Sonya Berlovitz may be one of the Twin Cities’ best-known theatre artists you’ve never seen on stage. Her unique designs have draped actors from Theatre de la Jeune Leune, The Moving Company, The Guthrie, Ten Thousand Things, and many more locally and around the country. She’s also a writer, a painter, and a fabric artist -- and the primary caregiver for Jennie, her 97 year-old mother.
Sonya is one of three McKnight fellows through the Playwrigths' Center. The annual fellowship program recognizes Minnesota theater artists other than playwrights whose work demonstrates exceptional artistic merit. In addition to the $25,000 fellowship, the McKnight Foundation provides up to $7,000 in development funds to McKnight Theater Artist Fellows, allowing them to build new theatrical works with collaborators they choose. Throughout the year, the fellows receive artistic support and resources from the Playwrights’ Center to develop these new works. The showing on June 26 shared these collaborations as works in progress: “Familie” by Sonya Berlovitz, “Pulling a GROIN” by Thomasina Petrus, and “Follies” by Kimberly Richardson.
On the morning we met for coffee, Sonya was taking her mother to the hospital to address some dizzy spells. Jennie would be performing in Sonya’s piece several nights later alongside Sonya’s sister, the acclaimed actor Barbara Berlovitz, and they wanted to make sure their mom was at her best. Jennie hadn’t performed since high school (which, by my calculation, was circa 1937), but Sonya had been working on her McKnight piece from the start with her mother in mind. “I look at my mom and I still think she’s a beautiful woman,” she explained. “But by societal standards -- even me and my sister too-- as we age, we start to become more invisible.” Early in the process, she envisioned her mother on stage, back facing the audience, in a low-backed dress: “People would be sort of seduced by the image,” she said, chuckling, “and then she turns and it’s a 97 year-old woman. I like to play with people’s expectations .”
Femininity and performance were on the mind of dancer, choreographer, and actor Kimberly Richardson as well as she set out to create her McKnight piece: As a “‘funny woman,’” she explained, “I am sometimes given a certain permission that other women aren't; but I'm also, then, not quite considered a woman--a fully sexual, sensual woman." Richardson began exploring the performance of gender and the history of vaudeville with Ryan Patrick, a young actor who, as a drag artist, brought with him an understanding of performing gender theatrically. Though she has plenty of experience collaborating on others’ projects as a choreographer and actor, she’d never created an entire show of her own from start to finish. “It took me a while to want to take it on,” she admitted. “I have no problem coming up with lots of ideas--like if you say, 'make a dance with this cup,' I'm like 'fun! the cup could be an ear! Does it make a sound?' But when it's, 'what's the beginning, the middle, the end, and does it belong in the piece at all? All of that is new to me.” Learning to make these choices, which she said often felt “agonizing,” was made easier by feedback from the Playwrights’ Center, Patrick, and friends from the dance and performance community.
Exploring family relationships and stretching to learn a new skill, like directing, aren’t high on the priority list for working artists. The name of the game, most often, is simply, “stay afloat.” The McKnight Theatre Artist Fellowship offers artists $25,000 dollars, a not-insignificant sum -- but keep in mind, most theatre artists work job-to-job on contracts that make public school teacher salaries look downright exorbitant. “At a certain point,” said Richardson, reflecting on her sixteen-year performance career in the Twin Cities, “I really destabilized my life so I could give all of my time over to art-making." The first thing she did with her McKnight grant money? Make a deposit in her savings account. McKnight Fellow Thomasina Petrus, who has been an Equity actor and vocalist for twenty-five years, used the first piece of her check to finally buy a new mattress.
Thomasina met me for hot dogs at a Southside diner. She brought her high school-aged son and his cousin along with, and after introducing herself to me by way of a hug, she razzed them over some confusion about the car keys and sent them off to order a meal on her tab. Mothering -- and, more specifically, raising black boys in America -- has been a consistent theme in her recent work. A documentary on tiny houses sparked her interest in exploring America’s current “downsizing” craze, and our relationship to material objects. As she devised and wrote a comedic piece with her longtime friend and collaborator, George Keller, she sought to layer in commentary on the racial injustices still roiling America’s communities of color. The stunning non-indictment in the Philando Castile case drove this desire home: “People in the black community are emotionally devastated,” she said. It's a resignation of some kind” -- though here, she raised a hand to correct herself-- “I don't even know how to explain it though, because nobody is resigned.” She decided to borrow from her idol, Billie Holiday, whose voice she has studied and channeled in performances for years. She chose the song “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s haunting, wavering ballad about lynching -- but Petrus didn’t want her piece to lose its levity. Though Philando Castile--and what Philando Castile’s death means for her own sons--may have weighed heavily on her mind, Thomasina is anything but a heavy person. Anyone who’s seen her perform knows that the power and resonance of her presence on-stage is always accompanied by lightning wit and a booming laugh.
It was no surprise, then, to see Petrus and Keller raz a young hip-hop head, played by Antonio Duke, during the climax of her works-in-progress showing last Monday at Mixed Blood Theatre. Duke’s character, hoping to buy a Billie Holiday record off of Petrus at a yard sale, to remix it with his own beats, caught an earful-- “Billie’s not for sale, she’s for soul!” -- though their argument slowly turned into a song and spoken word collaboration that brought the capacity audience to reverent stillness--and then raucous applause. A similar reception was given to Jennie Berlovitz’s slow, daughter-and-walker-assisted two-step to an old-time record, and so for Richardson and Patrick’s mesmerizing hoop skirt dance at the finale of their stilted, off-beat, hilarious variety show. The works were not complete, of course, but there was a distinct sense in the house that night that something bigger had reached completion. It turns out that the key ingredients of one of the country’s best theatre scenes are, like theatre’s joys, fairly simple. They're not multi-million dollar additions to the Guthrie, or the occasional write-up in national publications. They are time, support -- and yes, enough money -- to brave the fears of bringing forth something new.
Inerested in applying? Check out the Fellowship website for more details.