Julia Harman Cain vividly remembers her first encounter with Forum Theatre. Not long after moving to D.C. in 2007, she attended a performance of the Round House Silver Spring resident company’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”
“It was a really, really strong production,” she says. “I spent the last 10 minutes of the play crying. And I was seated in the front row — it was a little awkward.” Cain left the theater determined to get to the know Forum much better.
By the following season, Cain was working as associate producer on the company’s production of “Angels in America,” gay playwright Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opus about AIDS. And in 2010, Cain (who is gay) was named Forum’s managing director.
As managing director, Cain says, she’s a “behind-the-scenes person.”
She explains: “My job is to help make sure that everything is in place to make the season go. That includes marketing, fundraising and finance. I’m responsible for front of house, which includes everything you experience when you walk in the door. And operations. I call the repairman when the copier breaks.”
Forum founder and Artistic Director Michael Dove says “There’s very little that Julia and I do that isn’t collaboration. It’s much more a Venn diagram with a lot of overlap than two sides of an organization. But beyond her title as managing director, what may surprise people most is that I trust her artistic eye as much as any collaborator. She would make an amazing critic or dramaturg and keenly understands story. In fact, she has even brought several plays to me that we have produced in the past few years.”
While Cain concedes being gay doesn’t have a lot of impact on the daily mechanics of her position, she does view the arts through an LGBT filter. In fact, she has a little method she uses to rate the complexity of LGBT characters in films and plays. Based on the Bechdel litmus test (named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel creator of “Dykes to Watch Out For”) which rates the complexity of female characters on screen, Cain’s gay version asks: Is there an identifiable LGBT character? And does he or she talk with other characters about something other than their sexuality?
“Theater in D.C. scores very well when it comes to plays with layered LGBT characters,” she says. “And Forum in particular has an excellent track record for producing plays with LGBT central characters.”
Growing up in Needham, Mass., (a suburb of Boston), Cain, 27, made her theatrical debut in first grade as a super hero in a 10-minute skit about recycling. She went on to do school shows and community theater. As a Princeton undergrad, she majored in comparative literature and participated in extracurricular theater, mostly behind the scenes. (Cain loves stage managing, but reportedly makes “a really bad costume designer.”)
After graduating, rather than follow her theater-focused friends to New York, Cain moved to D.C. and began a season-long internship at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company where she also worked as an assistant to the company’s artistic director Howard Shalwitz. “Woolly was my introduction to professional theater,” she says. “Being around Howard taught me so much. Over 30 years, he has created a successful company and made a recognizable brand. Although their shows might sometimes be way out and not well known, Woolly’s audiences are willing to take that dive with them.”
“Forum is a big small company and I like that,” says Cain, who lives with her girlfriend in Takoma Park. “Because we’re not too big, it allows us to take risks and not deal with a lot of red tape. At Forum, we like to do shows that are conversation starters, to do plays that deal with social, political and spiritual themes, that are engaged with contemporary life. Most political theater has a reputation for being overly didactic. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
A couple of examples supporting Crain’s claim include Forum’s season opener Kara Lee Corthron’s “Holly Down in Heaven,” the story of a pregnant, born-again Christian teen who seeks solace from her eclectic talking doll collection; and Forum’s upcoming production “9 Circles” by playwright Bill Cain (no relation to Julia) to be staged by Jennifer Nelson. It’s a play based on real events about an American soldier who kills a family while serving in Iraq.
“I’ve always wanted Forum to be a service organization that spoke to a diverse community and to be a gathering place for ideas, discussion, and discourse. Julia brought the ideas and tools to start that process,” Dove says. “Julia transformed Forum from a rag tag group who put on plays into a functioning organization that better serves a community and grows responsibly.”