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MSP's Theater Community Then and Now: Building New Rooms in a House They Constructed

Lou Bellamy and Sarah Bellamy

T. Mychael Rambo

Randy Reyes

Mu Performing Arts

Pangea World Theater

Jack Reuler

Michelle Hensley

This article is the second in a two-part series about the history—people, organizations, places and philanthropy—that have created the second largest theater city after New York: Minneapolis-St. Paul. To read part one, go here. The series is excerpted from Offstage Voices: Life in Twin Cities Theater by Peg Guilfoyle, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
MSP’s theater community today—which is large, mobile and inventive—springs from a long line of theater people, of all types, stretching back decades and longer. Theater is brutally brief, existing only in memory once the curtain falls, but it is constructed of individual efforts and, over time, it is the individuals who build the future as they themselves recede into the past. People have come before, they have worked just as hard, they have had their triumphs and tragedies, and in historical terms, we are building new rooms in a house they constructed.
Stepping in where there’s space
One measure of attaining critical mass for health and longevity in the theater community is what might be called a deep bench. The number of institutions and theater people is certainly important, but so is a stratified community consisting of different layers of experience and professionalism. A self-sustaining and growing theater community needs enough senior artists who are reasonably successful and reasonably willing to serve as guides and mentors, even just by example, to the ones coming up. It’s also necessary to have a strong enough community of peers to provide an atmosphere that can ignite artists looking for collaborators and for alignment of vision.
Mobility also matters. Young artists need to see a way to move up. Sound designer C. Andrew Mayer tells a story: “When I started, there were three of us who kind of had the town carved up, like the godfather families. We each had our own gigs that we did, and occasionally we would throw stuff at each other that we couldn’t do. It was quite stable for a while there. Then the new Guthrie opened, and the other two got full-time jobs and dropped out of the freelance market. And I started getting bigger gigs and more gigs. People start to burble up, you know. People step up when there’s a space for them.”
Joe Dowling spent 20 seasons as artistic director of the Guthrie Theater. His colleague for 19 years, John Miller-Stephany, feels that one of Dowling’s major legacies is the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program, which had graduated 10 classes of classically trained actors by the time of Dowling’s final season at the Guthrie in 2014–15. The program has helped to cultivate a steady supply of passionate and talented young actors who have helped to revitalize the local theater scene.
Miller-Stephany observes, “Many BFA students come here to study from out of town and fall in love with the Twin Cities. A good many of them stay after graduating, at least for a couple of years. Quite a few BFA graduates have decided that they want to call the Twin Cities their permanent home, and that’s been transformative of the local theater community.”
The BFA actors and alumni have been seen everywhere on Twin Cities stages, appearing in more than 68 eight theaters and in 600 roles since the program’s inception. Another active entry point for young actors is the Children’s Theatre
Company’s Performing Apprentice program. “One of our great pleasures,” CTC’s Peter Brosius says, “is the number of Performing Apprentices we’ve brought here from out of town, who make this their home, and make the city a better city because they’re wonderfully talented young actors.” These programs provide top-flight training, enrich the talent pool, and offer wonderful actor watching to observant audience members.
A supply of good young actors is important to the community, but the bench has to be deep in more than one way; theater workers are not interchangeable. If you produce musicals, you need sufficient numbers of actors who can also sing and dance—a skill set sometimes called “triple threats.” Working in Chekhov and Shakespeare? Better be counting on a large community of character actors. Producing new work? Those young actors will be needed in quantity—much new work is written with young characters—and everyone must understand how to do a new-script reading. Comedies and light entertainment? Particular boldness and terrific timing may be required, and that’s before even considering the general baselines of talent and availability.
Institutional depth across disciplines
The quantity of theaters and theater-support organizations provides one way to measure liveliness in a community. Artists meet, work together, and trade ideas at these places. Theater companies pay attention to what their colleagues across town are doing; artists pay attention to what their peers are doing. Although finding time against performance schedules can be difficult, most working theater people try to see other work, not only for friendship and collegiality but also for inspiration. Everyone in the theater community supplies grist for the mill.
Another sign of health is evident when word spreads not just inside but also outside the community about what should be seen. Sometimes the interest level and rigor of a production rise enough to attract other theater artists to the community to see it, to participate in it, and perhaps to stay. During the 1980s, under the leadership of artistic directors Liviu Ciulei and then Garland Wright, the Guthrie Theater invited leading theater artists from around the world to come to Minnesota to work for one show or a series of shows. Their presence here, and sometimes the opportunity to work directly with them, exposed Minnesotans to what was happening in the profession elsewhere in the world.
Theater artists and audiences here saw the designs of Radu and Miruna Boruzescu, the directing of Lucien Pintilie and Peter Sellars and JoAnn Akalaitis, the lighting of Jennifer Tipton, and the scenery of John Arnone, among others. Most of these artists came for a portion of a season, or a few shows, and went flying on, although actors and staff who came during that period sometimes looked around and stayed. Practitioners of theater in the Twin Cities were regulars in the Guthrie audience during this time, ingesting the aesthetics, adapting and carrying them forward in their own creative projects, deepening the work here and encouraging more cross-fertilization.
Peter Brosius is another example of an artist who settled in Minnesota because of the strong work being done here, particularly citing Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the seminal and celebrated company that won a regional Tony Award in 2005 and is still often mentioned by theater professionals as influential to their own work. “I was a fan from afar,” Brosius recalls. “I’d been following them for years. The idea that I could be in the community where Dominique [Serrand] and Steve [Epp] and that whole team was making work that rigorous, that inventive, that brilliantly theatrical was a big motivator to come here.”
Serrand’s nontraditional theater, which was founded to play half the year in Minneapolis and half the year in Paris, closed in 2008 after years of what Playbill magazine described as “visually-stunning, mind-stirring work—often movement-oriented, projection-kissed, and theatrically multi-disciplinary.” Serrand is now, with Epp, co-artistic director of the Moving Company.
Director Peter Rothstein also cites the work of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, along with the opportunity to assist then–artistic director Garland Wright at the Guthrie, as reasons he chose to settle in the Twin Cities. The larger a community grows, the more easily it can provide another critical ingredient for growth and survival: opportunities for work—work to be had, work to be taken, work to feed artists as they find their way to a reasonable balance in the notoriously underpaid arts. When there is work to be had, artists will arrive to do it.
“We don’t do musty”
This institutional depth in a community crosses artistic disciplines and contributes to general cultural richness and fertility. Teresa Eyring notes the presence of “more than one very high-quality institution in any given discipline” as part of what is unusual and special about the Twin Cities. “You have the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. You have the Children’s Theatre Company, the flagship, and you also have Stages Theatre Company. And the museums. Where you might expect one major institution in the discipline, there are multiples.”
This broad landscape provides room for both variety and quantity. “The Twin Cities theater community is unusual in the sense that there has always been very strong differentiation in the community,” says Eyring. “You don’t see a lot of replication. In some cities, there might be five or 10 theaters that are all kind of doing the same sort of work, competing for the same material, getting rights to the same plays. In the Twin Cities, it was always really delineated. The Guthrie and its mission are very different from the Children’s Theatre Company mission, which is very different from Penumbra, which is very different from Mixed Blood or Illusion. Very distinct.  And I think that made it more likely that people go to multiple theaters to see these different kinds of work.”
Mixed Blood’s Jack Reuler agrees that the variation in types of theaters is one of the great assets of the Twin Cities—and beyond simple differentiation, there is high quality. Reuler remarks, “I believe that the Twin Cities have the best of the best for every genre that there is in the world of theater. The Children’s Theatre is the best children’s theater in the country. The Guthrie is the flagship institutional theater. I think Penumbra is the definitive African American theater. I think Mu Performing Arts is the great Asian American theater in the country. I think Chanhassen is the best dinner theater in America. I think Mixed Blood is the best Mixed Bloodthere is.”
“I named half a dozen,” Reuler continues, “but I could name another 30. And every one has carved out a mission that is distinct from everyone else, that allows audience members—who might not even know yet that they want to be audience members—to have a place to go. Everybody is working together, so what we have to offer is a broad spectrum of aesthetics, and what theater can do.”
In addition to the theater creators, the theatergoers, too, must grow and reach critical mass; their size and quality are a crucial component to the health of the community. Eyring acknowledges the remarkable artists “who have challenged audiences and brought them along. The audience [in the Twin Cities] might be a little different, a little more knowledgeable about the variety in types of theater. I think of people there as being more socially engaged, more politically active. It’s that engagement with and caring about community that also makes people go to the theater and relate to the work. For a lot of people there, it’s part of life, it’s part of expressing your citizenship.”
That necessary growth in the audience can be attributed to several factors. The place of the educational communities as breeders of audiences cannot be discounted. Nor can the decades of active cultivation of student audiences, now a critical regimen for many midsized and larger theaters, and begun at the Guthrie in its very first seasons. For decades, bright school buses have delivered a torrent of students to performances. In its early years, the Guthrie’s regional tours reached tens of thousands of audience members in their own towns. Developing familiarity with and a taste for the theater in the populace, and particularly in young people, had no small hand in developing the audiences of today.
Michelle Hensley, artistic director of Ten Thousand Things Theater, discovered Twin Cities audiences to be a good match for the work of her socially conscious theater, which she had founded in Los Angeles. She observes, “People really enjoy going to the theater in the Twin Cities. And that was not true in LA, which is very much a film and TV town. The whole genesis of my company actually was LA theater audiences who, well, they come from duty, obligation, they’ve got friends in the cast, they are casting directors or agents. They would really rather be someplace else.”
Peter Rothstein, artistic director of Theater Latté Da, also praises Twin Cities audiences: “Because of the amount of theater that happens here, there is satisfaction from an audience about the event itself, and the way it’s told, as much as the story. The how the story is told is so much a part of the theater. This community has been so influenced by revolutionary directors at the Guthrie, by the work of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, by a profound modern dance community, the storytelling techniques and theatrical vocabulary. The theatrical motivation is as much of the event as the story that a given play tells.”
Rothstein continues, “I saw a very traditional Romeo and Juliet over the summer. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so musty.’ We just don’t do musty in our city anymore, if we ever did. Our audience is interested in the telling, not just the tale being told.”
The Fringe Festival: “A widespread ambition to perform”
A portion of the Twin Cities audience aligns itself very strongly with the Minnesota Fringe Festival, a phenomenon that features many different disciplines, and which has an important place in the yearly cycle. The Fringe in 2014 sold more than 50,000 tickets to 169 independently produced shows over eleven summer days. In contrast to other fringe festivals across the country, the Minnesota festival is entirely uncurated, with shows chosen in a live, onstage lottery (think party) where ping-pong balls are pulled from a bingo cage.
With almost 500 applicants in 2014, some professional and some not, the Minnesota Fringe is highly indicative of a widespread ambition to perform. The audience at the Fringe Festival consists of both practitioners and enthusiasts. According to executive director Jeff Larson, “We have a lot of people who take off work and see 55 shows—that’s the maximum you can see on our schedule. These people get more and more excited every year and they talk about it year round.”
What is the place of the wild and wooly Fringe in the Twin Cities theater community? “We’re growing the audience,” Larson says. “We’re a gateway drug. The tickets are inexpensive, it’s easy, you can dress however you want. Theater is not intimidating; it’s not something you should do to better yourself. It’s just another form of entertainment. We’re getting that idea into people’s heads.”
Larson says the Fringe also acts as an incubator for the Twin Cities theater community. Citing the companies Walking Shadow, Four Humors, Gremlin, and Transatlantic Love Affair, he notes that people who come together for Fringe projects often continue working together: “Companies find their audiences here. Both shows and companies get pulled out of the Fringe and remounted elsewhere. It’s a lake where other theater companies are fishing.”
The rise of culturally specific theater
One remarkable thread in the development of the Twin Cities theater community is the founding, survival, and prospering of culturally specific theaters in the largely white Upper Midwest. Rick Shiomi is the founder of Mu Performing Arts and traces the theater’s beginnings to foundation support. Shiomi says that while the issues of diversity were being addressed in the artistic communities on the West Coast or in New York, little was happening in Minnesota, at first.
“But we caught the wave of interest and diversity that started happening in the late eighties or early nineties in Minnesota,” he recollects. “Foundations were interested in the company we were founding because we were going to provide something that didn’t exist and was going to add to the diversity of this theater community. This community is quite supportive, in many ways, of artists who are trying to do something different, or trying to do something of interest, or whose work they think is good.”
Mu’s artistic director, Randy Reyes, feels the philanthropic community in the Twin Cities is committed to supporting diversity, as are theater audiences: “Three things have enabled us to grow: the philanthropic community embracing diversity, the Asian American community that’s growing, and the theater community that supports theater work. Without adventurous theatergoers—one of the things I love about the Twin Cities—and funding from the philanthropic community, we would not have survived.”
Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy sometimes jokes with his audience by saying, “Yes, we are one of the largest African American theaters in the country. And yes, we’re in Minnesota!” He says he subscribes to Booker T. Washington’s principle that you “cast down your bucket where you are.”
“I was in the Twin Cities,” Bellamy notes, “that was my home and that was where I began doing theater.”
When Penumbra was founded in 1976, says co–artistic director Sarah Bellamy, it was “specifically with the idea of revisiting the black theater canon and giving opportunities for black actors to work. They were not getting work on other stages and when they were, it was quite limited and often stereotypical.” Penumbra began, and remains, in a community center complex in the midst of the historically African American Rondo community in St. Paul. The theater was begun, partly, with federal dollars aimed at jobs and neighborhood development.
Sarah Bellamy remembers, “Pillars of the black community were still living here and were involved in the community center with their children and grandchildren. They started coming to see the plays. We also had a lot of mixed families that were coming and a lot of white folks who were advocates for racial equity. I think this became a place where people could not only explore African American culture, but [also] maybe even imagine a more equitable future.”
According to Lou Bellamy, “We produce, direct, choose, and present all of our work as though there were no one but African Americans in the audience. We know that isn’t so. But it gives a certain kind of authenticity in the work. And it makes an audience that isn’t in that culture sort of lean into the work, to do some work of their own, very much like we all have to do with Shakespeare. The audience extends their frame of reference by engaging with the art. When something has that authenticity and that ring of truth to it, it cuts across all cultures. That’s what good art will always do.”
The Twin Cities are home to other culturally specific and multicultural theaters as well. Teatro del Pueblo was founded in 1992 by Latino artists and community members on the West Side of St. Paul, in the heart of the city’s Latino population. The theater serves primarily Latino work and artists, as well as both Latino and non-Latino patrons. It has staged more than 50 plays and toured to more than 50 schools throughout Minnesota.
Artistic director Alberto Justiniano says his vision is for the theater “to become a portal into Latin America. I see Teatro and the arts as an opportunity for people to learn about other cultures, and as a tool for social change.” Pangea World Theater, under artistic director Dipankar Mukherjee, collaborates with international artists and companies to create plays and performances that speak across geography and culture. “Artists are seers of our communities,” Mukherjee says, “giving voice to the world we envision.” Pangea and Teatro del Pueblo have collaborated on Political Theatre Festival presentations and, beginning in 2014, the Latino Asian Fusion Series.
Mukherjee says the theater’s art form is influenced by both western and nonwestern vocabularies and styles in a complex way, describing Pangea’s core artistic practices as inclusive since the theater’s founding, “much before ‘changing demographics’ became a buzzword.”
“Pangea,” he goes on, “has worked to create and present stories from different communities for theater, changing our methods of auditioning in order to include artists from communities who are not trained in the traditional western methods of the audition process. Pangea uses diverse casts for all productions, and strives to bring a global and universally accessible literature to the theater. We are constantly striving to redefine and include aesthetic practices that emerge from the cultural aesthetics and styles of the artists that we collaborate with. From the very first encounter with artists, we realized that our own commitment to diversity demanded shifting our paradigms in order to create spaces in which different stories could be told and diverse voices could be heard.”
For actor T. Mychael Rambo, places like Penumbra, Mu, and Teatro del Pueblo are reminders of how important it is to have audience members, benefactors, artists, and others “all wanting very much to hear and support the voices that are disenfranchised and marginalized. Minnesotans, at our core, live in that sort of identity. Each of those theaters play such truth and honesty and create such vivid, real, authentic portrayals of each of their specific cultural identities in ways that are not matched other places. That’s beautiful to be able to have that. It happens because of audiences who want to see it and support it, and because they’re able to harness the talent here that can provide those portrayals and those productions.”
When he arrived in Minnesota, Rambo says, “It was thrilling, it was enlivening to walk into a city and find a place where I saw myself in the room and on the stage.” The value in hearing the stories of the communities that live among us, stresses Randy Reyes, is that “society will be healthier. If you hear other people’s stories, then you have compassion. If you have compassion, you’ll be a better person. Fear goes away, and then you have an actual chance to live in harmony.”
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