There’s a common saying in the theater world that goes “As an actor, you’re fighting for your role, and as a director, you’re fighting for the show.”
Actor-turned-director Katie Bradley has recently experienced this perspective shift as she makes her mainstage directorial debut with Theater Mu’s Man of God.
Fans of Twin Cities theater may already know Bradley from her acting days at the Guthrie Theater, Park Square Theater, and Theater Mu, but now Bradley has stepped offstage to direct “funny feminist thriller” Man of God. The play examines the mental and emotional shift from safe to dangerous when four teens from a Korean Christian school realize that their pastor has put a camera in their bathroom on a school trip to Bangkok. The audience is then “dropped into the middle of this confusion and chaos,” says Bradley, as the young girls—thousands of miles from their parents, without internet access—entertain differing revenge fantasies and ideas of justice.
Man of God isn’t an easy show to put on. All the action takes place in one room, the dialogue is rapid-fire, and the subject matter is uncomfortable—although, unfortunately, not unfamiliar in real life. The sexualization of teenage girls, especially of Asian descent, and invasion of privacy are serious topics, so navigating a dark comedy about such a violation of trust is no small feat. To make it work, the actors needed to trust one another to be creative and collaborative.
Luckily, Bradley has the life experience needed to direct the show that marks Theater Mu’s return to in-person performances.
A Korean American adoptee, Bradley grew up watching her mother teach theater around the Twin Cities, exposing her to the craft and what female leadership looked like from an early age.
After years working as an actor, Bradley ended up working with Theater Mu, the St. Paul-based Asian American theater, and found an artistic home and professional support system. This was where she got some of her first directorial experience as assistant director to Lily Tung Crystal on Peerless, another dark comedy at Theater Mu that ran in early 2020.
Despite advances toward inclusivity in the theater world, Asian American representation onstage and in directorial roles is still lacking, and plays like Man of God shine an important light on Asian American stories and talent. So, for Bradley, a career in theater, and especially with Theater Mu, is an opportunity to make an impact.
“I want to be that person to help wield those stories and to be a mentor to younger actors of Asian descent because I didn’t have that when I was growing up,” Bradley says.
Now almost two years later, Crystal was the one who brought the Man of God script to Theater Mu, and Bradley immediately accepted when asked to direct.
For this story to work onstage, the cast needed to trust each other offstage, Bradley says. Man of God’s dialogue is fast-paced and intimate, mirroring the way teenage girls really communicate.
“Especially with this show, with these actors, and especially with the women in this show, it’s important to be able to bond and have this camaraderie,” Bradley says. “There’s a familiarity they need to reach.”
Throughout the rehearsal process, Bradley made sure to check in on her entire team. Work started with time to share what was going on outside their work at the theater, giving cast and crew insights into one another’s lives. Bradley doesn’t have a “leave-it-at-the-door policy” when coming to work. “With this kind of material, we can’t be robots,” she says.
Bradley encourages her cast to take time for themselves when needed. As an added benefit, Theater Mu provided the cast with free and confidential access to therapy throughout the production process.
Bradley says she felt drawn to the story not only because of its darkly comedic side, but also because of what it explores. At its core, Man of God is about what unfolds after something bad happens and the mental and emotional fallout impacts victims who are young and may lack the ability to understand what happened or advocate for themselves.
Bradley’s enthusiasm for Man of God is more than just professional interest in an important story—it also comes from a personal place. When Bradley was the same age as the four girls in Man of God, a “jarring and pivotal” mental health tragedy affected her family member and that experience still informs her compassion for how teenagers process and express their trauma.
“As I’m directing this show and trying to understand the communication and how you process something in the moment, I was thinking back to when I was 16. I don’t remember much of it, but I do remember that I didn’t know how to process any of it,” she says.
She does remember returning to school after taking time off to be with her family and brushing off her friends’ questions about what had happened. Instead, her 16-year-old instinct was to say she was fine, lacking the vocabulary and life experience to understand what to do when you’re on the other side of a terrible life event.
“That’s a thing that these girls [in Man of God] are dealing with. They don’t know what it’s like to be on the other side. And they don’t have age or time yet to experience what that will be like,” she says.
Years later, as an adult, Bradley participated in a show with a plot line that mirrored issues in her personal life.
“There was one day where I was not OK. I was feeling anxious and panicked, and I told the director and they came out with me, and I told them what was going on. They were very understanding, but the problem was, in that context, I still felt othered, even though it was very supportive. I still felt like an anomaly,” Bradley says.
Now, as the director fighting for the success of Man of God and for the support her cast and crew may need, Bradley uses what she learned from these experiences to inform her directorial and leadership style.
“I have colleagues and friends who have dealt with sexual abuse and gaslighting from partners, and I think it’s so heartbreaking. But it happens more often that we realize. And people don’t talk about the survival part of it because they don’t want to or can’t,” she says.
But Man of God intends to remind us there are many valid ways to survive trauma, and justice looks different for everyone.
Theater Mu’s Man of God is running at the Mixed Blood Theatre, located at 1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis, until March 6. Actor talk-backs with the Asian Women United of Minnesota and ManForward will take place on February 24 and March 3.