Tall Poppy Syndrome

Last evening brought the first rehearsal in a three-week workshop of Casa Cushman, a new work by Tectonic Theater Project’s Leigh Fondakowski (best known for head-writing The Laramie Project), created with the help of Tectonic company members, various departments at the University of Minnesota, and The Playwrights’ Center.  It also brought cookies (which I consumed) and coffee (which I didn’t), both of which I found touching. This is my second tango with the script, as the playwright was in residence at the University last spring and I was invited to perform in the public reading then.  I loved the script.  Loved, loved, loved it.  All three hours of it.  Before that first read, Leigh jokingly referred to it as The Lesbian Mahabharata.  Around hour 2.5 I understood why.

And as of last night, I still love it.  All however-many-hours-there-are of it.  I love the Victorian era, I love works with a strong female lead, and I love works with multiple strong women (even in their weakest, darkest, most questionable moments) all the better.  Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition gave me my first taste of exhaustive historical research for theatrical purposes, and this new play continues to feed that beast.

Last evening also brought the joy of meeting and chatting with some of the most talented actresses in the Twin Cities, and at one point I found myself engaged in a discussion about being a transplant.  It turned out that I, like the others, find that the majority of our friends are also transplants.  We were all in agreement about how it’s so bloody difficult to get beyond Minnesota Nice and really know people here.  And how Minnesota Nice will smile at you with razor teeth to make sure you’re no shinier than anyone else.

Turns out, I’ve discovered, that many in the Minnesota theater community are willing participants in Tall Poppy Syndrome - the cultural phenomenon where those who flourish get cut down to size - where one’s success is greeted by another’s resentment.  Where, as Garrison Keillor put it, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average,” and I’ll add, “and NO ONE steps out of that line.”

Now, I will argue that I am no tall poppy in need of any kind of lopping, and yet from time to time I have found myself on the receiving end of those metaphorical garden shears.  Not outright, mind you, they’re Minnesota garden shears, after all.  They’re, you know, covered in nice.  The kind of nice that makes you want to recoil and grow a nasty set of thorns for protection.

The way I see it is this:  you and I are not in competition with each other and we never will be.  Because even though we may be the same “type” and go out for the same roles, you and I will never, ever bring the same thing to a role.  And so if the director hired you, then he obviously wanted your skills/personality/looks/voice for this job.  And not mine.  That’s not a competition, that’s a best-fit.  And I can’t wait to see what you’ll do with the part, because I’m looking to learn.  I’m looking for inspiration.

Dammit, this community needs all the tall poppies it can get!  We should encourage each other to grow tall.  Intellectually, artistically feed one another. We need to encourage and support and collaborate and benefit and love.  Because, in the words of Paul Wellstone, “we all do better when we all do better.”

But be warned, I’m not going to support you if your tallness turns you into a dick.  In that case, I might even take an extra moment of consideration in front of the Round-Up.  No tall dick-poppies allowed.


Casa Cushman Northrop Auditorium, University of Minnesota Friday, December 10 - 7pm Saturday, December 11 - 3pm