When they first met at the University of Texas, playwright Nicole Oglesby and director Marian Kansas had no idea that they would one day co-found a theater company. Now, several years later, the two are preparing to embark on their second production as the Heartland Theatre Collective (the first production, Dust, was at the tail end of 2016).
We spoke to the talented duo in order to learn more about how they brought the collaborative spirit of college theater out into the real world—and about their commitment to showcasing powerful Texas women.
How did your collaboration at UT Austin lead to establishing the Heartland Theatre Collective?
Oglesby: We met our senior year of college in a class on entrepreneurship and the performing arts. The class focused on defining who we were as artists and navigating the professional theater world. Realizing we had similar interests, we decided we wanted to make work together after college. When Marian asked me if I had a play she could direct, I put the script for Dust in her hands. She read it immediately and told me she wanted to make it happen onstage. Now, two years later, we have more experience and refinement, but we still have the same excitement and passion for the work we had as students.
Can you speak a little bit about your collaborative process, both as a writer/director team and as co-founders of Heartland?
Oglesby: The co-founder/producer component of our jobs work well because Marian and I are both extremely hardworking and driven. Though we each have individual expertise in areas such as grant writing or advertising, we delegate and share tasks. During the day, we both work in professional fields unrelated to theater that have given us experience we use as producers. We also added another producer, Katy Matz, to our team. As an artistic collaborator, Marian is a gem. She believes in my vision as a writer even when I give her scripts that need a lot of development and have challenging technical components caused by my tendency towards magical realism. She is also extremely good at directing intense, two-person scenes with a lot of beats and shifts in power and really understands my approach to dialogue.
Kansas: As a playwright, Nicole is absolutely fabulous to work with, not only because she’s incredibly talented and hardworking, but also very giving in her writing. She’s been very clear with me and all of our other team members from day one that she believes producing new work is a collaborative process. The themes she addresses in her work are always really fascinating and challenging as a director, and her style of writing finds a perfect balance between being poetic and actionable. Nicole incorporates elements into her plays that I love to work with, like games the characters play with one another, really interesting secrets, and big discoveries that always lead to intense, cathartic scenes.
What has been your experience getting a foot in the door in a town that's saturated with theater companies and yet so limited in performance space?
Oglesby: The lack of performance spaces has been a huge issue for us. Little Bird is actually happening later than we originally intended because we simply couldn’t find affordable space at the time we wanted. However, we love Austin artists and audiences. This city is filled with lots of talented people who are enthusiastic about new work.
Kansas: I think when we graduated we both knew that there was already so much work being made in Austin that it could take awhile for an existing Austin theatre company to approach us to direct or write a play. We realized we could become theater professionals much faster if we produced the work ourselves. And after Dust was successful—critically and financially—we decided to keep moving forward.
Heartland's mission—to "tell rich, powerful stories of Texan women of the past, present, and future that features female artists working in Austin"—is so specific, yet also opens the door to an endless amount of possibilities. What led you to make this your focus?
Oglesby: Our mission is derived from our values as individuals to uplift and provide opportunities for female artists as well as our mutual tastes. In college, we sat down together and realized we both loved the same novels, music, movies and theater. These shared values and tastes morphed into to the folksy, pathos-driven, women-oriented aesthetic that is the Heartland Theatre Collective.
Kansas: Not only does our mission touch on our personal interests, like feminine themes and our Southern roots, but it also helps differentiate us. No other theater company can lay claim to telling the stories of Texan women. Texas is so geographically huge and has so much history that we’ve found we can explore different themes and experiment with the structure of our plays while staying within our mission.
What can you tell audiences about your newest show, Little Bird?
Oglesby: Little Bird is a love story between two best friends. It champions the friendships young women share and the ways those friendships can protect us in a violent world. It's also a story about ghosts and memories and the way we grow with trauma. Little Bird has a unique structure and language, and we’ve got some amazing collaborators who are working hard to bring the dark, visceral East Texas bayou setting of the play come to life.
Kansas: I’m very excited about Little Bird because I think we’re really stretching ourselves. We’ve already started incorporating the work of our collaborators into the rehearsal process, so the vision for the play is much more holistic. I think audiences can expect to see the designs, the acting and the writing all come together and complement each other really beautifully in the performances.