April 2, 2001
An interview with
by Lynn Trenning
Michael Bigelow Dixon, longtime Literary Manager, and recent Associate Artistic Director, of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, is departing Kentucky after the 2001 Humana Theatre Festival, to become the Literary Manager of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
He spoke with Lynn by phone during the 2001 Humana Festival.
When are you leaving?
April 6th. I'm moving, and my partner Val Smith will stay in Louisville to finish up theatre work and meet me later.
You've been in the south so long, are you frightened to move north to Minneapolis?
Frightened, no! The idea of doing theatre near the Artic Circle is exciting. I wanted to start The Polar Cap Rep, but this is as close as I can get. But seriously, this is a wonderful time for the Guthrie. They are building a three-theatre complex and expanding their repertoire from primarily classical theatre to include new plays. They have a three-year window for planning and preparation, and we will be using that time to prepare for a theatre that will be significantly different than it is today. That will mean long range planning toward developing new plays.
Minneapolis has a plethora of theatres. The arts seem to be much more well attended there, than here, in Charlotte, NC.
It is colder in Minneapolis. People like to be inside. I don't know. I'll have to figure why it is a big part of the culture. The politics of Minnesota are much different from NC. I don't really think it's because it is cold.
What will the changes bring?
It will be a different experience for their audience. They have oodles of subscribers, who have obviously been attracted to the great classical work that the Guthrie has done. They've communicated their plans with the audience. The Guthrie won't replace the classics. They will produce plays that deserve many productions.
Will you decide what plays are performed?
Oh no. My job has little authority and some influence. The Artistic Director is Joe Dowling.
Will you miss choosing which plays are performed?
Gee, I won't be able to copy edit hundreds of plays in my new job.
Are you taking a vacation between jobs?
No. We're in the middle of the Humana Festival, and I'm finishing up here and going there. I didn't want to leave before the Festival, and the Guthrie has been waiting for me.
Has there been a dominant theme in the plays chosen for this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays?
No, because the work is selected without a theme in mind.
Have the plays sent to the Humana Festival improved since the first years of the Festival?
No, though I guess you can say that the years of attending to American playwrights and the new American play have paid off in that there are more high quality scripts being submitted. I think that is because the playwrights of 15 years ago are still writing, and there are many new people writing too.
Tell me about the ten-minute play.
ATL has been championing it for 25 years. They did it at their 2nd year of the Humana Festival. It is great form for both emerging and established writers. It allows established writers to experiment, and emerging playwrights to succeed and fail. It allows you to finish the play and move on to the next one.
How are they different from three-minute phone plays?
Of course they are physically different. The ten-minute play is on a stage. Phone plays are auditory experiences. They are great eavesdropping experiences that give you enough of a conversation to imagine more. Both forms need to suggest more than they say. Both of them challenge writers to deal with character conflict from the first line until the last line. There is no time for tangents. The writer has to learn to be succinct and dimensional.
ATL has had a 10-minute play contest since 1990. They've received 25,000 and have published eight or nine volumes of 10 minute plays, one of them in Spanish. I think we've put about 200 plays into publications. They've been the best seller in Samuel French's catalogue, which is saying something.
The shorter forms speak to something very important in our culture at the moment: a diversity of style of format. You allow the diversity of the culture to be reflected in the overall format. Diversity of race and gender, aesthetics, experience, world view.
Why is a purely auditory experience desirable?
It demands that the audience engage with the language and use their imagination to fill out that world. It distills it down to one essence of playwriting.
Have these plays been picked up by other media?
Well, the rights of the plays belong to the playwrights, but I think HBO has looked at a few of them. Particularly with the form of micro-cinema on the web, these pieces are being looked at.
How does the Festival work?
Plays stay in a rotating rep on three or four stages. This year we are doing three 10-minute plays in serial form. It's called Chad Curtiss, Lost Again, by Arthur Kopit. This is the sort of thing that makes sense in a festival format. This is another way that the ten-minute play allows us to experiment.
I read that ATL receives about 3,000 plays received annually, and a total of around 66,000 since 1978. How do you read 3,000 plays?
It is blue-collar job. You sit down and turn the pages so that you are not run over by the assembly line. We work in annual cycles. Psychologically, I take a new physical position each time I start a play. I'll start at the desk for one, and sit on the floor for the next, and lay down for the next. That is one way of getting through the day.
The Humana Foundation sponsors this Festival. What are your feelings about a literary endeavor taking the name of a corporate sponsor?
I think it is a great trade off for playwrights and artists in America to have this type of long-term support, which is absolutely unique for corporate funding, to do work that they are passionate about. Given the annual amount, and the longevity of the contribution, I think that Humana deserves recognition and I am pleased that they get it.
Do you think theatre in Minneapolis will be more liberal than Louisville?
No, I think the core audience that has been experiencing theatre in Louisville has been the most adventurous audience. Experiencing new theatre has been part of the audience psyche in Louisville for years. The festival is six weeks. On the weekends, it is possible to come see four or five or six plays.
Lots of people come from out of town on the weekends, but the rest of the time the audience is local. Part of the success of the Festival has been finding work that will interest a producing director, excite actors to come and work on them, and will intrigue international audiences that come to the theatre. One of the ways the Festival has succeeded is to offer enough to interest all the people in these groups. The audience represents over 20 countries. People keep coming back.
During your tenure the Guthrie will be performing new plays. Do you have any interest in creating a festival in Minneapolis?
It could be playwrights in residence, it could be festivals, I'd be happy with any of them. As far as I know we are just getting started.
There is so much entertainment available these days. Several theatre companies in Charlotte are having trouble filling their seats. What are your thoughts?
Certainly, how the culture values the arts is a distressing issue in America. Clearly, there is competition. Secondly, it has forced theatre artists to address what is distinct and unique to theater, and to pursue that wholeheartedly in defining themselves in the marketplace.
Tell me a play that you love.
Six Characters in Search of an Author, by Luigi Pirandello.
What do you love about that play?
That it plays with ideas of reality and perceptions, while at the same time giving the audience great stories and fascinating characters.
Is directing something you are finished with, or do you intend it to be part of your future?
I've directed four plays on the main stage at Actors Theatre. It is an area of interest I will get back to.
Are you a playwright?
Val and I have written 10 minute plays and two children's plays. We have put out 27 books of plays criticism. There are 700 plays of publication from Actors Theatre in 25 years.
Why do you want to be Literary Manager at the Guthrie?
It's a great opportunity for American playwrights. It is a win-win-win situation for everyone. Another theatre serious about pursuing the New Play is good news for American playwrights. On an annual basis, I've been a part of enough rejections for playwrights. The Guthrie will become a place that provides new opportunity.