Claire Avitabile: Making Space for Queer Theatre

Claire Avitabile; photo Sarah Whiting

Claire Avitabile brought visibility to women and transgender theater artists by founding 20% Theatre Company Twin Cities. After 15 seasons, the company is closing its operations in 2021, taking the time to first celebrate its impact.

Avitabile was studying at Smith College in Massachusetts when the New York State Council on the Arts released a report from a three-year study of the status of women in theater. The researchers demonstrated that 23 percent of the 2000-01 productions in the American Theatre magazine were directed by women and 20 percent had a woman on the writing team.

Julie Baber, who was one year ahead of Avitabile at Smith, used that glaring statistic as the basis for starting a theater company in New York, which she named 20% Theatre. A year after that, another friend from Smith moved to Chicago and co-founded 20% Theatre Chicago.

Avitabile arrived in Minnesota in 2005 and was struck by how difficult it was to get directing work. When she did get work, she was shocked and saddened about the lack of pay for the actors and theater professionals with whom she collaborated. She also felt there was a need for more queer theater in the Twin Cities. With Baber’s permission, she started 20% Theatre Twin Cities.

“I just woke up one day and felt like I could run off of the 20% model,” Avitabile says. Since then, 20% has produced traditional full-length plays, experimental work, and content specifically focused on trans stories.

“To be honest, we didn’t actually produce a play with a trans character until 2008, mainly because I didn’t know of any and was struggling to find plays with trans content,” says Avitabile. “Then, my good friend and fellow Smith College alum, Tobias K. Davis, emailed me his play “Standards of Care,” which had an amazing modern plot, great dialogue, humor and heartache, and featured a trans character without being a Trans 101 type of play. The response to our production was amazing. We knew right away that we needed to do more trans work and also do the work to engage more trans artists on stage and behind the scenes, which is what we did.”

Avitabile is most proud of the company’s Q-STAGE: New Works Series. Begun as an incubator program in 2013, Q-Stage exemplifies many of the values of 20%, including providing opportunities for early career artists, who are given resources, mentorship, and a larger stipend to create work.

“That project has been incredible to watch grow over the years,” Avitabile said, adding that the program will live on in the hands of Artistic Director Marcella Michelle, who will bring the program to another queer arts group, Lightning Rod, after 20% sunsets.

Michelle became part of the 20% team five years ago after seeing an audition notice for a trans woman of color. She says Avitabile’s dedication to the mission, and her willingness and desire for accountability, have been crucial. “There are so many queer artists and so many trans artists who found a home in 20%, myself included,” Michelle says.

“I think the legacy she is leaving behind is present in me personally, as someone who is in a position to continue that legacy, and who feels that Claire’s work has genuinely changed my life.”

Avitabile says she has been committed to educating other cisgender people about how to best engage transgender artists. She has talked to local directors about not just finding a trans actor, but having transgender dramaturge and designers.

After 20% has its final curtain, Avitabile’s goal is to go back to school to earn a license as a marriage and family therapist. “It’s a more recent dream,” she says. She also hopes to get back into directing as a freelancer, without also producing.

Meanwhile, 20% has published all of the plays from its Naked I series, which brings together the stories of people who identify as trans, queer, or gender- nonconforming. She also is arranging for the company’s archives to go to the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies, so that anyone can learn about the company’s history.