Early September: I'm standing in a darkened sunroom just off Laura Holway and Ben McGinley's kitchen, watching Lucas Koski cook shrimp tacos while Samantha Johns perches on a countertop reading him a long, deeply personal letter about their recent breakup. Outdoor temperatures are in the high 80s and the room we're in feels about 20 degrees warmer. Johns and Koski are both weeping openly. So are many of the 30-odd people gathered around the apartment watching the performance unfold. I, on the other hand, am beaming. There's something about witnessing a singular act of art that always brings a smile to my face, no matter the content.
Late September: I'm sitting in a padded chair in row J of the Historic State Theater, watching the cast of Jungle Theater’s production of Urinetown cap off the Ivey Awards ceremony with a fully costumed and choreographed musical number from their show. The thousands-strong crowd around me is politely engaged, laughing and clapping at all the right moments, but it's evident that many of them are chafing in their fancy dress clothes and ready to move on to the afterparty. As much as I appreciate the chance to see snippets of high-profile, award-winning theater re-enacted in impressively ornate surroundings, I'm right there with them.
It was just a coincidence that I happened to take in two such wildly disparate theater events in the same month, but it provided me with a good opportunity to reflect on why those two productions were unlikely to intersect. Small Art, the appropriately named arts showcase Holway and McGinley regularly host in their Saint Paul apartment, is exactly the type of thing I love: intimate, unpredictable and entirely of the moment. Give me a choice between sitting in a sweaty living room watching a stone-faced Charles Campbell interviewing a random audience member about love and death and bathroom routines, or seeing a big, well-publicized and reputedly excellent stage extravaganza like Urinetown and I'm going to opt for the former every time. That’s just me.
That said, I can't imagine something like Small Art ever being up for an Ivey. It would be logistically difficult, for one thing. Absent a Harvey Weinstein-esque patron/bully, there's just no way a one-time performance seen by a few dozen people could garner the attention necessary to pull in the hardware. More importantly, Small Art and its ilk just aren't tailored to the awards circuit. Out of that massive auditorium of people attending the Iveys, I'd guess only a fraction would have any interest in watching an estranged couple sit in a friend's dining nook and passive-aggressively swap facts about eggs, to say nothing of giving it awards. And that’s OK.
Don't think I'm ragging on the Iveys or awards in general. Truth be told, I think we have a pretty bright bunch of award-givers here. It would be easy enough for the folks behind the scenes at the Iveys to go the Oscars route and toss accolades at the best-known performers, or the biggest money-makers, or the shows that address social issues dear to the jury's heart. I can't say that type of thing doesn't go on here, but it's hard to hate on an organization that honors the oddball ingenuity of a company like Open Eye Figure Theater or the pure physical comedy of Dean Holt in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
I guess what I’m trying to get at is that there’s plenty of room for all experiences on the Twin Cities scene, and that’s a beautiful thing. The folks who go in for underground experiences like Small Art have a wide, eclectic array available to them, and those who prefer large-scale productions on the downtown circuits have just as much on their plates. (And of course the divide isn’t as binary as all that; many theater folks would be equally comfortable at either event.) I spent much of my time in the Iveys audience puzzling over what exactly this big, impersonal awards show meant to me. After a good deal of reflection, I realized that the very existence of the Iveys meant that I was part of an arts scene that cared enough to pack a tremendous auditorium every year with people eager to celebrate theater. That’s not a thing to take for granted. I might be personally partial to the small and offbeat, but I also love living in a city that’s never hurting for blockbuster musicals. I love that this is a community where a high-profile production of Miss Saigon is a topic of very public debate, because that means this is a community where people put enough thought and care into theater to have a debate. I love that we have people willing to turn their homes into performance venues and open them to strangers with no objective other than showcasing unique art in a unique space.
I started this article off with the idea of a high-minded contrast piece and now I feel it’s devolved into an aimless love-fest. Eh, so sue me. Cheesy though it sounds, I took this year’s Iveys theme of “Celebrate the Heroes of Twin Cities Theater” to heart. We live in an arts environment with a lot to love, and I love that.