JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
KAREN LANGE: I have been performing since I was a child. There was a program called Odyssey of the Mind that I started working with in second grade. Each year, we wrote a 7-minute play and performed it in creative competition. I learned to love performing then and really enjoyed the idea of making something from scratch.
In high school, I tried out for Grease to be moral support for another friend who was auditioning. During callbacks, they went down the line to have each Rizzo candidate sing a section of a song. When they got to me, the entire cafetorium erupted in a standing ovation. That was my Cinderella moment & I knew that I wanted to act.
As an adult, I established a career & didn’t act for a long time. When I turned 30, I decided to take some classes in improv. I realized what I had been missing in my life and became a performer again, first with ComedySportz, then in Washington Improv Theater. I took classes at Studio to do scripted acting.
JL: How long have you served as Artistic Director at your company? What drew you to the position? What keeps you there?
KL: I have served as co-Artistic Director with Allyson Harkey since 2008. I was drawn to the position because I saw a need to take action to make change in DC theatre. after several years of acting in different productions at Fringe, I went to see a production with my future co-Artistic Director, Allyson. The production opened our eyes to how little quality work was available for women in DC theatre. We decided to do a one-shot Fringe show, just to prove we could find a play with interesting roles and that a successful show could be helmed by women. That was the birth of Pinky Swear Productions. That first show led to a second, third, fourth…and now we’re a full-fledged, year-round company.
What keeps me here is the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction during each production process. We get to give other, deserving women work. We get to highlight new plays by women, both local and from elsewhere. We hire women as directors and staff. We get to pick plays that resonate with us. We get to sing rock songs & be powerful. I am extremely proud of our achievements.
I am also proud of the fact that we walk the walk: there is so much discussion about how underrepresented women are in theatre. The vast majority of plays produced are by men, theatres like to present plays with all male or mostly male casts. There are far more women than men in DC who want to act. There are talented women who want to design, direct, stage manage, and build sets. We give them those opportunities
JL: What is the most valuable lesson you learned during your tenure? Also, what skills and traits do you feel a successful artistic director should have to support the health and growth of an organization?
KL: I’ve learned that we don’t have to ask anybody else’s permission to exist. If we want to do something, the most important thing is to just go ahead and do it. Passion & elbow grease are really all you need to make something happen.
I’ve learned that there is a huge community of theatre professionals in the area. We can help each other and it’s ok to ask for help – we’re not in a competition.
A good AD needs to have a positive, can-do attitude. She must make her best efforts to make each production a positive environment and a safe space for innovation. She must be able to take and learn from criticism. Most of all, she must approach projects collaboratively and not try to control everything. People have great ideas and a lot to contribute – keeping that in mind will make every production better.
JL: What excites you most about being an Artistic Director? What is your greatest challenge?
KL: I get to pick plays and make people happy by hiring them to do what they love. I get to present work that matters to me, rather than just wishing that other companies would produce plays I really want to audition for. People will rally around you if you are sincere, motivated, and your work is good. We recently had the pleasure of inviting 12 new people into the company for a yearlong associate program. We had an incredible number of people apply – it was both humbling and exciting to realize how many people wanted to be a part of what we do. Makes me want to live up to their image of us.
The challenges: money is always a big one. Lack of space to affordably rent for rehearsals and shows is a big issue. There’s also the tough time we have snatching up certain kinds of professionals, namely stage managers. Finding plays that we love & that fit our mission of producing shows with strong roles for women is a challenge. Also, working with passionate people can make some conversations heated, but it’s all worth it.
JL: If your work as an artistic director doesn’t pay the bills, what else do you do? Also, how do you balance your role leading an organization with your work as an actor director? Are you ever able to act direct outside of your company?
KL: I am fortunate not to have a regular day job. I do teach improv workshops and classes for adults at Washington Improv Theater and for teens at Studio Theater. Pinky Swear is my main job right now. I don’t make any money at it, but I know I will someday.
I do get to act outside of Pinky Swear. I usually do 4-5 runs a year with WIT as a cast member of their long running show, iMusical. I’ve been with that troupe for 6 years now. I have also performed in a number of shows with other theater companies over the past 4 years. All of the members of PS are also actors. We like to stay well rounded – and we also really need to act in shows that we’re not producing sometimes!
Looking at your body of work as an artistic director and an actor director, how conscious are you and selecting plays by women or people of color when deciding your season? Also, when it comes to hiring administrators, designers and other directors do you take race and gender into consideration?
Our mission is to produce shows with strong roles for women. Full stop. We have, to date, only produced shows by female playwrights, directed by women. We will certainly produce plays by men, as long as they fit the criteria we set out in our mission. We also have men in the company now. Our leadership remains female, but our new men are pretty awesome.
We will continue to strive for diversity in the way that we hire the people who are best for the roles, according to our directors. We don’t specify race in our casting, and won’t unless the script specifically requires it.
JL: DC audiences are ...
KL: … too few! The ones who are fans are enthusiastic & willing to see risky work. Those whom I have spoken with are awesome & committed to supporting live theatre.
JL: DC actors and designers are ...
KL: … talented, creative, professional, and a joy to work with.
JL: DC playwrights are …
KL: … full of creativity and talent. Their work deserves to be seen!
JL: DC critics are ...
KL: … far more open and interested in the community than I previously thought. Special shout out to Peter Marks for really diving in and connecting with small theatre companies on social media.
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming theatre artists who have just moved to D.C.?
KL: You can do it – there are so many places that will welcome you. Audition for theatres of all sizes – you can learn as much from a smaller show as you can from a big show. Don’t be impatient to make it into AEA – you have time to build your career. Don’t get discouraged – we all have to deal with rejection all the time.
Most importantly: Be a doer. Don’t be a wait-er. Doing includes honing your craft, taking classes, volunteering for jobs other than your particular niche. Engage with the community via social media. Reach out to people with whom you’d like to work. If you want to produce – produce. You control your destiny as an artist. Take the reins.
JL: What's next for you as an actor and your company?
KL: For me, I’m performing with WIT this holiday season. For PS, we are very close to announcing our next two shows for the 2013 season! We worked with our new associates to whittle down a vast selection of plays. We’re also in the process of devising our new Fringe show for 2013. The fall show will be TBD, but we’re really excited about the upcoming year.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!