Claire Avitabile, founder and executive artistic director of 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities, did not anticipate that she would end up founding a major Twin Cities theatre company when she moved to Minneapolis from Northampton, Massachusetts ten years ago. After graduating from Smith College, a women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 2003, Avitabile remained in the area for two years, working for an educational theatre company in western Massachusetts before moving to Minneapolis in 2005.
“I knew that that was my plan,” recalls Avitabile, sitting in her office at the Sabes Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park, where she now serves as the Director of Performing Arts in addition to her leadership at 20%. “I was going to stay [in Massachusetts] a couple of years and then I was going to move somewhere and, quote, ‘launch my career.’” Having always loved teenagers, “before I was one, when I was one, and ever since,” she says, Avitabile had planned to work with young people through theatre education: she just needed to settle on the right place.
Ruling out theatre behemoths New York City and Los Angeles and unenthused about the San Francisco Bay Area, where she was born, and Chicago, where she might run into the “competition and cattiness” of fellow Smith-alum thespians, Avitabile settled on Minneapolis, making the move in August of 2005.
Avitabile cites the pervasiveness of youth theatre opportunities here in the Twin Cities as one of her reasons for moving here. In her early years as an aspiring theatre educator and freelance director in the Twin Cities, Avitabile was successful in finding opportunities to teach theatre, but found it more difficult to find work as a freelance director. Because she was new to the city, she was lumped into the same category as directing newbies—“emerging artists or recent graduates or, you know, grad students who want to intern and that sort of thing,” says Avitabile.
“With that, I was told, you know, ‘You don’t have enough experience. We’re not interested,’ or something,” says Avitabile. She found herself in a predicament similar to that of many aspiring theatre artists. “I was like, well, if I don’t have that experience, how am I going to get it if no one’s going to give it to me?” This became one of three reasons that Avitabile started 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities: to provide opportunities, more so for other artists in the Twin Cities looking to gain experience than for herself.
While directing a show for a small company in 2005 that no longer exists today, Avitabile was uncomfortable with the fact that, given the company’s limited budget, she was the only involved artist who was offered a stipend for her work on the production. “I’ve always been an all-or-nothing person, so I felt a lot of stress about that, and guilt,” says Avitabile. “I didn’t want the money if no one else was getting paid, especially when the actors have to show up every performance and I don’t, you know?”
For Avitabile, the experience made clear a second reason to start her own company—equality of pay, or, in Avitabile’s words, “making sure that, no matter what, even if it’s only ten dollars, or a hundred dollars, or a thousand dollars, everyone is getting paid if they’re contributing artistically to a project.”
In her first year in the Twin Cities, Avitabile also became aware of the surprising lack of queer-centric theatre in the community. “All the mainstream companies, every once in a great while, would do a gay play, or something with a little bit of queer content,” says Avitabile, but otherwise, the queer theatre scene was limited. “I was just really surprised [that] out of all the companies here, we would not have that. And as a queer woman, I wanted to do something about it.”
Thus, Avitabile recalls, “In January 2006, I woke up [and] I told my partner that I think I need to start a theatre company—to fulfill these three goals of mine.” Founding 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities “wasn’t, you know, me finding a way to direct the plays I want to direct,” says Avitabile. “It was really [about] starting a company that would tell stories that aren’t often told or heard, that would employ people who struggle to be employed artistically, and that would pay everyone.”
The original 20% Theatre Company was started as a female-centric company in New York City in 2002 by another Smith alum. The name is a response to the results of a three-year study by the New York State Council on the Arts which revealed that, in 2002, only 20% of professional theatre artists were women (a 2012 article by playwright Marsha Norman maintained that the results were not much different a decade later). “I got permission to use the name because at first, I knew that I too wanted to focus a lot on women,” says Avitabile. “But more than that, I wanted to focus on gender and gender inequality in theatre. Of course [the Company] related to women. . . but it also went beyond that regarding folks and artists who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming.”
Avitabile’s passion for telling the stories of transgender and gender nonconforming people came as a result of her relationship with one of her best friends in college, transgender playwright Tobias K. Davis. “In working with him in college, I just developed a passion for wanting to help tell those stories because trans people are often so silenced, and not even really welcome in queer theatre spaces,” explains Avitabile. “Theatres that claim to focus on LGBTQ stuff are often really focused on the LGB, or the LG, even.”
Since its foundation in January of 2006, 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities has produced over 30 productions, including the enormously popular world premieres of The Naked I: Wide Open and The Naked I: Insides Out, in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Avitabile had co-directed the world premiere of the first in the series, The Naked I: Monologues From Beyond the Binary, with Tobias Davis during their senior year at Smith.
Avitabile recalls that, during their senior year, “a friend of ours challenged Toby to write a play sort of in response to slash inspired by The Vagina Monologues”—a production of which they had just seen at Smith—“but that told the stories of trans people.” Thus, inspired by the stories of transgender and gender nonconforming people he had heard through personal research and while studying abroad in Germany, Davis wrote The Naked I: Monologues From Beyond the Binary.
The Naked I: Monologues From Beyond the Binary premiered regionally at the Bedlam Theatre in Minneapolis in February of 2009. The show was directed by approximately ten different directors. Its five performances sold out a few days before the show’s opening. “After the show ended, we were flooded with emails from people who wanted us to do it again; wanted us to create another one; wanted us to help them find a way to tell their own story,” says Avitabile.
Thus, with Davis’s blessing, 20% began the process of creating a sequel to The Naked I: Monologues From Beyond the Binary in the summer of 2011, putting out a call for submissions from transgender and gender nonconforming people in the community, or “anyone who has a story to tell related to this identity or experience,” says Avitabile.
20% then had a committee read each submission and make recommendations for which ones would be in the show. Once the show was created, Avitabile hired another twelve to fifteen directors and held public auditions for the show. The world premiere of The Naked I: Wide Open at Intermedia Arts in February of 2012 sold out two weeks before the show opened.
The community response to The Naked I: Wide Open was overwhelmingly positive. During the talk backs that followed each performance, the artists were met with requests for copies of the script and questions about whether or not the production would go on tour. “It was just overwhelming, the response,” says Avitabile. “People [were] so happy that we made another one.” Wide Open followed its original run with a smaller-scale tour, which brought the show to various locations around New England, Wisconsin, and Minnesota for about a year.
Following the tour, 20% began working on what would become the next volume in the Naked I series—The Naked I: Insides Out, the world premiere of which was held at Intermedia Arts in February of 2014.
“We decided, as a Company, in 2012, that this is something that not even just this community needs, but this country needs – that the world needs,” says Avitabile. “And it’s not a trans 101 anymore. . . In some respects it can be seen as an educational tool, but it’s really about social change. It’s about. . . empowering these trans performers, these people onstage, some of whom never performed, some of whom hadn’t done theatre since transitioning, maybe, because they didn’t feel they could or they didn’t feel that anyone would have a role for them—so empowering those artists but also challenging and inspiring audience members to make change.”
Last month, 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities finished touring The Naked I: Insides Out in Duluth. The next Naked I production is already booked for February of 2016 at Intermedia Arts, and the corresponding call for submissions will be released this June. In the meantime, 20% will premiere its second annual Q-Stage: New Works Series on May 1st, which consists of six experimental new works from local queer-identified artists and performing groups, including an exploration of burlesque and the femme-identity by Shannon Forney and new work by local poet and trans activist Andrea Jenkins.
Avitabile remains committed to providing opportunities for emerging artists in the Twin Cities and giving voice to typically underrepresented communities, through one-time plays in addition to staples like The Naked I and Q-Stage. “We have already, in the last month, learned so much about different ways to support artists,” Avitabile says, reflecting on the experience of putting together this year’s Q-Stage. “We’re constantly learning how to better support artists, and I just want to keep doing that.”
Another goal of Avitabile’s is reconnecting with the community of young people that initially drew her to the Twin Cities. She aspires to create a Naked I-like play for elementary school, middle school, or high school-aged audiences, in addition to a 20%-sponsored youth playwright writing group. “We’d love to get more youth involved in the company,” says Avitabile. “Teens, early 20s. Because they are the future, and we’d love to get their voices heard.”
To learn more about 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities, visit them online at www.tctwentypercent.org or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.