And Yet, We Thrive: Lynn Lammers on Theater, Michigan and Axl Rose

The Faces of project1979: Take Four

Lynn Lammers: One talented Theater Diva. We crossed paths only briefly at Michigan State University but I’ve kept up with her ever since. It didn’t take me long to realize that she meant business: this woman is driven! The best thing about her work as a theater artist is that what drives her is her passion to make theater matter, or rather, to make life matter through theater.

Could you describe what you do? How did you get into performance, being artistic director of MSU’s Transforming Theatre Ensemble and just basically being your wonderful, creative self? Who/what has been your greatest influence?Michigan State University’s Transforming Theatre Ensemble uses what’s called “interactive theatre” (based on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed) in which a short scripted scene plays out before an audience. Following the short scene, the actors stay in character and answer questions posed by the audience. The resulting discussion is one in which the audience pulls back the layers of meaning and discovers the motivations of the characters’ actions. The audience-participants are then able to see how both personal biases and organizational structures become barriers for a diverse campus that is working toward inclusivity.

As far as what I do for TTE…I research/develop/write new scripts, cast a mix of professional and student actors, conduct rehearsals, facilitate performances, and maintain scheduling and logistics for the Ensemble. There’s a real balance in my role at MSU between theatre practitioner and diversity educator.

I came to Michigan to do a year-long apprenticeship at the Purple Rose Theatre Company, and following that I was hired at the University of Michigan to be an actor for the interactive theatre ensemble there.  I fell in love with this form…for me, I was blissfully unaware of my white privilege until I started doing interactive theatre…and then it was like, hello! A veil was lifted. A theatre that reveals truth and envisions justice. Woah.

I came to Michigan State as a grad student in the theatre department, but I knew that folks at MSU were looking to start an interactive theatre ensemble here. When I went to the first meeting they said, “You’ve been doing this for years. Here’s this fledgling program. You are now the artistic director. Make it happen.” So I went with it. And I couldn’t have been any luckier, because by the time I graduated, the U.S. was in the midst of a financial meltdown. Arts funding was being cut all over the place. But here I was, two years into creating this interactive program that people were excited about, and I found I had the support of the institution to keep it going. TTE is a hybrid of two things I love: theatre and social justice! And they’re paying me for it? Yes please! I’m very lucky.

As far as influences go…when I was an apprentice at the Rose, I got to work with Tony Caselli, who was the Associate Artistic Director at the time. Watching Tony in rehearsal inspired me. He’s full of energy, a great manager of people, and he is always coming back to that fundamental directorial question: What choice best helps to tell the story? I came to Michigan State for a number of reasons, but a major factor in my decision was that Tony had left the Purple Rose and was founding his own theatre company nearby. I wanted to support his vision and be a part of his company, the Williamston Theatre.  In the past six years I’ve learned a lot from him. In fact, I’ve been acting as Artistic Associate at Williamston Theatre this season. This new role is all about gaining producorial skills, and supporting Tony’s vision.

My second influence goes back to interactive theatre. Augusto Boal. He was a bad ass. He went to prison for the theatre he made!

What’s unfolding for you in the next few months?I’ll be sitting in on general auditions and callbacks for the Williamston Theatre in the next few months.  In July I’m headed to NYC to take part in the Director’s Lab at Lincoln Center. That should be intense….ly AWESOME!!! Nest season I’ll be directing a play called Shirley Valentine at the Williamston Theatre and the Freshman Showcase for the MSU Dept. of Theatre.

You are a very active member of Michigan’s theatre community. Could you describe what it like living as an artist in The Great Lakes State?Michigan is poor, poor, poor. Funding for the arts went right out the window when the economy took a dump. And yet, we thrive. The theatre community of Southeast and Mid-Michigan recently banded together to form the Michigan Equity Theatre Alliance, or META.  The thing about this little Michigan theatre market is…we’re a family. We go to bat for each other. We put in extra hours to get things done. We form alliances and collaborations, rather than becoming more fiercely competitive with each other for audiences. There are ups and downs to being a family, of course. But in the end, this community has a very “mid-west, no bullshit, work hard, stick together” kind of feel to it.

 How do you do what you do? Where do you draw your greatest inspiration?I’m hungry. Since about 2003-04, I’ve had a singular goal: become the very best theatre director I can be.  Never stop. Let people know what I want and that I’m not going to politely back off. Especially as a woman. I’ve been working hard to break my bad habit of accepting “no” and not wanting to “get in the way”. That’s such a bunch of internalized gendered bullshit! I had to get over the fear of annoying people and put myself out there. Have I ever made a fool of myself in the process? For sure. But I’ve also had a handful of wonderful artistic directors take a chance on me because they saw how much I wanted it.

What’s the biggest hurdle that you’ve loved tackling in your process of becoming the fabulous you?Ah. Hurdles. I am my own biggest hurdle. My anxieties about not being good enough have held me back in the past. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I think I was reading something Anne Bogart wrote years ago about how everyone has this fear of being discovered as a fraud, as not really knowing what they’re doing. And I thought, “Shit! If even ANNE BOGART feels that way…I need to woman up and get over it!” I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last few years, and it’s helped me to be intentional about the kind of director and producer I want to be.

What’s the highlight of your day?Laughing. Usually with my personal court jester/actor/boyfriend Aral.

Theme song of your childhood?Sweet Child O’Mine by Guns N’Roses. In the third grade we moved to a new house and my parents got cable for the first time. And that was the very first music video I ever saw. I became obsessed. It’s all grainy, in black and white, and the Slash is seriously tearing it up. I thought it was so bad ass. And now I can do a KILLER Axl Rose impression when I karaoke that song. Who expects a cherub-faced girl like me to seriously scream her lungs out?!

When you look back at the decades of your life, what do you feel makes you proud to be part of our generation?We grew up as computers grew up. We began life without computers in our homes and now we carry them in our pockets. It’s pretty stunning.

Best piece of advice given or received? From my niece, Faith. She’s six. She always says, “If you do, you do. And if you don’t, you don’t.” I love that. It’s such a chill mantra. It’s like, “Whatever. Either way, no big deal.”

If you could get one thing back from your past, what would it be? Evenings and weekends free.  Ha.  No, no, no, I’m kidding. There’s nowhere I’d rather be on a beautiful day than in a dark, cold theatre…I wish I had kept some of my old diaries and journals. I have one from high school, but not the ones from elementary and junior high. Should’ve kept those.

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