DRAMATIC PAUSE. Assistant professor Kate Bredeson (right) takes stock of a rehearsal of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the brand new Diver Theatre in the Performing Arts Building. Sitting next to her are stage manager Jenn Lindell ’14 and assistant director Alan Cline ’14.

DRAMATIC PAUSE. Assistant professor Kate Bredeson (right) takes stock of a rehearsal of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the brand new Diver Theatre in the Performing Arts Building. Sitting next to her are stage manager Jenn Lindell ’14 and assistant director Alan Cline ’14.

Taking off the Gloves

Prof. Kate Bredeson challenges students to make theatre that is both real and unreal.

By Randall S. Barton | December 1, 2013

In the first moments of class, assistant professor Kate Bredeson [theatre 2009–] succinctly nails her subject matter: “We are here to discover how the world shapes theatre and how theatre shapes the world.”

Theatre History I is sometimes referred to as the Hum 110 of theatre. As a means of introducing themselves, students are invited to recount a theatrical production that shook them to their core.

One student recalls a grade-school production of To Kill a Mockingbird where the issue of race was abstracted by the wearing of gloves.

“But why is that important?” presses Bredeson. “Sometimes we have to make a case for why theatre is necessary.”

“The use of gloves stripped away the conviction that judgment values put on race are somehow inherent,” the student replies. “It shows that the judgment values and all of the consequences are social constructions. We’ve constructed these values onto people because of something they have no control over, like who gets to wear the glove and who doesn’t.”

There may be debate in the workaday world about whether theatre is still relevant. There is no debate at Reed. Theatre is a discipline that demands both intellectual rigor and practical know-how—both thought and action. Students read 18th-century French plays for insight into the social problems and moral dilemmas of the time. They also learn tips for warding off stage fright. Some will make a career in the theatre; others will take what they have learned into domains that have little to do with the smell of the greasepaint or the roar of the crowd.

“Reed is a liberal arts school,” says Bredeson, “not a conservatory. In the theatre department we teach how to be a leader and make things work with very few resources. Learning how to collaborate and communicate are skills that will benefit any student.”

Indeed, experiments show that learning and problem-solving skills are greatly improved the longer individuals have been involved in theatre.

“Theatre teaches you to work with people and collaborate in a way that I’ve never experienced in anything else,” explains one of Bredeson’s students. “You have to learn how to work with all types of people, and that teaches you a lot about yourself along the way. Not only do you learn what types of personalities you mesh with—or should learn to work with better—you learn about your own type of personality, how you work with other people, and how you relate to them. These are skills that you can apply in pretty much any other aspect of your life.”

It’s an exciting time in the theatre department. Building on a strong foundational program established by Prof. Kathleen Worley [theatre 1985–] and Prof. Craig Clinton [theatre 1978–2010], the department has added three new colleagues in the last few years: assistant professor Kate Duffly, stage designer Peter Ksander, and theatre designer Melissa Schlachtmeyer. And then there’s the new Performing Arts Building.

“This building is a laboratory for making experiments, and these are experiences in community and, frankly, of the heart,” Bredeson says. “We all did fabulous work in Kaul Auditorium, the gym, and in the old theatre building. This is going to kick it up a notch.”

Bredeson is quick to note she is a director and dramaturg, not an actor. One suspects she was born with her commanding presence, but apart from being an avowed Francophile by the age of eight, she claims not to have been particularly theatrical as a child.

Her former student Dominic Finocchiaro ’11, who has gone on to produce plays in New York and who presented his play complex at Portland’s Just Add Water festival in July, said he would cast Katharine Hepburn to play Bredeson onstage. “Katharine Hepburn in her prime would best represent Kate’s fierce intellectualism and mixture of class, sass, wit, and fashion,” he says.

Growing up in Minnetonka, Minnesota, Bredeson was treated to performances at the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis. Though she occasionally took part in grade-school productions, she was passed over for the title role in “Snow White,” and ended up playing a tree.

At Macalester College she planned to major in French and studio art. Her life changed when—thinking it would be an easy credit—she signed up for an acting class. Theatre opened a window on the world of politics, history, social roles, and gender. Recruited as a props assistant on a college production, Bredeson experienced the power of collaboration and realized she’d found a home in the theatre, though perhaps not as an actor.

“I was never able to get out of my head enough to just feel and be onstage in the moment,” she says.

Instead, she found herself thinking about the historical and cultural conditions surrounding the plays, and how theatre worked. Her mentor, Prof. Beth Cleary, suggested she try directing and helped her secure a one-year internship in dramaturgy at the Guthrie Theater.

She went on to get her MFA and PhD at Yale School of Drama, and to win a Fulbright in Paris, where she lived for almost three years. As part of a Killam postdoctorate fellowship at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Bredeson taught for two years in the theatre department there. Before coming to Reed, she lectured in the theatre and performance studies program at the University of Chicago and was resident dramaturg in their professional on-campus Court Theatre.

“There is no one-sentence answer to what dramaturgy is,” says Bredeson. “If someone wants one, I’ll say it’s the art of collaboration.”

The collaboration can be with either the playwright or director, and the job is not to say what should happen, but figure out what the play wants to be. A stand-in for the audience and advocate for the play, the dramaturg brings to the enterprise a vast knowledge of theatre history and how theatre works as an industry.

Bredeson keeps a hand in both academic and professional theatre circles. She was the dramaturg for the recent Portland Playhouse productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Detroit. 

In addition, she regularly presents scholarly work as a theatre historian and contributes to various publications, including chapters in four different books, one about the Living Theatre and the Bread and Puppet Theater for a book about avant-garde theatre of the ’60s; another about French women stage directors for the book International Women Stage Directors; a chapter on French dramaturgy for a book on dramaturgy; and one on the occupation of the Odéon theatre and the revolutionary culture of the French stage for a collection rethinking the events of May ‘68.

A specialist in French theatre, Bredeson confesses that she feels more at home in Paris than anywhere else in the world. She is at work on a book, tentatively titled Occupying the Stage: Theatre of May ’68, about the student revolt in France when eight million workers went out on a strike that nearly toppled the government. “One of the significant things about May ’68 is its scale,” she says. “A mass of people effectively shut down large parts of the country for up to six weeks in some spirit of resistance. It was a theatrical action; it was enormous. And it also ties into theatre because it becomes about community and collective work.”

Theatre majors are required to take Bredeson’s two-semester theatre history class, which begins in ancient Greece and proceeds to the present. In addition, she teaches playwriting, dramaturgy, a course on gender and performance, and directs one production a year.

In November she directed Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the first production to be staged in Reed’s new Diver Theatre. Wilder’s stage directions call for “no scenery,” which brilliantly showcased the new space.

While students benefit from Bredeson’s connections in the theatre community, more than anything else they appreciate her passion and infectious enthusiasm.

“Whenever I think of Kate teaching,” says Cora Walters ’13, “I always see her smiling. She seemed to really believe in what she was doing and be excited by it. All of the professors at Reed are very intelligent, of course. But it’s not clear sometimes that they really love what they do—and that is always very visible with Kate.”

Finocchiaro lauds Bredeson for constantly challenging her students to consider how they can apply what they have learned, or move forward in their art form upon graduation. “Her advice has been key to my ability to succeed in the theatrical world outside of a classroom or academic setting.”

Bredeson enjoys the conference model of teaching and fosters collaboration both in the classroom and in the rehearsal room because “being able to work collaboratively is the thing that gives back most in the world.”

Asked why theatre is relevant, she doesn’t miss a beat. “Every act of theatre envisions another world,” she says, “and if you’re putting a different world onstage, by definition you believe in the possibility of other worlds.”

Kate Bredeson believes in other worlds, and is in the enterprise of creating them, one student at a time.

Tags: Professors, Performing Arts