Dynamic trio

These local women hope to revolutionize theater in the Twin Cities with an emphasis on females over 50

Alison Edwards, Shelli Place and Elena Giannetti (left to right), the founders of PRIME Productions, share a combined 110-plus years of experience in stage, film and television.
Elena Giannetti, Alison Edwards and Shelli Place (left to right), the founders of PRIME Productions, share a combined 110-plus years of experience in stage, film and television. Photos by Tracy Wlash Photography

“We come from three different perspectives — a New York edge, a California vibe, and a Minnesota sensibility.”

That’s how Shelli Place describes the three founders of PRIME Productions, a new Twin Cities theater company created to celebrate women “in their second act,” with a focus on women over age 50.

“The Twin Cities is rich in experienced female talent,” Place said. “But there’s a gap in the plays and roles to fully utilize that resource.”

Established in 2016, PRIME Productions’ mission is to fill that gap with plays and staged readings, along with workshops, not only to employ more female theater artists, but also to address issues that are more relevant to an aging population.

That aforementioned “edge, vibe and Minnesota sensibility” are attributed, respectively, to Alison Edwards, Place and Elena Giannetti, leveraging a combined 110-plus years of experience in stage, film and television.

The three women — who all live in the Twin Cities — say it’s time to exploit “the possibilities of age” that Betty Friedan, in her 1993 book, The Fountain of Age, said modern culture fails to recognize amid the pursuit of “the illusions and expectations” of youth.

Only a handful of actresses arriving at “a certain age” are able to find work, from Minneapolis to Hollywood. A lucky few even work steadily.

But the reality is that theatrical opportunities typically dwindle — and often disappear altogether — for older females. The Meryl Streeps of the world are the exceptions, not the rule. (And she’s only 67.)

A secondary downside is that thoughtful representations of aging remain elusive, particularly for females, further shifting the culture away from reality and back again to youthful bodies, unwrinkled faces and more innocent narratives.

Maggie Smith, the 82-year-old British actress who most recently played the sharp-tongued dowager in the Downton Abbey TV series, said, “There aren’t, on the whole, a lot of parts for people my age. There’s no Mrs. Lear, is there?”

More opportunities

The women of PRIME Productions want to provide more paid work for seasoned female theater artists in the Twin Cities. But they’re also determined to break down longstanding age barriers, so that different generations can attend theater together and engage in interesting discussions, Place said.

Their vision also includes focus groups, collaboration with women’s and senior organizations and a playwriting contest and festival.

Though the timing of PRIME’s launch seems spot on — given the imminent aging of the always-influential baby boomer generation — it’s no small task, creating a new, lasting creative enterprise in a metro area full of competing stages.

“It takes a lot of energy to start a new theater company,” Place said. “And sometimes I think — as I’m reading my AARP magazine — ‘Why am I trying to do this at this point in my life?’”

Answering her own question, Place said: “I see so many female actors and designers in town who have decades of experience, and I want to help provide them opportunities to work and grow as artists. I am in this for the long run. It will be nice to know that, as actors mature, there will be a place for them to play.”

The women of PRIME Productions are fighting against the ageist nature of the entertainment business on the local level as well as lack of community among older thespians, Edwards said: “As you pass your ‘semi-centennial,’ you have less opportunity, and the roles are often minor characters; so it’s easy to get isolated because you’re the only woman ‘of a certain age’ in the cast.”

PRIME, Edwards said, is hoping to create a community and “opportunities for a camaraderie that rarely exists.”

A shared vision

PRIME’s beginnings didn’t take root overnight.

Giannetti started thinking about starting a female-based theater company six years ago.

After reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, she felt energized — and inspired to apply Sandberg’s philosophy to the arts.

Entering midlife, Giannetti yearned to feel valid as a seasoned artist, rather than encouraged to begin winding down her career.

“I wanted to lean in to that,” she said.

Giannetti sees PRIME Productions as a natural progression in a rapidly changing social and political climate.

“There’s a slow shift happening,” she said. “We had our first female presidential candidate. Women are owning their womanness, being proud of their age: ‘I got this far and I have something to share.’”

Giannetti and Place shared their ideas about women in theater during the 2013 Fringe Festival when Giannetti, working as co-producer/director, hired Place for a role in a play coincidentally titled, A Certain Age, by local playwright Jennifer Cockerill, which garnered an encore performance.

They clicked; a seed was planted. Then, when Edwards met the two women in 2015, brainstorming began in earnest.

Outside feedback on their idea was enthusiastic and supportive, assuring them that they were on to something.

Making it happen

And, so, they took the leap.

They received a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC) to help launch their first production.

An October audition call brought a huge response — 78 actresses — confirming the Twin Cities’ wealth of underutilized over-50 female talent.

A staged reading in November at St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre received enthusiastic support, as did first-time participation in Give MN, formerly Give To The Max Day.

Though the focus of PRIME Productions is actresses and stage folk age 50 and older, the company isn’t exclusive. Men and younger thespians are welcome.

PRIME’s first production features seven female characters age 22 to 65, performing a male-authored play, Little Wars by Steven Carl McCasland.

Their debut show, which opens May 6 at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, centers on an imagined gathering in the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the French Alps just before France falls to Germany in June 1940.

Guests include Agatha Christie, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and a mysterious American woman sharing an evening of drinks, dinner and intriguing “what-ifs” with intelligent verbal sparring and provocative wit.

Edwards, who will portray Agatha Christie, said the characters are “smart, funny, assertive and human — not a victim in the bunch.”

Place, who is directing, said: “With the high stakes of time and place and egos and secrets of several iconic women, you have a pot definitely worth stirring.”

The play’s cast will also feature Candace Barrett-Birk (Guthrie, Old Log), Sue Scott (Prairie Home Companion, Mixed Blood), Elizabeth Desotelle (Chanhassen, Old Log), Laura Adams (Park Square, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company), Vanessa Gamble (History Theater, Illusion) and Miriam Schwartz (Guthrie, Workhouse Collective).

Richard Cook, artistic director at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, said the PRIME project is impressive as well as perfectly timed.

“There are so many unattended voices right now,” he said. “The box on mature women doesn’t get checked so much. We need women playwrights to be heard as well as to showcase the onstage talent.”

Cook met with the founders of PRIME to talk about potential future productions for Park Square.

“These women are definitely a power trio,” he said. “I love that they have a single point of view and speak it with integrity.”

I see so many female actors and designers in town who have decades of experience, and I want to help provide them opportunities to work and grow as artists. — Shelli Place, co-founder of PRIME Productions and the director of the company’s debut, Little Wars

Shelli Place

Place grew up in Miami. Seeing the musical Oklahoma at age 6 was “love at first sight.” She watched her mother stage shows for a small club, fell in love with Shakespeare in eighth grade, and by high school was staging productions herself.

With a bachelor’s in acting from Southern Methodist University, she began working professionally shortly after graduation and hasn’t stopped since.

She’s produced and directed corporate productions, stage plays, musical reviews and fashion shows throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Her lengthy client list includes names such as Sony, Liz Claiborne Cosmetics and 20th Century Fox.

As a dialogue/speech coach, she’s worked with celebrities and dignitaries including former presidents and secretaries of state.

Living in Los Angeles, Place appeared in film and television roles including 3rd Rock from the Sun. On stage, she did regional theater and toured the U.S. and Japan in plays such as King Lear, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Twelfth Night.

Since moving to the Twin Cities, she’s acted, directed and choreographed at numerous venues, including the Old Log Theatre, Minnesota Jewish Theatre and the Hennepin Theatre Trust.

She is a member of The Actors Workout, an ongoing class for experienced actors offered by Raye Birk in association with the Guthrie Theater.

As you pass your ‘semi-centennial,’ you have less opportunity, and the roles are often minor characters; so it’s easy to get isolated because you’re the only woman ‘of a certain age’ in the cast. — Alison Edwards, a co-founder of PRIME Productions who will portray Agatha Christie in the company’s debut, Little Wars

Alison Edwards

Edwards, although new to the Twin Cities, has spent the past 40 years in New York acting in theater, film, TV and, more recently, audio books.

Edwards grew up in Jackson, Miss., and Summit, N.J., learning theater basics from her parents’ involvement in community theater. In high school, she loved doing plays, but didn’t think people “actually made a living” that way.

She signed up for a more practical biology class, but found she didn’t have the heart to dissect a frog. Switching to a drama class, she found an “amazing teacher” who helped her realize acting was what she wanted to do. Acceptance into Boston University’s theater program cemented her commitment.

After graduation, she took on the robust theater scene in New York where she did make her living as an actress.

She performed at the Roundabout Theatre, the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Riverside Shakespeare Festival, and spent four years at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and understudied Judith Light on the national tour of Wit.

She said: “I’ll let the amazing roles I’ve played that are ‘of a certain age’ speak for my experience: Eleanor of Aquitaine in Lion in Winter, Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Sister Aloysius in Doubt, Gertrude in Hamlet.”

In New York, Edwards was increasingly cast in regional theater shows and national tours from Syracuse to Santa Fe. The downside: “I was always packing up and leaving town.”

Seeking a kinder, gentler place — where she could be involved in theater and live at home — brought her to the Twin Cities.

Today she coaches privately and teaches Shakespeare for Actors at Remedios Creative in Minneapolis.

“I’ve been lucky to do a lot of Shakespeare and I love it. The language is so rich, the characters fascinating,” Edwards said. “There are so many wonderful actors who find [Shakespeare] intimidating. I’m hoping to help change that.”

There’s a slow shift happening. We had our first female presidential candidate. Women are owning their womanness, being proud of their age. — Elena Giannetti, a co-founder of PRIME Productions

Elena Giannetti

Giannetti grew up in Minneapolis and was hooked on theater after appearing in a small nonspeaking role at age 6.

Before finishing high school, she’d already appeared on numerous metro stages including the Guthrie and Children’s Theatre Company and attended a summer program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York before earning her bachelor’s in dramatic arts at Macalester College.

Then she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked in the legal department of DreamWorks Studios, then as a contract administrator in the company’s London office. She also served as a personal assistant to composer Michael Kamen, who scored many Hollywood films.

She returned to Los Angeles for a few years before settling back into the Twin Cities theater scene in 2003 with major roles on numerous stages including Park Square, History Theatre, Minnesota Jewish Theatre and Theatre in the Round.

She also played roles in commercials, industrial films and several independent films, including the web series Theater People.

Giannetti also knows production: She directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Park Square last November and directed/produced several Fringe Festival shows as well.

On top of that, Giannetti has extensive experience as an assistant director and as a tour and booking manager. She’s been a co-producer of the New Look Actors Showcase in The Dowling Studio and is also a participant and class assistant for The Actors Workout, both at the Guthrie.

Unshakeable trio

All three women say they’re ready for the considerable challenges ahead.

Giannetti added that she and her PRIME co-founders are all three “dynamic, smart and comfortable with challenging each other.”

“I don’t think any one of us is a pushover,” she said. “If we want to defend something, we strongly defend it.”

Edwards added: “We don’t always agree, but we seem to balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses and provide support where it’s needed.”

Though their diverse perspectives can make discussions lengthy, there’s a benefit, Place said: “When a decision is made, you know the idea has been thoroughly vetted.”

The women’s unshakeable confidence in the relevance of their project is palpable. Thoreau said, “None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.”

It would seem that Giannetti, Place and Edwards boast an abundance of enthusiasm they’re not likely to outlive any time soon.

Eleanor Leonard currently lives on St. Paul’s East Side. She’s been an actress, flamenco dancer, legal secretary and massage therapist, all of which, combined with a nosey curiosity, provide lots of material for her writing. She writes regularly for The Phoenix Spirit, a Twin Cities-based bi-monthly publication focused on wellness.

See their first show

PRIME Productions, a new professional theater company in the Twin Cities, presents Little Wars, its full theatrical debut, written by Steven Carl McCasland.

When: May 5–21; the playwright will attend and participate in a post-show discussion for the May 12 performance.

Where: Mixed Blood Theatre, Minneapolis

Cost: General admission is $25. Reserve seats at Brown Paper Tickets at tinyurl.com/little-wars-prime. Discounts are available for seniors, veterans and active military, students and groups.

Info: primeprods.org