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Austene Van on her new role with Yellow Tree Theatre: ‘Absolutely a dream’

Knowing it’s very early in the game and we’re still in a pandemic, we asked Van to talk about her goals and ambitions for Yellow Tree. She was full of ideas.

Jamecia Bennett, Mikell Sapp and Nadege Matteis in a scene from 2020's “Skeleton Crew.”
Jamecia Bennett, Mikell Sapp and Nadege Matteis in a scene from 2020's “Skeleton Crew.”
Photo by Justin Cox

In 2018, Austene Van told the Star Tribune’s Rohan Preston, “I want to be in my own home.” She meant her own theater home. An in-demand director, actor and writer, Van was perpetually busy and on the move, going from theater to theater.

Just one example: In April 2008, Van was directing “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” at the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul. At the same time, she was directing “Blues in the Night” at the Ordway’s McKnight Theatre (these were pre-Concert Hall days). She was literally running between theaters.

“I get to do less of that starting March 15,” Van said by phone on Monday evening. On that day, she will officially become producing artistic director of Yellow Tree Theatre.

Founded in 2008 by husband-and-wife team Jason Peterson and Jessica Lind Peterson, Yellow Tree is a small theater with a thrust stage, a lobby, loyal audiences, and a reputation for excellence. From 2008 through March 2020, it presented nearly 50 productions including 10 world premieres. It won Ivey awards, a National Theater Company grant, support from the NEA, the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board, and numerous “Best Of” call-outs.

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If you don’t know Yellow Tree, maybe that’s because it’s in a strip mall in Osseo.

“It’s not that far, but it feels way behind God’s shoulder,” Van said. “And it’s just unassuming in that little strip mall. But then you walk in and go ‘Ohhh!’ Magic happens here. [The Petersons] put a lot of love and care into that spot.”

Austene Van
Austene Van
Last August, five months into a pandemic that was already gutting the arts, the Petersons announced they would be leaving Yellow Tree and moving to Duluth, where they first met as UMD theater majors. They vowed that the Yellow Tree would remain strong. People were skeptical.

Managing Director Peter Carlson became executive director and Jessica stayed on as interim artistic director, giving herself a December deadline. Over the next several months, Yellow Tree presented an outdoor pop-up show, a parking lot concert and a holiday radio play. Most recently, they produced a virtual Valentine of songs and stories, “The Season of Love,” that’s still available through Feb. 28. They conducted a national search for an artistic director. Van rose to the top.

Van, who founded New Dawn Theatre Company in late 2018 as a step closer to making her own home, had more than 30 years of experience in Twin Cities theater, including history with Yellow Tree. She directed Marco Ramirez’s “The Royale” there in 2018. In February 2020, she directed Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” the last fully staged production at Yellow Tree before COVID-19. “Skeleton Crew” was a co-production with New Dawn. Van looked forward to more collaborations.

“Yellow Tree, Ten Thousand Things and Penumbra were my inspirations on how to be and how to do business,” Van said during our conversation Monday. “I almost quit theater until I walked into Yellow Tree. I was working so hard and not feeling rewarded, just worn out. And I walked into Yellow Tree and immediately thought, ‘This is how you do it.’

“The lobby was enticing. It felt magical. It felt like someone cared. Then I saw the production of [Craig Wright’s] ‘Grace’ [in 2017] with Mary Fox, Kurt Kwan and Jason Peterson. Jason and I sat and talked.

“I directed ‘The Royale,’ and the atmosphere was welcoming and positive and joyful, and the work ethic was wonderful. It was humane. I wanted to make more places like this. That’s why I started New Dawn.”

But New Dawn didn’t have a home, and Van’s hope that it would be able to present three or four plays a season wasn’t reachable.

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When George Floyd was killed by police on May 25, New Dawn was quick to respond. Working with local artists and community leaders, they created a film called “A Breath for George.” A powerful collage of songs, interviews, monologues and short films designed to spark dialogue and mobilize positive action, it screened some 40 times in outdoor locations around the Twin Cities and has been broadcast another 25 times on Zoom.

“We had to throw it together in a rough, kind of guerrilla way.” Van said. “But even how rough it is, it has impact.”

Now that Van has a new job, New Dawn company member André Shoals will take over booking and presenting “A Breath for George” and Van will focus on Yellow Tree. The plan is to produce three or four plays each season, one with New Dawn.

Knowing it’s very early in the game and we’re still in a pandemic, we asked Van to talk about her goals and ambitions for Yellow Tree. She was full of ideas.

James Craven and David Murray in a scene from 2018's “The Royale.”
Courtesy of Yellow Tree Theatre
James Craven and David Murray in a scene from 2018's “The Royale.”
“We’re going to create a core company so a lot of artists have a home and a base,” she said. “Even if you’re not getting paid, as a company member, you feel like you belong someplace.” [Van is a Penumbra company member.] She sees the company as a combination of New Dawn and Yellow Tree actors.

“I want to expand the Treehouse Theatre [summer camps for kids] to include more kids of color. I want to invite more directors in from different places around the metro area.

“I want Yellow Tree to be diverse, something Jason and Jessica had the heart to do and were brave enough to do. They were not afraid to do nontraditional casting, new plays, and plays by LGBTQ writers and African American women. When they did ‘The Miracle Worker,’ they cast Annie Sullivan as a Black woman [Kiara Jackson].

“I want to invite different communities into Osseo, and Osseo into other communities. A lot of artists I work with live right in the next neighborhood, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. Inviting those artists will automatically allow for new audiences to come and see what’s happening in Osseo.

“I want to employ a lot of artists. This is an opportunity, when we can open up, to get artists employed. To have another place where we can get especially BIPOC artists, women and LGBTQ artists, and make sure there’s space for their voices.

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“Realizing the opportunity this is creating is absolutely a dream.”

We asked Van to comment more on “when we can open up,” even though that’s still mostly speculation.

“I think often about how successful ‘A Breath for George’ has been,” she said. “Maybe we have social distancing and shows outside in a bandshell or a parking lot, where people can feel comfortable. I’ll be talking to our board and executive director, and other theaters about how they’re opening.

“I do want to do a full play when we can open up. We have to gauge if people are still triggered by going inside. Will we partition? Will everyone have a facial shield on? Will we reconfigure the space? There are so many things we can do.

Austene Van: “Realizing the opportunity this is creating is absolutely a dream.”
Courtesy of Yellow Tree Theatre
Austene Van: “Realizing the opportunity this is creating is absolutely a dream.”
“We have learned to exercise our creativity during the pandemic. There’s a way. We just have to put our minds together and figure out what it is. … When people are in need of the energy and life that art brings, the stimulation that art brings, it’s our duty to make sure they get it somehow.”

Meanwhile, Van being Van, she’s on the move. When we spoke, she was at Gremlin Theater in St. Paul, filming teasers for what would have been New Dawn’s next production, “Once Upon a Time … Josephine Baker.” Van wrote it and plays the role of Baker; Lou Bellamy is the director. At the Gremlin, Van is also managing the props and the sets.

She’s in the midst of a year-long residency with Hamline’s theater program, and she’s part of the newly formed MN Black Theatre Circle, a partnership with the Guthrie that will produce a three-day, theater-inspired arts festival, Blackness Is…, in May.

On Monday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m., Van, Maria Asp and Jane Froiland will read two scenes from a newly developed play, “The Most Beautiful Home … Maybe,” that Mixed Blood hopes to produce in the future. Its themes include housing insecurity and homelessness. That event will be presented by On Stage: Creating a Community Dialogue Around Live Theater and the East Side Freedom Library. FMI.