Interview with Caitlin Shetterly on Actors Life
Interviewed by Joanna Parson
What is your "Letters to…" series, and how did it get started?
The Letters Series started with "Letters to Ohio" shortly after the 2004 election. I was, like many people, shocked and dismayed by the country in large part voting red… and in particular I was confused by the turnout in Ohio, which was predicted to go blue. So I started to wonder what the hell happened in Ohio. I read this funny pieces that was circulating on the Internet called "Fuck the South" and I thought, God this would be a funny monologue…so I sort of started there…although I never actually used that piece. But I did send out an e-mail to a handful of theatre buddies all over (NYC, LA, Maine, Boston) – writers, directors, actors – and asked them to address this question from a theatrical perspective. In the spring of 2005 it opened after a rather long gestation period and then it had a second show in June of 2005.
Tell us about the next installment in the series, Letters to Wal-Mart.
Well, with Wal-Mart, I wanted to address the commercialization of America. In particular, I'm always uncomfortable with the Wal-Mart greeter, for one. And then I was thinking of the lines at Thanksgiving and the talking deer every idiot in America was buying. I just started to think that this could show a lighter, more satirical side of Winter Harbor Theatre Company, and the Letters Series, and could make people laugh at ourselves. We need to laugh at ourselves… we as liberals are always so earnest and serious. This is a problem. I plan to do this show later in the year…I'm also in pre-planning for "Letters to Jerusalem."
What is the Winter Harbor Theatre Company's mission? How have you fulfilled that mission so far?
The mission is to produce quality theatre that is socially, politically and emotionally challenging. I think we've fulfilled that, with our first production being Tony Kushner's at-the-time unfinished script called Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, followed by many projects—Lanford Wilson's Serenading Louie (where I made the mistake of starring, producing and directing and it almost killed me), a staged adaptation of James Joyce's the dead which I produced at Christmas time (it is a Christmas story) and then a staged reading adapted from my book Fault Lines: Stories of Divorce which was spectacular. Then the Letters Series began, which to date has had three topics which have been produced – Letters to Ohio, Letters to Katrina, and Letters to Baghdad. Also, I started an acting program, which is the only one of its kind in the US teaching kids in jail Shakespeare. I've made a whole plan for teaching the course which is pretty phenomenal and I'd love, ideally, one day to take all over the country.
Do you try to seek voices from different sides of the political fence on the issues that these projects tackle, or do the pieces present a particular political view?
Yes, always I try to spin the wheel and look at all angles from all angles – we all need to be made to feel uncomfortable and to be challenged. This is how we will grow, get angry, cry… be impassioned.
How do you avoid "preaching to the choir"?
Little by little I see the audience including more people who might not agree with my politics, but who believe I'll take a hard look at all spokes of the wheel. In general I'm not interested in "political theatre." The work has to survive first as a human story, as a piece of drama and theatre…it has to be what Tony Kushner called the "icky reality" of real people in real time experiencing real things. But, of course, almost by definition, theatre goers are liberals. This should change – and I think it would, if theatre could be made for less money, or if theatre was supported better, and with lower ticket prices, et cetera.
How do you recruit the playwrights, artists, and actors who participate in the projects?
Mass e-mailings. Friends of friends – to more famous people, sometimes I've actively gone looking to connect with David Rabe or Amy Fox… or Sean Huze. But, people also come to me. It's all kind of a weird synchronicity –the show just comes to me and I'm always grateful and shocked that it did.
Different "Letters to…" alums have taken their pieces to other venues, including a Manhattan run of "Letters to Katrina: Humane", by writer/performer Marlene Nichols, in the Impact Festival produced by Alan Buchman's Culture Project. Do you have a vision for Winter Harbor's role in the further life of the work developed for this series?
Yes. I want to take a "Letters" to the Public Theatre in NYC. That's my dream. I'm aiming high, but… well… that's my dream.
After graduating from Brown University, you lived in New York City for years. Did you come to New York as an actress, or did you have other expectations for your career?
I came as an actor/writer, and producer. While I was part time in acting school, I worked for Richard Avedon for my first few months as his assistant on a major photo show, then worked at The New Yorker as a fact-checker BUT I hated being in an office. So I left to focus on acting and writing… and I did. I can think of the ways I blew my acting career – agent meetings I couldn't muster the strength to work with the complete idiotic focus on my looks, and how old I did or didn't look and whether I was thin enough. I hated all of it, and honestly, I didn't have much stomach for it. I had an Ivy League education which I'd gotten scholarships for and worked to put myself through—so the idea that people could reduce me to such idiocy was tough and I wasn't finessed enough to play the game. Now, of course, I WISH someone would pay that much attention and I could do those meetings all over again.
How did those expectations evolve?
This is a good question. When I look back at my career, I can see the problem I've had time and time again – and I don't think this is arrogance to say this – but I'm too good at too many things. And this has been a problem. Because I've never had to be excellent, necessarily. Only good, even great sometimes. I'm good at acting, good at radio producing, good at writing, good at producing theatre.
But as a director, my vision and my capabilities get closer to excellence. And this is where I know I need to be, for that reason. This has been a long haul to knowing that. And I still waiver. I still go off on crazy tangents and think I want to be an actor all over again… or that I want to only to work for NPR and go try to get a great paying producer job in Washington. I'm trying to teach myself, now at 32, to focus. And it hurts. Honestly… I'm not good at it.
Why and when did you decide to leave New York and form your own theatre company?
I left in the fall of 2002. I'd always wanted my own company, but in NYC with theatre rental and space prices and how hard an artist has to work to survive, also the inertia of the stuck-ness of my life there, it never happened. So I had a relationship fall apart (for a year) after 9/11. I got sick from post-traumatic stress disorder—severe stress from the 9/11 stuff (I was unlucky enough to be on the subway when they thought we'd had a biological attack and again when they tried to evacuate Times Square station), my relationship, and a family problem put me in the hospital for everything under the sun, but nobody knew what was wrong – and then I just decided to come home. You can read my column, where I write about this in detail, at http://www.thephoenix.com/Author.aspx?name=CAITLIN%20SHETTERLY.
What's special about Maine?
I can live a decent life, only 5 hours from New York City, and I can make my vision for theatre happen. And I came home! I'm a native daughter with a relatively famous father – a painter – and a well-known writer for a Mom. So, my life fell together quickly here just with name recognition. And so many people wanted, needed, the kind of theatre I was bringing. So many people opened their arms and gave and gave and gave.
How is a smaller market like Winter Harbor reacting to your vision of the arts?
Well, I live in Portland. So the market is a city. A small city, but a city. And no one else does this kind of work in Maine. So I get grants and help from excited people and audiences. No one else is producing original works and works that challenge who and where we are as a nation. And no one else is working with the juveys like I am.
What is the market like for actors in Maine?
It sucks. I mean, there's work… but not much paid, and less work than New York City. But if you're any good at all, you can get lots of work in all the little theatre co's etc, so that's a plus. A resume builder. Almost never is there real paid work. I, on the other hand, pay all my artists. Always. I think I'm the only company in Maine that does this. I believe that artists need to be paid – even a $100 stipend. So I work that into my budget. I don't believe in artists working for free.
What kind of paid work is available, and do actors have to commute out of the area in order to work in regional theatre, film and television?
Well, actors are always nomadic, but there's lots of regional theatre. The best companies in Maine are the Stonington Opera House and the Theatre at Monmouth for that kind of work. And there's a little film here. Lots of Maine people were in Empire Falls. TV…nothing really.
What do you look for in actors when casting projects for Winter Harbor Theatre Company?
An actor who can speak from a true place, who can adjust to a note. I don't know, it's all so personal. I like quirky people – people who have something unique about them.
You mentioned your acting program at a juvenile jail, teaching Shakespeare to at-risk and incarcerated youth. Who did you first approach with the idea?
I spoke to the jail itself. Then I got a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, who I think has given me four or five grants by now for this program.
What obstacles did you have to overcome in order to get that program up and running?
The place itself. Jail – corrections – is one of the biggest, most profitable businesses in America. Isn't that weird? People are making money off putting black men and poor kids in jail. And it's a male, violent, depressing, sick business. People think I'm some kind of renegade there. I can't really tell you the stories about being sexually harassed by the staff, bullied, condescended to… but the kids are all so worth it. Always. The kids are the thing.
What do you think the kids get out of performing shows like Hamlet, Othello, and "A Hip-Hop Romeo and Juliet"?
They get their dreams back. They get to be someone else for a while, and they get pride… they get so many things! Basically, they get to be free for a while inside a character and they get to play with words and costumes and let their imaginations go free. The kids do everything—the adapt the play, they design their own costumes, they help stage it….it's all a collaboration. We work completely as a team.
When you lived in New York earlier in your career, you were a freelance writer, radio producer, and edited a book. Do you think those skills help you in your work in the theatre?
Maybe. I mean, having my hands in many places – I've met incredible people. I interviewed Harvey Keitel on Monday and Scott Elliott on Saturday… at the end of the month I'll interview Sean Penn. I met David Rabe this way, and now he's a friend. I meet amazing people. I met amazing writers with my book—John Updike, Anne Beattie, Alice Munro, Richard Ford. This is all great. Sometimes I worry it's distracting, having my hands so many places. I live at a high level of production, which can be exhausting. But I get so inspired by these artists.
What would you tell younger people who have an interest in writing or other artistic career tracks, but are also pursuing performance careers?
Do it all, while you have the energy. Seriously… I'm 32, and my energy is starting to flag. It takes more work to keep me thin, more to keep me happy. Life gets more complicated once you're in a serious relationship… you aren't a free agent any more and life somehow just gets more busy. Just work your ass off and do it all. You won't regret it.
What were the most surprising nuts and bolts lessons that you learned in forming your own theatre company, and in producing theatre over the years?
God – everything! Money, managing money, managing talent, all the paperwork and how I hate it; how everybody wants something from you when you're a leader and you have the purse strings in your hot little hand; being a leader and what that really means – this is a full-time job for which I get paid almost nothing! The arts are not supported in America, period. I need a partner, an associate producer, badly. But what could I offer them? Not much. Winter Harbor Theatre Company survives with me being overworked and way underpaid. I don't know how to change that.
Is there anything that anyone heading into a small community to start a theatre company should consider before they begin?
No. Just do it. We need more people to have the dedication and energy to just do it. Forget all the red flags and follow your passion. Get your work out there.
On your home page you have a quote from Arthur Miller: "The job of the artist … is to remind people about what they have chosen to forget." In your opinion, what do people need to be reminded about right now?
Hmmm… they need to remember who they are. They need to remember that being an American does not mean supporting our president or supporting policy which will in the end destroy us and our great country. We have so much to be proud of as Americans, and yet the Bush Administration makes us feel we need to choose… and we don't. We need to fight for this country to be great. It is not great now. We need to get it back.