Works by Women

Supporting creative work by women

Interview: Heather E. Cunningham

Heather E. Cunningham is the Artistic Director of Retro Productions, a non-profit company known for its high quality productions since 2005. Last year’s The Desk Set was nominated for six New York Innovative Theatre Awards, including Outstanding Production of a Play and Outstanding Lead Actress.

Heather is also an accomplished actress. Her turn in Retro Productions’ Still Life by Emily Mann was named one of the ‘Performances to Remember’ by Back Stage.

Retro Productions opens Norman Krasna’s screwball comedy Dear Ruth on Wednesday, May 4th at the Spoon Theater (38 West 38th St. in New york City). Before the show’s opening, Heather answered questions about the company and why Dear Ruth remains a hilarious comedy seven decades after its debut.

1. What prompted you to found Retro Productions?

A few years prior to Retro’s first production I was in (forgive me, I just have to say it) several terrible productions in a row, two of which shared a few cast members. One of those cast members turned to me one day, exhausted, and said “I’m tired of making other people’s shit look good” and it was my lightbulb moment! There were so many plays I wanted to do, and I thought “I could make my own shit look good!” And I started thinking about producing my own work. It was a short while later that I came up with the idea of Retro Productions and retro theater. So much of who I am has to do with being the daughter of designers and I wanted on some level to guarantee the need for designers. Period work does that. But I also have a huge love of old things. I have the heart of a collector and I love things that were made in the past, and that remind us of where we’ve been. From books to kitchen utensils to plays.

2. What attracted you to Norman Krasna’s DEAR RUTH?

Richard Roland and I were looking for a project to do together and I wanted it to be a comedy because I knew that the first show of our season was a drama (I try to keep a balance of comedy and drama each season as much as I can). We were reading some wonderful plays and applied for the rights to several of them, but were having trouble getting permissions. Then I came across this play at Drama Book Store and picked it up. I knew nothing about it, but I saw that it had a reasonable number of characters and was written in the mid 40s, so I bought it and took it home. I loved it! So funny and sweet and perfectly retro, you can’t set this play in any other time without rewriting the dialogue. Not to mention great casting for several of Retro’s company members! Lucky me, Richard loved it too! He’s a great fan of that era, and he loved the idea of doing something a little screwball.

3. What would you like people to know about DEAR RUTH and Retro Productions that they don’t?

That we exist! Ha ha, I kid, or do I? Retro’s been around now for 6 years, and I definitely think that people are just starting to find us. I guess what I want to say to people who don’t know us is that if you are looking for high production value in an intimate setting at a low price point, you should definitely check us out. Beyond that, and more importantly, we strive to tell good stories! Sure, some of them have been written in the past, but who can’t afford to learn a lesson or two from the past? I think we all can (what’s that old yarn about those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it?).

I do also want to take a moment to point out that Dear Ruth is family friendly, so if you have kids you might consider bringing them along. It’s a romantic comedy and has elements kids will enjoy – in particular young Miriam getting in trouble with her parents is something every kid can relate to. And as someone who was brought to all kinds of theater as a child I can tell you there is no experience for a kid as magical as a live theater experience, so if you’re looking for a show to take your kid to that’s not “children’s theater” this one would certainly fit the bill.

4. You’re working with a Who’s Who of indie theater — actors Shea Gines, Joe Mathers and Matthew Trumbull, costume designer Viviane Galloway and more. What’s the experience been like?

Well, I have to say, I feel like a lucky duck! I’ve known Shay for years through the NYITAwards because Retro has been involved pretty much since our beginning. I’ve always liked her so much, and to discover what a wonderful actress she is has been the biggest treat. This is Matthew’s second show with Retro Productions, and I’m amazed how he just gets better with each new thing he does. He’s an incredible talent and a wonderful comedian. And Viviane has been one of my closest friends for, gosh, going on a decade now. This will be the third show she’s designed for Retro, and I’ve always had the utmost respect for her. It is unbelievable what she accomplishes on next to no money. I wonder how she does it!

And you know, there are several newcomers to Retro – Becky Byers, wow, what an actress, and Joe Mathers! He’s simply wonderful. I’m also thrilled to have a wonderful “partner” on stage in David Sedgwick, he’s a joy to banter with. And our Retro company members Alisha Spielmann, Douglas Giorgis and Matilda Szydagis are always wonderful on stage and it always makes me so happy to work with them, as well as our company sound designer Jeanne Travis. I’m overjoyed at the bond our company members have with each other, it makes the process so wonderful when you develop a friendship and a short hand with your co-stars.

We have some wonderful guest staff on this show too – scenic designer Jeff Stander has done the most amazing job turning this tiny theater in to a lavish living room, Jacqueline Reid has been lighting it beautifully and director Richard Roland, I can’t say enough about all the blood, sweat and tears he’s putting in.

5. What’s next for you?

Well, at this point my next project after Dear Ruth is Retro’s fall show, The Runner Stumbles, which is a fantastic courtroom drama/whodunnit that is based on actual events that happened in 1911 in Michigan. The play centers on a Catholic priest who has been arrested for the murder of a nun. It’s quite a play! And the director, Peter Zinn, and I are really jonesing to get to work! Lots of research to be done, we’ve never done anything that took place in the 19teens before!

6. What do you think is the greatest challenge facing American female theater artists?

Well, there certainly are some big ones. Too many actresses and not enough roles will always hover around the top of that list. And I’m at the age where many of my peers are starting families, and that’s a huge challenge on the schedule and income of an artist. But I think we share many challenges with our male colleagues: not enough funding, not enough affordable space (the indie community in particular is losing performance venues left and right), not enough people who seem to respect and want art in their lives to keep it alive.

7. What gives you hope for women in American theater?

The women themselves do. We are passionate, caring, motivated. With women it’s not just about having fun (although it is), it’s about keeping it alive. Doing it because we must, because we can’t imagine not doing it. And that means that women will always be a part of American theater.

Retro Productions’ next show, Dear Ruth by Norman Krasna, runs May 4 – 21, 2011 at the Spoon Theater (38 West 38th St.).  Tickets are $18 general admission or $15 for students/seniors at

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