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A 15-year Legacy: 20% Theatre

See the company's last show, "Brujería for Beginners," Nov. 5-20.

A scene from Keila Anali Saucedo's "Brujería for Beginners" when it was first performed as part of the 2019 Q-stage. All photos courtesy 20% Theatre Co.

In 2005, Claire Avitabile was fed up for three reasons. First, she was hit with the contradiction of needing experience to get experience as a director, and her status of young and queer seemed to make the scant opportunities even slimmer. Second, there was a dearth in queer theater in general. Third, there wasn't equitable pay in the one job she did find. Instead of swallowing her frustration, come January 2006, she woke up and told her partner she was going to found a theater company.

She went on to found 20% Theatre Co. Twin Cities, which has supported early-career women, transgender, and nonbinary artists for more than a decade.

Sadly, the theater announced in August 2020 that its 15th season would be its last. It was a financial reality discovered pre-COVID, but the team waited until they could go out with a bang—their final season has included a film series spanning nearly two decades of archives; its annual experimental incubator program for queer artists, Q-stage; a virtual panel; and from Nov. 5 through 20, its last in-person production, "Brujería for Beginners."

As far as endings go, "Brujería for Beginners" is a poetic fit. Not only does Avitabile genuinely love the script, but it was first brought to life during Q-Stage by the same director leading it now, 20% Theatre artistic director Marcela Michele. In addition, both Michelle and the show's playwright, Keila Anali Saucedo, are having Q-stage live on as a part of the Lightning Rod program at Pillsbury House, which they help co-lead.

Avitabile says, "['Brujería for Beginners'] represents a lot of what 20% has always believed in, in terms of queer storytelling and queer voices. It's supporting and promoting queer artists and artists of color and young artists, and it has beautiful intergenerational layers to it."

The 2015 production "Femmes: A Tragedy" by Gina Young.

Groundbreaking work

While 20% Theatre takes its name from the 2002 study that showed only 20% of theater professionals were women, it has done transgender-focused work since 2008. At the time, shows like theirs didn't really exist; the first show the company was able to produce around the subject was created by Avitabile's college friend, Tobias K. Davis.

The show, about female-to-male transgender life, sold out despite a lack of mainstream press coverage.

"People came from Wisconsin; people came from Iowa," Avitabile says, noting that this was before social media came into full swing. "They were saying, 'I've never seen myself on stage before. I've never seen someone who understands my identity and thoughtfully and realistically portrayed it in any artistic way.' This kind of feedback was so huge, and basically said [that] we can't stop now.' So that's when we started doing more and more queer and very trans-specific work."

The next production the same playwright wrote, "The Naked I: Monologues from Beyond the Binary," sold out through word of mouth and spurred a touring performance and an ongoing series. However, just as transgender content was new for the audience at the time, it was new for performers, too. Avitabile said the team had to search really hard to find people who not only identified as the characters but who were not afraid to play them on stage.

"Queer and trans artists interested in acting had always been afraid they wouldn't be traditionally welcome in a traditional theater setting because they don't fit in an identity role box. For us, whether the production specifically had queer trans characters or not, we were putting queer and trans people on stage in the beginning and just really empowering folks and giving them tons of experience," Avitabile says. "Some of our artists had never performed before at all, and now they're getting individual artist grants, full-length pieces, written plays."

Avitabile loves the impact 20% Theatre has left on the Twin Cities, but at the same time, she says it's frustrating that other organizations can receive large funding for starting the same inclusive work that 20% Theatre has been doing for the whole of its existence. "That's the part that sheds a huge light on how broken the funding system is and how unfair it truly is. But at the same time, I want to be clear that I am never upset about more trans artists getting work and getting paid well and being promoted," she says.

A 2018 production of "The Naked I: Recognize/d," created by the company.

A legacy to remember and carry on

Even now in its final show, 20% Theatre is continuing to maximize the support and opportunities it can give its artists. For instance, Michelle may be 20% Theatre's artistic director, but this is the first time she has directed a full-length, professional play. So far, it's been pretty smooth sailing.

"Traditional patriarchal White American theater has set up these hierarchies designed to make people feel incapable, like they need all these institutions to justify or verify their ability to lead, especially for directors, especially for women directors, Black directors, trans directors," Michelle says. "I am learning so much, honing those skills that [I'm] sure I had, but that you do have to use in new settings to refine, I think. That's a huge gift 20% has given me, and I hope to continue to give to people like me (and not like me) at Lightning Rod."

Avitabile says she can't wait to see where Lightning Rod takes Q-stage and what the next generation of artists creates. And, although she is excited to be an audience member, she has already had her life-changing moment from the theater house:

"Every night after opening night [of 'The Naked I: Wide Open' in 2012], myself and my partner and maybe some other directors who had given up their seats [to the sold out crowd], we snuck in for the curtain call for the final piece," Avitabile recalls.

"We staged it so that at the end of the final piece, which was a gorgeous spoken word piece, all the actors were joining that performer on stage. At the end, 30 to 40 gorgeous queer and trans bodies of different ages, sizes, identities, races, all of it—that by itself would make anybody cry, but then when the lights came up on them, the audience exploded. ... It was a moment of feeling proud and just so honored to bear witness to these artists and these stories, and to watch people who share in those identities and in identities that I don't share, to watch them witness that, too, and be forever moved and changed and validated."

Once "Brujería for Beginners" is over, the Twin Cities theater community will have to grapple with filling the gap 20% Theatre's absence will create. (Also this year, Shannon TL Kearns' transgender-focused Uprising Theatre Co. had its final curtain call.)

After all, equity and representation efforts may be more common across all fields of work now, but that doesn't mean everything is as it should be. Perhaps one of the main consolations we can take is that 20% Theatre pushed us that much closer, that much faster, toward that ideal. We just have to carry forth the momentum.

The 2019 production "Unknown" by Alexis Clemens.


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