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Why the Mint Theater Company wants New York audiences to know Elizabeth Baker
You've probably never heard of Elizabeth Baker, and the Mint Theater Company, which specializes in reviving lost plays, aims to fix that. A British dramatist who enjoyed a fair amount of success in her homeland in the early 20th century, she's barely known stateside, and was more or less forgotten in her native country until recently. But with an oeuvre that examines issues of class and gender with intelligence and insight, it's easy to see why Mint producing artistic director Jonathan Bank thought the time was right to introduce New York audiences to Baker. In fact, he's so taken with her work that the company is producing three of her plays over the next two seasons, beginning with The Price of Thomas Scott, which hasn't been staged since its 1913 premiere.
Bank first learned of Baker in the anthology New Woman Plays, which showcased the work of proto-feminist playwrights, including her 1909 breakthrough Chains. Later, he came across a list of female dramatists produced on the West End, and discovered Baker's extensive catalogue. That's when he realized she was ripe for a revival.
Bank decided to start with The Price of Thomas Scott because its central ethical dilemma reminded him of the controversial case of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because he claimed it violated his religious beliefs. In Baker's play, the Scott family is eager to sell their declining hat shop. But when a buyer expresses an interest in turning the establishment into a public dance hall, the patriarch, Thomas, balks because he thinks that's immoral. Meanwhile, the life of Thomas' daughter Annie -- an ambitious hat trimmer who dreams of studying millinery in Paris and opening her own shop in London -- hangs in the balance. Her father's decision will determine her future.
"You can feel that it was written by a woman because even though the big choice is made by a man, the play is really told through the daughter's eyes," says Emma Geer, who plays Annie. "You follow her shifts and changes through this show. Baker came from a background of restriction herself, but had big dreams despite that. I certainly feel that as my character."
Bank admits directing The Price of Thomas Scott required a fair amount of research for context. He looked to historians to learn more about English morality at that time and read about the noncomformists -- English Protestants who disagreed with the doctrines established by the Church of England. They often opposed dancing and other forms of entertainment. Baker was raised in such a household, and didn't even see theatre until she was in her thirties.
However, none of that information is necessary to understand the play's themes. "It isn't about dance," Bank says. "It's about the opposition of something you don't understand, and the unwillingness to learn about it."
Baker's thoughtful yet polite take on polarized arguments is refreshing in 2019. The characters can't "unfriend" each other jokes Bank. "I love that everybody who disagrees gets along -- at worst they live and let live, and at best, they love."
In order to showcase the breadth of Baker's work, the Mint will host readings of a number of her scripts later this season, and then mount full-fledged concurrent productions of two of her plays next summer: Chains, about lower-middle class people yearning to break away from their stifling jobs and marriages, and 1921's Partnership, about a headstrong single woman running a high-end fashion shop -- perhaps an unofficial sequel to The Price of Thomas Scott.
"You can certainly see the author in all of her work once you line it up across the board," says Bank. "But the feel of her plays are all very different."
Top image: Emma Geer and Ayana Workman in The Price of Thomas Scott. Photos by Todd Cerveris.