There is no shortage of theater companies these days that are trying to bring more diversity into their work. In the Twin Cities, there are also a number of companies that have had it at the center of their missions for decades — often through the lens of specific groups of people. At first glance, Full Circle Theater Company’s focus might seem to echo those missions. But it has another key layer: to put that work into practice not just in the plays it produces but within the group of artists who lead it.
If this seems ambitious for a new company, check out its leadership group. Rick Shiomi, founder and former artistic director of Mu Performing Arts, helped launch the project after stepping down from that organization. Shiomi is joined by wife Martha B. Johnson, a longtime Augsburg College theater professor and a Mu founding member; James A. Williams, a veteran actor and Penumbra Theatre founding member; Lara Trujillo, a seasoned vocalist, actor and music educator; and Stephanie Lein Walseth, an artist and administrator who also holds a theatre historiography Ph.D.
Now on their second production, the folks behind Full Circle say they are not trying to compete with the work other companies are doing. Instead, they hope to enrich the Twin Cities theater scene by harnessing their experiences to produce plays that bring together people from different backgrounds.
Not a re-run
Three days before opening their latest show, Shiomi and Johnson’s dining room table was covered in materials for the program. One of the ironies of running Mu for years, Shiomi said, is he grew used to having a staff. Now, all the marketing, down to the word processing of the program, was on them. Despite their years in the theater, they were still learning.
“There’s a whole world that that experience has informed my decisions or judgments, which has been great, because you’re not reinventing the wheel,” Shiomi said. “But at the same time, because the framework is so different from my original 30 years or 40 years of experience, it’s a whole other aspect of a learning experience for me. I’m not in the territory of Asian American theater. And that’s why we’re doing it. We don’t want to re-run what we have already done.”
Johnson said with all the founders bringing in expertise from different areas — Shiomi from the Asian American theater movement and Williams from the African American theater movement, to name a few — there is a lot of crossing boundaries.
“Even though we’re very, very experienced theater people, every day, we’re facing very interesting new ways of looking at things because we’re used to working with certain groups of people,” she said.
Full Circle just opened their second show, a remix of 46 short plays selected from Suzan-Lori Parks’s 365 Days/365 Plays, which runs through June 11 at Penumbra Theatre. The production is much bigger in scope than their first, Theater: A Sacred Passage, an original piece about how each of the founders became involved in theater, performed at 40-seat Dreamland Arts.
Parks wrote one play every day from November 2002 to November 2003, and the resulting scripts give insight into what was on her mind during that year — from African American history to the effects of the Bush administration. The company chose plays that spoke to their mission and to today. In The Presidents Day Sale, a line of actors forms, portraying famous presidents being auctioned off like slaves. In 2 Marys, a calmer but no less absurd play, two neighbors sit on either sides of a fence and negotiate racial dynamics and domestic abuse before clinking glasses and sipping bloody Marys.
Harry Waters, Jr., joined four of the co-founders in directing the plays, while Williams focused on acting and served as the production’s cultural consultant. With five directors, 10 actors of different ages and experience levels, and nearly 50 plays, there were a lot moving pieces, Williams said. His job was to inform the group on the intricacies of African American culture so they could avoid making assumptions or having the audience disconnect because of something being culturally incorrect.
“When we say ‘culturally,’ that’s one of the beautiful things about Full Circle,” Williams said. “What we’re doing with our mission being to try to get a better grasp on how diversity can work throughout our body of work.”
In the room
Understanding how that diversity can work is an ongoing process. One advantage of it has been the ability to draw from the different experiences of the founders as they shape plays in rehearsal, Williams said.
“Imagine having a dramaturgical question and being able to turn and talk to Stephanie. Or to have a question about movement-based theater and be able to turn and ask Martha. Or to have a question about making sure all the pieces are in place before we embark on a project, and being able to turn and ask Rick,” he said.
Co-founder Lara Trujillo said Shiomi and Johnson have been instrumental in that. “They are very inclusive and very generous with their inclusion and they do genuinely want everybody’s opinion,” she said.
Stephanie Lein Walseth is a co-founder whose doctoral research dissected the idea of “happy multiculturalism.” She said being a multiracial and multigenerational company — each of the founders were born in a different decade — has also made for some interesting challenges.
“It’s amazing to see a multiracial company come together and work together. But you do have to figure out how to negotiate and how to work through differences so that’s certainly been eye-opening as well,” she said.
Williams said collaboration in the theater is challenging on its own because there will always be moments when different styles and backgrounds rub against each other. The company has worked to turn these moments into a conversation rather than a calling-out session.
“The question is, what do you do when that happens? There’s a commitment for all of us to stay connected when that happens as opposed to looking for a way out,” he said.
Full Circle has plans for next year, with venue announcements in the works, Shiomi said. In the next few years, it will likely be producing one main-stage show per year with smaller projects and readings on the side. Trujillo’s hope is to do more community partnerships. Williams said he hopes they can continue to work with young actors who are relatively new to the business.
“I hope that we can remain a place where artists from different backgrounds with different approaches come together and work. I hope we get a chance to tell different stories. I hope we get a chance to widen the circle,” he said. “I hope we get a chance to be a major force of inclusion in the Twin Cities theater scene.”