Jan Levine Thal once said Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre (KRASS) would never perform a play by Sarah Ruhl. To her that also meant KRASS would never perform one written by Paula Vogel.
This year, they’ve broken the first rule and now are about to break the other.
That isn’t to say Levine Thal — KRASS artistic director and co-founder — and the leaders of KRASS don’t appreciate Ruhl or Vogel, rather that so many others produce them already. The company tries to embrace writers that aren’t largely produced.
If there are 50 female playwrights being produced and five or six are well known, the other 45 are our primary focus, Levine Thal said.
After Levine Thal read Vogel’s “The Mineola Twins,” she thought it would be a great opportunity for KRASS — a choice made just before the 2016 presidential election.
She said she thought it would be an interesting play to tackle thinking the country would currently have its first female president.
“I didn’t think there was a chance Donald Trump would get elected,” she said. “People think Hilary Clinton is a feminist, and I have opinions about that, but (I thought) it would be interesting to do a feminist play and question what feminism is.
“We’re surely doing that, but not how I meant to.”
“The Mineola Twins,” a socio-political satire, spans the presidential administrations of Eisenhower, Nixon and the first Bush as well as the lives of twins Myra and Myrna (who are both played by Suzan Kurry.) Although identical physically the twins’ viewpoints are drastically different.
Following not only the three different presidents, the play also tackles how the two women adjust through the women’s movement.
Despite their ideological differences, the twins retain their unbreakable connection to one another.
Their need to understand the other is one of the most surprising parts of this play, stage manager Christen Cook said.
“We see them both wanting to have a better relationship with one another and be closer even though they are so different,” she said. “The way that comes out in the play speaks to how things are today.”
Something that especially fascinated Cook was how the play, which is set decades ago, depicts families split apart by political affiliations — something households are still facing today.
“The Mineola Twins” first premiered in 1996 before getting an Off-Broadway run with Roundabout Theatre Company in 1999.
Nichole Young Clarke, who plays multiple characters in the show and is KRASS co-president, said political plays aren’t representative of KRASS’ typical repertoire.
She said the organization tries to encompass all variations of work done by female playwrights who can write about anything and everything.
“(Female playwrights) just want to write and be part of the world, too,” she said.
In a heated climate, it might seem difficult to stage politics with levity; however, the humor provides the play with an escapist quality for those involved.
The play is fun while also having a lot of meaning which makes it more powerful, Cook said.
“I enjoy that element of theater,” she said. “It kind of takes you away and lets you use your imagination.”
Still defining itself
KRASS was founded in 2008 and even though its 10th anniversary is approaching next year, the company is still evolving.
Levine Thal co-founded the company with Heather Renken and Ben Emerick in a time when plays written and directed by women were rarely done in Madison professionally or otherwise. The company is named for Katherine Mary Rasmussen, a poet, playwright, writer and activist who died in 2007.
The organization performs plays written and directed by women.
Before founding the company, the minds behind KRASS held a community meeting. Levine Thal was not optimistic about the turnout.
She said she expected maybe eight people to show up, but to her surprise, more than 40 people came out.
“It was clear that there was interest in having this women’s theater,” Levine Thal said.
As a community theater organization, KRASS has the opportunity to do work that professional groups might not do for fear of not garnering large enough audiences.
Gail Sterke, former KRASS board member, called Levine Thal “brave” for choosing “edgier” plays at times.
Attracting audiences is always a theater group’s concern whether the show is edgy or not, she added.
“Live theater is hard to sell,” Levine Thal said. “But I’m so glad it exists and people are willing to do it. I think when people go for the first time it’s not what they’re expecting. They’re expecting it to be boring or stuffy or something they don’t understand — I don’t know what they expect.
“Part of my mission is to get people in the theater who haven’t been in the theater before.”
KRASS, along with other area companies, is making an effort to produce increasingly diverse work and engage further with the larger community through talk backs, Levine Thal said.
Creating a dialogue through the arts is “the kind of thing theater can do,” she said.
For their production of “Detroit ‘67” last fall, KRASS curated talkbacks after a handful of performances. These experiences, which immediately followed the shows, created opportunity for varied discussion.
“If you call for a community forum on racism some people might show up, but audiences coming to a play are a broader group of people,” Levine Thal said. “Every night someone told me they had been in Detroit in 1967, including people who walked in off the street.”
After a decade KRASS is still dedicated to highlighting the work of female playwrights while using the area’s plethora of female directors.
This company isn’t about lecturing audiences or making them think negatively about women’s theater, Young Clarke said.
Levine Thal said the group is also well aware of the changing world and dynamics around the concept of gender, which KRASS takes very seriously as well.
“One of the things happening is we are seeing more transgender theater,” she said. “... I think we’ll be in that arena as well. There is so much having to do with gender identity that is appropriate for a women’s theater. We don’t know where that will take us, but let’s hope it’s someplace fantastic.”