"Theater is a driving tool for society and has the ability to build community." - Anne Mason

Anne Mason was born and raised in Laramie, Wyoming.

She got her BFA in Theater Performance from University of Wyoming.

She is the Founder and Producing Artistic Director of the Relative Theatrics theater group.

She is an advocate for the arts and was named one of Laramie's 2016 20-Under-40 Young Professionals, a Wyoming Governor's Arts Awards Nominee in 2019, a Wyoming Women of Influence Nominee in 2020, and a 2020/21 Performing Arts Fellow with the Wyoming Arts Council.

Show Notes:

• What is unique about Laramie Wyoming
• Why Anne Mason got into theater
• How theater builds community
• Anne Mason's favorite kind of theater
• Where theater can have the greatest impact

Emy diGrappa: 00:08 Welcome to First, But Last brought to you, by the Wyoming Humanities. I am your host Emy diGrappa. Wyoming is called the equality state because we were the first to give women the right to vote. 150 years later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the progress toward equality now. Let's find out and thank you for listening. Today, we are talking to Anne Mason. She is founder and producing artistic director of a theater group called Relative Theatrical and Laramie Wyoming, welcome Anne.

Anne Mason: 00:45 Hi Emy, thank you so much for having me.

Emy diGrappa: 00:48 Oh, I love it, I love that one, you just taught me that you grew up, you were born and raised in Laramie.

Anne Mason: 00:58 I was, yeah. My- my parents are both from California and they moved out here in 1982 and I've been here ever since. And so I was born and raised here in Laramie and, um, somewhere along the lines realized that I wanted to go into theater, but instead of going elsewhere to, you know, get, a, an East coast degree or a musical theater degree from some big program of- of national renown, I realized that University of Wyoming was a gem of a program. And so I stayed here and got my BFA in theater performance at the University of Wyoming and have always had a deep love for Laramie.

Emy diGrappa: 01:40 Well, you absolutely do. And that you stayed there and you found your boots there. So you are a true Wyoming girl.

Anne Mason: 01:47 You know, I guess so. It's interesting because Wyoming is so spread out and each community is a little bit different. Laramie is different than Jackson is different than Casper than Gillette. So it's always fascinating to me to see what about Laramie is truly Wyoming and what is distinctly Laramie and this- this university town, um, or right on the- the cusp of going into Colorado, you know, that it's just a different culture in some ways from the rest of the state.

Emy diGrappa: 02:20 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Mason: 02:21 And yet same.

Emy diGrappa: 02:22 Well, what do you find truly Laramie? What- what makes Laramie, besides the university, which is very unique. We only have one university in the whole state, what makes it like this is Laramie. This feels, this feels good to me.

Anne Mason: 02:36 There is something magical about the community in Laramie. I think that that is something that has always captivated me. You know, I did leave Laramie after graduating. I sort of fed this narrative that if I wanted to be a professional theater performer, that there wasn't a place for me in Wyoming to do so. So I left to get a- a career and professional experience elsewhere, but I always was lacking that tight knit community and was always missing Laramie. So I came back and there's just the fibers of- of this town are so tight knit and everyone is so supportive of one another and excited, I think, to create an enriching life with one another.

I have not experienced that anywhere else. I think the fact that Laramie is a university town also makes it unique in the sense that there's a- a community of thinkers here. There's a, there's a culture of philosophy in a sense of people wanting to really dig in and ask deeper questions about, you know, what does it mean to be a human alive today? What does it mean to be a Wyomingite? You know, what do we want, what is the future that we want to build for ourselves?

Emy diGrappa: 04:02 Right. And so when you talk about that, because you are in theater, what gave you that passion to be in theater and be part of a- a storytelling career?

Anne Mason: 04:13 Oh, Emmy, I, (laughs), you know, I- I get asked that all the time and I always like to tell the funny story that- that my parents were two economists have two daughters and we're both in theater, you know? And we don't like, how did that happen? We don't, you know, but I think I attribute a lot of it to- to how I was raised here in Laramie and- and participating in things like national history day and the various opportunities that were provided to me from programs like that. So even from a young age, I was bringing the performing arts into my education and putting on these historical presentations that would, you know, tour around to different schools in the County or to the state for competitions, or even go to Washington, D.C. for- for National History Day to- to tell these stories about history, but in this invigorating hands on engaging way. I loved that.

I mean, I think that also then when you talk to a lot of young performers, there's a, there's a certain amount of double ego that comes into it as well in the sense that like, you know, you're- you're patted on the back for doing a good job when you're, when you're a performer for- for taking that risk for putting yourself out there. And so- so I think as a young artist, I was very much driven by this desire for praise and for people to say, like, that was so good Anne, you know? But when I was doing my apprenticeship program in Sacramento at Capital Stage Company, I started to recognize how much theater is a- a driving tool for society has- has the capacity and- and the ability to really build community and bring people together and strengthen that sense of home and to place and to network, and also to develop empathy and start really courageous conversations about important topics.

And I couldn't understand why Laramie never had anything like that. Why my home didn't have anything like that because it seemed like everything that I knew from where I was born and raised was hungry for something like that. And I'm really glad that that inkling was right because I came home and I started my theater company and here I am seven years later and I am so grateful to be doing what I love, where I love and using this art form to start engaging conversations about social progress and relevant topics in a way that- that we all can be with one another and grow together.

Emy diGrappa: 06:59 Do you think people are natural performers or is it something you learn?

Anne Mason: 07:04 When anybody tells me that they cannot act my sort of default response is well, everyone is an actor. Really I mean, when you think about this, sort of the technical structure of acting, there is a character that is living in various sets of circumstances. They have something they want, they have something that's in their way. And so they engage in a series of strategies and tactics to overcome the obstacle and achieve their objective. That is what humans do every day in life. It's just simply a matter of reframing the- the circumstances and seeing yourself as a performer or as a human being, just living day to day life.

So I like to think that anyone can act, and- and that has been really fun for me, in a sense of creating theater in Laramie when there hasn't really been a culture of theater before, because we work with so many community members at my theater company, individuals who have never acted before, but who really understand the lives of the characters. And so it's great fun to be bringing new people into this- this fun little world that I live in, but to also be able to use these stories, to- to engage with one another.

Emy diGrappa: 08:27 So what is your favorite kind of theater? Because there's, you know, musicals is a drama, is it one act plays? What- what do you really navigate towards?

Anne Mason: 08:37 Um, I'm torn with that question. I think what really brought me into the- the world of theater was musical theater. In high school and college I was so certain that I was Broadway Bound and that has changed over the years. And- and I'm grateful for that because I think that where I really see theater having the greatest impact is in contemporary plays that are often, i- it's I don't really tend to go towards the terminology o- of comedy or drama so much. It's more of a- a- a dramedy per se, but it's real life. It's hard hitting edgy plays that are contemporary, that- that ask big questions and that have elements of both of seriousness and of levity. And it's all encompassing of the human experience. You get a greater range, but that's life.

Emy diGrappa: 09:36 Well, how do you find out about, you know, do you work with playwrights? Do you write your own plays? How do you come about the different works that you perform?

Anne Mason: 09:45 Oh, it's, uh, it's so interesting how that has evolved. When I first started producing seven years ago, I was just aware of plays that I really liked of playwrights. And then I would follow theater companies that I admire to see what kinds of works they were doing and then would sort of pick and choose. And say, well, I think that, that's a play that- that people in Laramie might appreciate. Or like if, a- along the front range, this seems topical let's, that- that would be fun, let's- let's do it. And then I started to realize more and more that I was doing plays primarily by women plus artists and playwrights that were listed on this annual list called The Kilroys' List.

And it's a- a group of theater makers, of women plus theater makers who are really working to fight that gender parody dilemma on the American stages. I mean, pre COVID, uh, there's not a lot of theater producing i- in live theaters that is happening right now, but pre COVID, I believe that women made up about 28, 29% of the total number of plays that were produced on American stages. Which is interesting also in thinking that, that's a similar number to the amount of women in state legislature.

Like I'm really curious, like why is it that women are only getting a third of the voice or less than that. But I noticed that I was doing all of these Kilroys' plays and ended that I had this tendency to be really elevating the voices of- of women and of marginalized individuals. And then we started to do more new works that came out of a new play festival that we do every year with playwrights, from all over the country that submit plays in progress. And so in addition to bringing these women voices to the stage, we're also bringing new voices to the stage and- and fostering the development of plays from inception.

Emy diGrappa: 11:53 Well, I'm gonna pull on that thread about women's voices, because it seems like you've been following along just in your career path and theater women's voices. So how do you translate that into women's voices in Wyoming?

Anne Mason: 12:09 Hmm. Well, that's a great question. And Emy, and I think I really see it as the theater can- can provide this, uh, this opportunity to hold up a mirror, right? It's- it's a platform to hear the voices and t- to see an aspect of- of reality and a realness of- of society. And so if we don't put women voices on the stage, then we are upholding this norm that it's okay to not listen to women or- or it's just to not prioritize their stories. And so I think it all starts with having that representation in our media, in our arts and in our culture. And through there, through community partnerships, through engaging in conversation, also fostering a culture where women in every field feel that they have a place that they have a seat at the table.

Emy diGrappa: 13:09 And do you find that women across Wyoming are coming together to have a singular voice or that you- you see them more and more speaking out or being part of the legislature? I noticed that there's, I think for the first time three Wyoming supreme court justices.

Anne Mason: 13:28 I am so excited to see all of the representation and the organizing that is happening. I think it- it's so interesting, you know, in the last two years, both celebrating 150 years of remiss suffrage, and then this year celebrating 100 years since the 19th amendment, on a national scale, we have seen an elevation of women's voices, a celebration of women, leaders of nonprofit organizations that are heralded by women and women legislatures. And I think that it has shown a spotlight on the fierceness of women and the, and the capability o- of, I think it has shown a spotlight on- on what we are capable of and especially what a force we can be when we come together and organize. And I- I guess I just, I've always felt this sense that- that women really are- are wonderful cheerleaders for one another. And there's compassion, there's empathy, there's collaboration that I see come out in spades when women band together that sets the playing field for s- for so much fruitful progress to be made.

Emy diGrappa: 14:49 Well, who influenced, you know, your philosophies and your life to maybe make not just theater, but that you have found a focus on women. And- and like you said, underserved communities.

Anne Mason: 15:03 Oh man. [inaudible 00:15:05] it's huh? That's, let me think about this one for a moment, (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: 15:11 Is that a tough one? Yeah.

Anne Mason: 15:15 It is. I think when I, when I look specifically to the realm of the theater, I probably have been the most shaped by two individuals. One would be Stephanie Gularte, who was the founder and artistic director of Capital Stage Company, where I did my apprenticeship in Sacramento. And she recognized a niche in her community for these bold thought provoking plays that brought community together and- and used that platform to elevate questions of equity and social justice. And she really showed me that it was possible for a woman to do that, to be an artistic director in a field that at the time was, and- and still, unfortunately to an extent is predominantly led by older white men.

That was eye opening for me and really gave me the- the juice to come home and do it myself. And then once being back here in Laramie, I think that there are two relationships that- that really support me and keep me going both on a personal level and on a, on an artistic work level. One would be with my dear colleague, Landy Lockhart, who works at the University of Wyoming, but she has also been by my side on so many artistic endeavors. We've designed with one another, directed with one another, acted with one another, and talked with one another. And we just have a real parallel view of how to approach the art and can just bounce ideas off of one another and hold each other accountable, which is really wonderful to help us keep moving forward.

And then the other major influence in my life would be my mother, Linda Earl. And she is one who, she actually is the- the treasurer on the board of directors of relative theatrics. She, we write grants together. We balance the budget together. She, uh, manages the box office at all of our performances. She's really bought into this- this company that I built in such a beautiful way. And- and I mean, I've always loved my mom and she has always been a phenomenal role model for me, taught me how to, how to approach the world with compassion, how to be empathetic, how to be responsible, how to- to engage with others in- in a wonderful way. But as the theater company has grown, we also have blossomed this adult friendship that is so beautiful and I- I never would have expected otherwise.

Emy diGrappa: 18:12 Oh my gosh, that- that is amazing. And that, and you're right, that is really beautiful. What- what is your answer to people when they want to say arts are a luxury and not a necessity that you can live without art, but you can't live without food. What- what is your answer to that?

Anne Mason: 18:33 Well, Emy that gets me so riled up, (laughs). I mean, I- I am a- a huge advocate for the arts and for their role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. And really just the circle of- of our modern day life. They are an economic driver. They enrich our lives. I mean, think about this time when everyone is in quarantine, they are the- the, they are what keep us sane, they are what keep us connected. People are reading books, they're watching TV and movies. They're listening to music. That's what people are doing to keep sane in quarantine. And that's all the arts. But beyond that, the arts play a key role in the economy. Uh, I mean, gosh, especially in Wyoming, which is a really fascinating case study if you [inaudible 00:19:32] look at the economic impact of arts in the nation, Wyoming is right up there at the top of one of the largest arts economies in the United States.

Emy diGrappa: 19:41 That's [inaudible 00:19:42].

Anne Mason: 19:41 And yet, there is still this myth that artists are paid in passion. And I'm so curious what we have to do to change that conversation for folks to recognize the true value of the arts and what they give back. I mean, there was a study put out by the Economic Research Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that found that in rural counties that had performing arts organizations, there was a direct correlation to a higher yield of patents and innovation. And as a state, that's currently looking at how we need to diversify our economy. I strongly believe that we cannot leave the arts and culture sector out of that conversation, that will just drill us into the ground.

Emy diGrappa: 20:30 I know, and it's a super, I mean, it's a double edged sword because when you're out there fundraising and you know, people want it, I mean, it's easy, you know, for people to give to the food bank, right? And it's much harder for them to see the value in giving to the theater, right?

Anne Mason: 20:50 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: 20:50 Even though it yields a very rich return.

Anne Mason: 20:54 Yes.

Emy diGrappa: 20:55 And I think that that is something, all cultural organizations face, you need to give to the poor and the needy and the underserved, but then you also are faced with this challenge of feeding their soul.

Anne Mason: 21:10 Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, and I think that the arts also provide, they provide context. And- and so there might be a cause that many people are- are giving funds to, but you don't really understand why, you know, why support this? Why- why is this area of society that i- that is hurting right now? Why is it important that I help them out? And the arts allow you to just take a peek into that world, to walk in the shoes of somebody else to witness the path that is different from your own, but to also then recognize the deep connections and humanity that lie there in, and- and really feel it on a heart level rather than a head level or on an economic impact, or, you know, any other sort of a statistical data point that you can look at, you get to feel it with the arts. And that is really where the change happens.

Emy diGrappa: 22:17 Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I think it was really bold of you first of all, to just go out there and start your own theater company and- and believe in yourself and say, I can, I can do this. You know, because that- that's a big leap.

Anne Mason: 22:31 Tha- thank you so much, I mean, I mean, I will say, I think that I always have sort of been driven by this- this desire to take risks and the- the thought that like, well, what's the worst that can happen? You know, like, I guess I could fail and then just have to start again at square one, or I could have the most amazing outcome. And- and I think that, you know, I've also had some- some life experiences that have helped put that into perspective. I- I have multiple sclerosis and my health has not always been kind to me.

So there have been moments where I have thought, wow, I really can't do theater. I- I cannot have this life that I want. And so then to come out from the other side of that and- and still be healthy, knock on wood, then it really puts it into perspective. Because when I say, well, I wanna do this thing, and what's the worst that can happen. Well, I'm probably not gonna end up in the hospital for months on and bedridden because I ca- because I tried this. So let's just go for it. It's not gonna kill me and I will learn from it.

Emy diGrappa: 23:38 Well, Anne, I actually think that having multiple sclerosis probably makes you feel that kind of, why not, why not do this? Why- why not take the risk? What, you know, you know what it's like to have pain. So why not? You know, the risk seems worth it.

Anne Mason: 23:56 Absolutely 100%. And I have found that, you know, I- I just have such deep passion for my work and it's the best possible medicine. It- it drives me. It keeps me going forward. It- it makes me want to keep my health under control so that I can keep doing the work.

Emy diGrappa: 24:14 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Mason: 24:15 They feed off of one another in an oddly mutually beneficial way.

Emy diGrappa: 24:20 Do you have an opportunity to work with young women and inspire them and help them, you know, make, you know, life decisions.

Anne Mason: 24:30 I love working with young women. I think that, that's a great gift that I have being here in Laramie with the university. I get to work with a lot of young women that are getting their theater degrees at the university. And many of them are sort of asking some of the same questions that I was faced with in the sense of, you know, I- I'm here from Wyoming, I love Wyoming, but you know, I- I wanna have a theater career so I feel like I need to leave. And being able to then tell them my story has been really special for me. And- and- e- and to give them permission to leave and to come back, I think that, that's maybe one of the biggest holdups. That- that, you know, young- young artists kinda do wanna go try their hand elsewhere, but don't wanna be perceived a failure if they return and- and letting them know that- that their definition of success is what is most important.

And there will be so many other people, especially in the world of theater that are telling them exactly what success should look like, but it doesn't matter if that doesn't align with their definition of success. And so that's such a treat to be able to work with these young college women who are right on the cusp of their- their lives, their careers, and letting them know that, you know, there's no one right way to do things and that if they wanna leave, that's fine. But if they wanna come back or if they know that they wanna stay, that's even better because our state needs its young adults. We need this population if we are going to grow forward. And- and it scares me, honestly, when I see the- the statistics of- of the sort of aging population of Wyoming, i- it really does concern me. And- and so I love also being able to create this place where young adults can come and feel like they have a voice where they feel like they can contribute, where they feel like they are being heard. That is such a special feeling and it's energizing as well.

Emy diGrappa: 26:42 Right. I- I love that because you're inspiring young women and especially in your area of expertise, which I think is you really touched on that. It's hard in the arts, especially in- in theater, in acting in general because society has one definition of success, right? And it is be the star on Broadway, you know, be the hit in a movie, be that, that's- that's our- our bar, right? And- and I think it's hard for people who started out. And the last thing I was gonna ask you is have they talked about the #MeToo movement in terms of how this does affect young women?

Anne Mason: 27:31 Absolutely, yes. What I really love about the #MeToo movement is the- the permission that is granting to- to share one's experience. But even more so is the- this national conversation of how do we redistribute the power? What I have been doing recently is some intensive training with theatrical intimacy education, which is all about how do we create a culture of consent in the rehearsal room, because there's- there's this myth of the good actor. And- and that's been bred by hundreds of years of- of one model where the director me- might come in and say, "You know, I'm a collaborator I wanna work with you. Like, we're all gonna, you know, everybody's got a voice here, but I really want you to use your body in this way that you might not be comfortable with right now. And- and that's okay with you, right?"

Emy diGrappa: 28:30 Oh, oh [crosstalk 00:28:31].

Anne Mason: 28:30 You know, and [inaudible 00:28:31] asking questions in this way that the actor feels like they have to say yes, because their job is on the line.

Emy diGrappa: 28:40 Right.

Anne Mason: 28:41 Though how can we reframe this- this approach to the work so that every artist in the room is a true collaborator and the power dynamics have been redistributed, so that it's balanced. Asking open ended questions. You know, I might say this moment in the script calls for these characters to kiss, how do you feel about that?

Emy diGrappa: 29:04 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Mason: 29:04 Rather than you're okay with that, right?

Emy diGrappa: 29:04 Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Anne Mason: 29:06 Just to give the actor one moment to say, am I okay with this choice? Yes, I am. I understand that this is to serve the story, but making sure that- that the power is not being abused in the sense, uh, and- and how, and how everything in that theater has been passed down for us. We have to rebuild the way we approach this work. And the MeToo movement has opened a door for that. And for there to be an acceptance for that with directors of all ages of all, of all backgrounds, to understand that this is all going to make the work more ethical, more efficient, more effective, and more powerful and transformative for everyone.

Emy diGrappa: 29:59 Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative), and empowering.

Anne Mason: 30:01 Yes, empowering 100%

Emy diGrappa: 30:03 Empowering yeah, well, it's been great talking to you today. Thank you so much.

Anne Mason: 30:08 Thank you Emy, such a treat.

Emy diGrappa: 30:14 Thank you for listening to First, But Last brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. Please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with women from around the state. You can also find us at thinkwhy.org, where we continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey and the challenges of Wyoming's intrepid women living in the equality state. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you for listening.

"From a young age I was bringing the performing arts into my education." - Anne Mason

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