Feature: National impact

Jasson Minadakis propels Marin Theatre Company forward

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Jasson Minadakis, artistic director of the Marin Theatre Company, has created a national profile for the theater by featuring original productions by new playwrights. Credit: Marin Theatre Company. Photo courtesy of Marin Theatre Company.

By David Templeton

“Don’t get me started.”

Jasson Minadakis, one quickly notices, uses that phrase a lot.

“Don’t get me started.”

For the record, when it comes to talking about theater—especially the kind of expectation-defying, definition-challenging, artistically fearless theater Marin Theatre Company (MTC) has become known for over the 10 years that he has served as its artistic director—it is not at all difficult getting Jasson Minadakis started.

On this particular afternoon, MTC’s energetic artistic director has taken a bit of time out between rehearsals to talk about his first decade at the helm of the North Bay’s premium professional theater company. Throughout the conversation, he recalls various plays he’s produced or directed along the way. He’s just been discussing, for example, last year’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, which—the night before this interview—was awarded the prize for Best Bay Area Production at the annual awards party thrown by the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Out of nine awards won by MTC, including honors for The Convert and The Oldest Boy, Choir Boy took home a total of six, including one for Jason Sherwood’s amazing set design.

The set, as has been much discussed throughout the Bay Area theater community, incorporated several working shower stalls, which appeared to produce actually steaming-hot water.

“Oh, that was hot water, definitely,” Minadakis says. “It was an important part of the overall design of the show. We wanted real water, and it had to be hot water, because we wanted to see the steam rising as the actors went through that particular scene. Realism is extremely important in telling particular stories. And realism is often very, very complicated to carry out effectively.

“But don’t get me started.”

It was in the summer of 2006 that Minadakis was chosen to replace MTC’s previous artistic director, Lee Sankowich. A certified theater-world legend, Sankowich leapt to national fame after an insanely popular production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in 1970. Adapted by Dale Wasserman from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, the play had failed on Broadway in 1963, but surged to prominence in 1970 following Sankowich’s hugely popular production in Marin. Sankowich resigned his post in 2006.

Before departing, Sankowich delivered one final triumph—his February 2006 production of Tracy Letts’ viciously dark Killer Joe. With its bloody storyline and full frontal nudity (male and female), the satirical crime-thriller set a bold new direction for the traditionally conservative company.

As it happens, Minadakis’ own popular production of Killer Joe, at Actor’s Express, in Atlanta, Georgia, was part of the impetus that inspired Sankowich to choose Killer Joe as his final production at Marin Theatre Company.

“The way I understand it,” Minadakis says, “is that MTC was looking for an artistic director who was an established expert at cutting-edge American plays. Killer Joe had been a huge hit. Ironically, when Lee decided to do Killer Joe, it was partly because of the positive reviews the show got when I did it in Atlanta. He’d been thinking of doing Killer Joe for a while, and when he read my reviews, and saw how well my production had been received, he felt like he could make the case that this was a show that could do well for Marin Theatre Company.”

Minadakis pauses.

“Does that make me sound arrogant?” he asks, with a laugh. “Oh my God! That totally makes me sound arrogant. I’m not saying I have anything to do with the success of Lee’s final production. I’m just saying—I think it’s really cool that we have that connection. Because, that was an important play for me, too.”

In many ways, Killer Joe is the link between two very significant phases in the history of Marin Theatre Company. The organization is celebrating its 50th year just as Minadakis celebrates his 10th year in Marin.

Asked how the transition from Georgia to Marin went, Minadakis laughs.

“I love Marin,” he says. “It was such a good move. Artistically, though, I think I could have accomplished the move a little bit better. The first play I picked for MTC was The Subject Tonight is Love, a play about memory loss by Atlanta playwright Sandra Deer.”

It was, he says, an “interesting” play to start out with.

“I was trying to pick the perfect play for my new community,” he says, “and I think I overthought it. It was fine, but I don’t think it really told people in this community who I was as an artist. I should have tried to pick the perfect play to introduce myself to Marin County, rather than pick a play I thought Marin County would like.”

His second play in Marin was John Kolvenbach’s Love Song, about a reclusive guy who falls in love with a figment of his own imagination. The show was extremely well reviewed, and ended up on a number of Top 10 lists for 2006.

“I probably should have started with that one,” Minadakis says with a laugh. “It was a little more my style. It starred Darren Bridgett and Julia Brothers, who were brilliant. That was a really beautiful piece. I love that play.”

So did everyone else. It officially marked the arrival of Jasson Minadakis.

“What the board told me, when I was first interviewed,” he says, “was that they wanted things to change. They wanted Marin Theatre Company to have a national presence. They wanted the company to make a significant footprint. We had a lot of conversations about what that footprint would be.”

Even before he was announced as the new artistic director, Minadakis knew how the company could make that kind of a mark, not just on the Bay Area, but across the United States.

“The way to make that happen is to court the best playwrights in the country,” he says. “The best way to really have an impact on the American theater, is to get to know new playwrights—and to be able to focus on new writers exclusively.”

In Minadakis’ second year, MTC announced two brand new nationwide playwriting competitions—The David Calicchio Emerging Playwright Prize and the Sky Cooper New American Play Prize.

Each comes with a sizable financial award, and an assurance that the play will have a shot at a world premiere production at Marin Theatre Company.

“The new play prizes allowed us to create more of a national profile for the theater, in terms of the accessibility playwrights had to the organization,” Minadakis says. “When we started this, most other theaters were scaling back access for playwrights. It was becoming harder and harder for unknown playwrights to actually get their plays read.”

Because of this, Minadakis believed that it was vital that playwrights submitting original works to MTC were assured that they would get a fair shot.

“You are guaranteed to get at least a 10-page sample of your play read, if not the full play,” he says. “That’s absolutely important. We are guaranteeing that playwrights who submit new plays through our competitions, will have verifiable access to our artistic staff.”

One of the competitions is named for local theater-supporter Norton J. “Sky” Cooper, whose interest in the health of new American theater inspired the award.

“[He] gave us $40,000 per year to make this happen,” Minadakis says. “The impact of his donation, to this organization and to the community of emerging playwrights in this country, has been incredible.”

The Sky Cooper award, similarly, has propelled MTC into the national scene in an enormous way.

“Early on, Sky Cooper asked me, ‘How are you going to find the next Tennessee Williams?’ I answered that the only way to do that is to read as many new American plays as possible. Specifically writers who don’t have agents yet, and who haven’t been through an MFA program.”

The result has been that each year, MTC receives more and more new plays from across the United States. Last year, the entire MTC season consisted of new or very new plays.

“Every once in awhile, I hear someone complain about the decline of American theater,” Minadakis says. “I tell them that’s nonsense. I know. I read these plays myself. The state of American theater has never been healthier than it is now. There are emerging voices that, and I’m not exaggerating, are moving theater ahead in amazing, beautiful, extraordinary ways.”

Many of those new voices, Minadakis believes, will find their very first audience at Marin Theatre Company.

Asked to provide a hint as to what stories those new playwrights will be telling at MTC, and what kind of influence they will have on the future of American theater, Minadakis laughs.

“They’re going to change the world,” he says, quickly adding, “Don’t get me started.”

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