Welcome to Ask an Admin, a series in which we talk with theatre administrators working in Minnesota to learn about their backgrounds, their jobs, and what snacks they keep in their desks.

Laura Leffler
Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Umbrella Collective
Associate Artistic Director of Park Square Theatre

 

Tell us a little about yourself and your path to your current position(s) (schooling, training, past work/life experience, mentors, etc.).

I’m a co-founder and the Artistic Director of Umbrella Collective, the Associate Artistic Director of Park Square Theatre, and a freelance director and performer. I also write, but I wouldn’t really call myself a playwright proper. Labels are only useful so often, and in theatre-making, I generally like to sort of defy norms and hierarchy. But those are things I can say about where I am.

I grew up in Kansas City, and went to a small liberal arts college, Baker University. I majored in English and Theatre. Then I went immediately to grad school at the University of Kansas, and my M.A. is in Theatre History with an emphasis in directing. The department at KU was in a lot of staff turnover in the years I was there, so I learned a lot about myself as an academic and an artist, though not in the traditional way. I had this pivotal moment when I was driving a visiting professor from the airport to campus--and I continually kick myself that I don’t remember his name because I’m horrible with names--and he gave me a piece of advice that changed the course of my life, I think. He asked what I was doing after graduating, and I told him I was waffling between an internship at a big theatre and trying to “climb the ladder” or trying to make independent theatre on my own. And he told me not to mop floors for years, but to just make my own work. I actually ended up doing both, but I know that conversation was the spark that led to co-founding Umbrella Collective.

I moved to the Twin Cities shortly after that to take an internship with Theatre de la Jeune Lune. And I spent a few years working and learning with them. It was a big regional theatre, but also, their spirit was very much an all-hands-on-deck vibe. I learned a ton from them about artistic courage and independence, and also about wearing multiple hats--and wearing them well. I definitely look to Dominique Serrand and Steve Epp as mentors. After that I bumped around for a while, while I was growing Umbrella Collective, I worked for a brief stint at Frank Theatre and then at the Playwrights Center. I was at PWC when Jeremy Cohen was hired, and he’s become a good friend and mentor as well, even though I left the PWC.

That’s a lot. I’m long-winded, ha. But I guess I’d also add, I went through the Performing Arts Human Resource Training series that the Minnesota Theatre Alliance did back in 2016. And I met Megan West there, who was the Production Manager at Park Square then. She later went on maternity leave, and I was her temporary cover for about four months. Then Megan gave me a gig running the Park Square General Auditions. Then when she stepped down at Park Square, I applied for her position, which was shifted slightly from what she had been doing. After a few months, I was able to talk to senior leadership, and convince them to let me change my title/workload to be the Associate Artistic Director. The lesson there is to meet people and make connections, and also to advocate for yourself and ask for what you want.

 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I very much wanted to be a marine biologist and study dolphins. Well, mainly I think I just wanted to swim with dolphins. Also I was 12 and it was the early ‘90s, so what are you gonna do? In high school I always thought I would be an English teacher, like my mom.

 

What’s the best part of your job?

I really like process. My favorite part of rehearsals is the middle, where you know enough of the show to do something but you aren’t so close to tech that you have to refine just yet. Just the big, messy, infinite possibilities part. And that extends into my work in producing, too. I like making processes go smoothly – whether that means hiring a talented and kind director to lead a room, or making sure there are cough drops in the dressing room, or writing a script specifically for the actors who are in the room, or taking a moment to check in with actors about their days. Process is just as important as product. I strongly believe that a good, smooth process leads to better product.

 

When did you know you wanted to work in theatre/the arts?

My parents were both English majors in college, and I grew up in a household that was very pro-stories and pro-art. I liked writing and editing and reading a lot, so I always kinda thought I’d do the English teacher thing or maybe be a copyeditor at a newspaper. I did theatre in high school, but I don’t really sing or dance, and my high school was very focused on musicals. So I tap danced--poorly--in the back of many musicals. I did interpretive events in forensics in high school and college, and I really enjoyed cutting pieces to perform. My college was super small--less than 1,000 students when I went there--so when I was encouraged by friends to audition for the fall play my freshman year, it was relatively unintimidating. I ended up being cast--Eleanor in THE LION IN WINTER--playing a 60 year old at 18 (ah, collegiate theatre). After that I was pretty hooked, so I added the theatre major and started searching for the right ways to make theatre my career.

 

What has surprised you most about your work/working in theatre/the arts?

The economics of a life in the theatre surprises me. I always knew that there wouldn’t be a lot of money, but when you step back, it’s actually shocking how little money there really is. Here’s this primal need that humans have--storytelling--and this method that is thousands of years old--theatre. And then everyone wants a comp, you know? I mean, I’m guilty, too. I often don’t see shows because I don’t want to shell out the $20. Forget about the $80 tickets, no way. And like, I’m an artist who wants to make a living doing art. And if even I can’t be convinced to buy a ticket? That’s messed up. So that’s something that helps to inspire me, too, and that I like about my job. I spend a significant amount of time advocating for artists to be paid better. I feel passionate about that, and I’d love to help change the zeitgeist around that.

 

Who gave you the best advice you’ve ever received, and what was that advice?

I already mentioned that nameless professor from grad school. I also think a lot about this Toni Morrison quote. Obviously, she wasn’t talking to me and she wasn’t even speaking directly about theatre, but I do often take comfort and find strength from it. She wrote this piece for The Nation in 2015, and she said, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” On days when everything feels overwhelming, it’s good to think about the moral and political reasons to make art and support artists.

 

What’s the best/your favorite production you’ve seen in the Twin Cities in the last year?

I took my daughter to see THE LORAX at CTC, and it was a delight. The cast! The music! Those weird mylar trees! But maybe I’d say INDECENT by Paula Vogel at the Guthrie. I need more queer plays by queer playwrights at mainstream theatres, please. If they also had queer performers, that would be amazing.

 

You’re stuck on a desert island. Which three theatre-makers would you want to be stuck with (living or dead)?

Oh heck. That’s too hard. I’d wanna talk with Suzan-Lori Parks and Anne Bogart and Elizabeth LeCompte. Oh, and Young Jean Lee! But maybe I should choose a set designer, so we could build a boat or something to get off the island?

 

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to work in arts administration/your position?

This is funny, because I feel like I’ve mainly talked about being an artist rather than the administrative side of my work. I guess I’d say, it’s hard to make a living doing only the art. I can think of very few artists who don’t also teach or coach or wait tables or have a desk job, too. But, there are many exciting ways to lead a creative life, and I like to think of my producing/administrative work as a kind of art in itself. So I guess I’d say, look for the ways to make your whole life a work of art. That’s what’s been most fulfilling for me.

 

Do you keep snacks in your desk/work area? What are they?

Dude. So many snacks. Right now I have some dates, a Clif bar, some lime cashews, half a chocolate bar with sea salt and almonds, and an applesauce cup. I’m actually confused about that applesauce. That must be my daughter’s. How did that get in my desk?

 

Editor's note: this article has been updated tor reflect Savage Umbrella's name change and new website announced on July 26, 2018.