of meeting the mid-career challenge of what to do next. All three talk about wanting to do more in the theater than plant words on the page. As a result, each will serve as artistic director of the company during production of their individual plays.

"I probably go to see music at places like First Avenue more than I see theater," Stein admits. "It's cheaper. I can guarantee something exciting will happen. So part of what we're doing is keeping our ticket prices low. I want to find that unmediated relationship between the stage and the audience. And if all I wanted to do was write dialogue, I'd go try to work for HBO."

Orlando's A Short Play About Globalization kicks off the Workhaus season early next month. It uses the real-life murders of women in Juarez, Mexico, as a springboard to examine our historical moment.

"The play deals with the idea that, once you reduce everything to economics, people are just commodities," Orlando says. "Everything is simply about how much money we can generate."

And the same could be said for the theater company, perhaps unfortunately—its finances are one of its primary concerns, no matter how elevated its ambitions. The Workhaus trio, veteran writers who have seen their work staged in a variety of venues, are aware they're pushing the rock uphill, but they seem quietly confident.

"We aren't saying, 'How are we going to take the theater world by storm?'" Orlando says. "We asked, 'If we started something, what do we want it to be?'"

"People in the theater worry too much about commercial viability," Baldwin adds. "So give it up. We don't want to have a theater company per se. The reason we're doing this is because we're obsessed with changing the process—and connecting to our audience."

Workhaus is stubbornly dedicated to its new work ethic. "You have to crank them out, one after the other," Orlando says. "That's how you create a culture."

As a result, when Baldwin's Sands was recently picked up for a production in New York, it was scrapped from the Workhaus schedule. Baldwin has until next year to come up with something new. Before then, the company is staging Stein's God Save Gertrude.

"It's a punk-rock riff on Hamlet set in a modern-day war-torn country," Stein explains. "Gertrude is the first lady. She's sort of like Debbie Harry, but she sold out. If she can get back to her punk-rock roots she can save the country. It'll have a live band, and I'm taking the bleachers out so it feels more like a club."

While I'll admit to getting lost somewhere between Hamlet and Vaclav Havel when Stein explained the show to me, the potential for a serious fun factor came through. And while getting three playwrights together to start a theater company might not be a sure-fire recipe for success, the Workhaus triumvirate seems to have a frighteningly laser-like focus on the coming year. For those who thrill to being in the first audience to see an all-new work, these new plays are like unopened presents under the holiday tree: very promising, full of potential, and for the moment rattling around like tantalizing enigmas.

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