The performance companies sharing Madison’s Bartell Theatre have a new companion set to join them in 2016: Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre, a formerly itinerant company that will likely use its new home to enhance its reputation in Madison’s theater community.
“Short of our actual founding this is the next important step for us, being at the Bartell,” says cofounder and artistic director Jan Levine Thal. “It’s great to be with other companies whose work we admire.”
The troupe was founded in 2009 as “a theater for smart women” and is commonly referred to by its followers by the portmanteau “KRASS.” There’s nothing “crass” about KRASS, though, according to playwright Marcia Jablonski, whose world-premiere play Rumors of Truth will be the company’s first production as a Bartell member theater.
“(KRASS) is an extremely professional group of dedicated theater creators,” says Jablonski. “At the first production meeting, Sarah Whelan (the director of Rumors of Truth) would express an opinion that I was thinking — as if she was reading my mind. It’s been a collaborative experience that I’ve enjoyed.”
The group’s namesake, Kathie Rasmussen, was a performer and playwright who was a veteran of Madison’s Mercury Players and Broom Street Theater. Rasmussen met Levine Thal when the two worked for the now-defunct Feminist Voices newspaper, and helped her lay the groundwork for the company along with Heather Renkin and Ben Emerich. (Rasmussen was unable to see the company come to fruition, dying in 2007, but the company now memorializes her in its name.)
Levine Thal says the company was designed to be informed by the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s, but not defined by it — instead choosing which works to produce with an implicit and organic mindset.
“Kathie and I both went through our bra-burning stage,” she recalls. At the time, “we felt there was a lot of pressure on women to write material that would be appropriate for consciousness-raising. It’s not that we don’t want to do that, but we don’t demand that women have to write about a certain theme, and we don’t demand that women have to direct a certain way.”
It can be a delicate balance, and KRASS’ dramatic imperative is perhaps best made clear by contrast. For example, Levine Thal says, “If you are a male playwright and you bring your work to a contest or a workshop or something, nobody says, ‘Well, it has to have a certain kind of content or we aren’t going to take it.’” In the same fashion, she says, KRASS doesn’t look for a certain kind of work from female writers. “Today I feel that it’s a feminist project when women write about anything they god damn well want to.”
KRASS takes a step forward at a time when the gender disparity in the theater world is more apparent. Nationwide, she says, women represent about 15 percent of the playwrights whose works are produced and, excluding children’s theater, only 15 percent of directors are women.
Levine Thal attributes the company’s survival to the support of fellow theater artists and advocates in the area. For the first few years, TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater shared its space with KRASS for both rehearsals and performances. “We wouldn’t exist without them,” she says. The company also received support from Arts Wisconsin, a statewide nonprofit, and their new Bartell neighbors Mercury Players Theatre.
“To be able to draw on that, to pick people’s brains and offer what we have to offer in return, feels like true artistic collaboration,” says Levine Thal. “Everyone’s doing their own project, but you find that people are still willing to help you.”
Playwright Jablonski agrees. “Jan is great at getting together a team of people who are serious at making the best theater experience,” she says.
Jablonski’s team for Rumors of Truth will have to take on a mix of funny and heavy material. The play portrays three sisters who meet at their mother’s grave on her 50th birthday, and the reminiscences that turn quickly into confrontations.
The story was partly inspired, she says, by studies that show “the clearer you remember something, the less chance it happened that way.”
“Rumors of Truth comically explores the complications of the relationships between three sisters caused by unspoken truths and downright lies that occurred within their family,” Jablonski explains. “Through the revelations discovered during the course of the play, they each have to ultimately decide what’s more important: to hang on to old beliefs or to forge ahead and take the risk of forgiveness.”
A veteran of the Second City Players’ Workshop, Jablonski is based in Mineral Point. Her works have been produced and had readings regionally and off-Broadway, where Rumors of Truth enjoyed a staged reading at Urban Stages Theater in 2013.
Rumors of Truth will be presented Jan. 29 to Feb. 6 at the Bartell Theatre, 113 E. Mifflin St. Tickets are $20 with discounts available Feb. 3 and at “Sisters Night,” Feb. 4, which also includes a prize drawing. To order tickets, call 608-661-9696 or visit either bartelltheatre.org or krasstheatre.com.