Editor's Note: This article was originally published a little more than a year ago on May 5, 2013 and generated conversations at the bar after shows throughout the Twin Cities. It also provided an easy-to-read history lesson for many emerging Twin Cities artists.
Since the article was published, Gen Xer Randy Reyes has officially taken the reins of Mu Performing Arts; the Guthrie Artistic Director search has grown more real; AND Jungle Theater Artistic Director Bain Boehlke announced his retirement, effective 2015.
Like the sword of Damocles, the word “succession” is hanging in the air over nearly every theater in the Twin Cities. It is being nervously whispered at board meetings at most of the long-established producing non-profits, and is on the lips of all of us who have made our living here over the past few decades. (Right now, the Minnesota Theater Alliance is hosting a statewide conference, entitled "Who's in Charge?", specifically focused on issues like succession.)
A remarkably stable period in Minnesota theater history fast approaches its conclusion. In the next five to 10 years, all the Baby Boomer founding Artistic Directors of local theaters will retire, throwing the organizations they have led since their beginnings into the hands of a new generation. How we as a professional community handle this transition will obviously have profound ramifications for the future. We should discuss and wrestle thoroughly with the approaching sea change now, before events overtake us and we lose the advantage of time and foresight.
This looming transition reflects the broader one going on in the U.S., of the Baby Boomers handing over their long-standing political and cultural influence to younger generations. Because we are comfortable as a society with making generalizations based on generational characteristics (and utilizing tidy labels like Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Millennial), and because the existing theaters in the Cities fall so neatly into those generational categories, I intend in this article to frame the discussion in those terms.
A brief history of the Twin Cities theater scene
Local theater history can be divided into the pre- and post-Guthrie era. That flagship regional theater’s creation in the 1960s brought in its wake the whole crop of non-profit, professional organizations that we have gotten used to. Of local theaters that existed prior to 1963 only two still operate: Excelsior’s Old Log, run by Don Stolz since around the middle of the 19th century (but about to change hands), and Minneapolis’ Theatre in the Round, started in 1953 and now celebrating its 61st season. The operating models of these “legacy” theaters, one a for-profit dinner theater and one a community institution have been almost completely supplanted by the 501.c.3 professional not-for-profit model.
Tyrone Guthrie was technically a member of the legendary Lost Generation, famous for its Fitzgeralds and Hemingways. Already in his 60s when he came to Minneapolis, he had a lifetime of achievements behind him, but saved his supreme one for last. Minneapolis had always been known for its theater scene, but was propelled into a whole new era when the Guthrie Theater opened in 1963 as a reaction to the rampant commercialism of Broadway. The Guthrie’s success spurred two distinct movements: The first was the development of a national professional regional theater network, and the second was the seeding of the Twin Cities area with smaller theaters that were chartered under the not-for-profit model. This model proved successful enough that all but a handful of producing theaters in the region now operate under it.
In the 1960s and 70s, new generations followed Guthrie’s lead, writing a radical new chapter in the long history of Minnesota theater. In the mid-60s, John Clark Donahue, a member of the so-called Silent generation, started his Moppet Players with a few friends as an adjunct to the Minneapolis Art Institute, and by 1973 was moving into a glorious and gleaming new Kenzo Tange building as the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis. While CTC’s size is less than the Guthrie’s, the two theaters at least fit together as complementary institutions, twin pillars of the Twin Cities theater industry.
In the wake of these two large institutions, a number of the prominent theater companies that we still think of as central to the local industry came into being: In the Heart of the Beast, Illusion, Park Square, Mixed Blood, Penumbra, and the History Theatre all started in the 1970s. Red Eye and Frank joined them in the 80s, and the early 90s brought a burst of theater creation: Ten Thousand Things and the Jungle in 1991, Theater Mu (now Mu Performing Arts) and Pillsbury House in 1992, Minnesota Jewish Theatre and Interact later in the decade. The new century brought a crop of what one might call “micro-theaters”, built in various unlikely locations: Open Eye, Dreamland, Pangea, Off-Leash Area and a couple of others; each of these has found its own traction in the community, but only Open Eye seems to be growing its audience beyond its original niche. Theatre de la Jeune Lune, founded in 1978 and closed in 2008 after a remarkably distinguished three-decade run, is the only major theater to have closed its doors in recent memory, i.e. the last decade or two.
(These regional professional non-profits are the focus of this article. I do not at all intend to minimize the accomplishments of such for-profits as the long-lived Chanhassen and Plymouth Playhouse and the impressive Brave New Workshop, nor the durable educational institutions Steppingstone and Stages, nor roadhouses like the Ordway and the Hennepin Trust complex which only occasionally produce their own work; the idea of succession operates differently in these kinds of places.)
The connecting thread of these theaters is that they were all started by Baby Boomers, who have dominated this field as they have so much of American life in the past forty years and more. Riding the historical imperatives of their time, they created as a group this remarkably stable and enduring theatrical landscape. Whether consciously conceived of in this way or not, there are two defining features of most of these organizations: they control their own performance space, and they provide the bulk of the income of one or more staff members, or what one might call the Occupy/Occupation criteria.
Some, like Mixed Blood, started life already fulfilling these criteria (Mixed Blood’s Jack Reuler is fond of saying he’s never had another job than running a theater); others evolved into it. Frank and Ten Thousand Things satisfy the Occupation criterion while continuing to make a virtue of their nomadism. In the same vein Mu seems well overdue in establishing a permanent space. But in the aggregate, these organizations form the backbone of the professional theater market in the Twin Cities, and nearly all are still controlled by their founding Artistic Directors.
Will Generation X lead?
When we speak of succession in the context of organizations that have yet to go through the process, we are really speaking of institutionalization; that is, the process of determining that a given organization will outlive its founding artistic impulse. The two largest institutions, the Guthrie and the Children’s Theatre, were both founded with the intention of outliving their founders, and both have done so quite successfully, with the Guthrie on its seventh Artistic Director and the Children’s Theatre on only its third. Outside of these two, there are only two operations in town that so far have successfully passed on the baton: The History Theatre, with its strong mission and solid infrastructure in the old Chimera space, transferred smoothly to Ron Peluso; and Pillsbury House, embedded in its larger social-service organization as well as in its bubble of artistic excellence, divided Ralph Remington’s duties into two and gave them to Faye Price and Noel Raymond. Each of these transitions was quite specific to its individual institution, and it’s unclear if any lessons obtained from them will apply to our coming succession tsunami. Pointedly, both Peluso and Price are baby-boomers, making these particular successions partly intra-generational. This leaves Raymond as an outlier: the only Gen Xer so far to have even a partial hand in running a local Occupy/Occupation (or O/O) non-profit.
For this is the sad truth: We Generation Xers, nomadic by nature and accustomed as we have been to our freelance careers at theaters founded by Boomers, have until now never had to really grapple with the full responsibility of theater administration. Consider the fact that no member of Gen X has yet founded a local theater that fits the O/O criteria. As far as the Occupy part goes, the Gremlin people have created a quality space and do consistent work, but mostly earn their livings elsewhere (and currently are about to become nomadic again); Nimbus opened a scrappy facility in Northeast and are building their brand but, again, must consider themselves lucky just to have the space pay for itself. Torch Theater administers the Theatre Garage but produces its own work only sporadically. The Workhaus Collective has a permanent home in the Playwrights Center but use their productions as showcases of their talents rather than moneymaking ventures. Bedlam appeared for a while to have landed permanently in their impressive West Bank space, but that proved ephemeral; they may yet reproduce the magic in Lowertown.
And what about the Occupation half of the criteria? Of the professional directors from Generation X, probably the two with the most successful careers are Peter Rothstein and Joel Sass. Both of these talented men started off as Artistic Directors of their own small, peripatetic theater companies, but neither company ever fully evolved to fit either part of the O/O criteria. Rothstein’s Latte Da established itself at the Loring for quite a while but has always sought out partnerships and differently-configured spaces elsewhere, and currently stages productions on three or four different stages every season; and with the busy schedule Rothstein keeps, it’s clear that Latte Da can only account for some minority percentage of his time. Sass’ Mary Worth Theatre garnered acclaim and helped propel him into the top rank of local directors, but Sass dissolved it once his freelance career was fully established.
Perhaps the most telling example, though, of the arc of a Gen X artistic director is Casey Stangl, whose Eye Of The Storm theater was at its artistic peak when she closed it in 2003. After initial years of wandering, the theater had built a stable home at the Theatre Garage, was providing what amounted to at least a part-time regular salary for Stangl and managing director Michelle Pett, and was experiencing ever-burgeoning artistic success; Stangl even received Artist of the Year designation from the Star Tribune. All the artistic and administrative currents were guiding her toward settling down, establishing a permanent space and lasting presence in the community, and building a permanent administrative operation, with all the attendant opportunity and burden that entails. And Stangl’s memorable response was, F*ck it – I’m outta here! She and her husband John Spokes decamped for the West Coast, from which she enjoys a busy and lucrative career as a director in national demand.
And who can blame her? After a lifelong career as a freelance artist, given the luxury of leaving to others the more mundane work of running a large operation and managing a staff and space, it’s perfectly rational to have no interest in taking on that burden. Who needs the grief?
This is the heart of the problem that now faces all of us Gen Xers. We have spent twenty years and more gaily skipping from place to place, collecting our independent contractor fees and avoiding the full responsibility of sticking ourselves to a single full-time operation. Artistic directorship of an institution in the O/O mold has always constituted an immersive commitment; none of the current occupants of the baby-boomer theaters has time (or energy?) for more than a very occasional freelance gig. Facing the coming tsunami of successions, will we Gen Xers find it in ourselves to commit to a single, ongoing engagement? Will it feel like going to prison?
The necessity of new models
Or will we, collectively, manage to figure out new models of artistic directorship? Can our robust theater community bravely plunge ahead and accept that the model of a single Artistic Director will no longer always suffice for the needs of us professionals? Can the Pillsbury House model of splitting the artistic burden in two be extrapolated elsewhere, so that lifelong freelancers can feel that ongoing responsibility for a single organization need not be a total straitjacket, that we may still have the freedom to wander some, that our artistic skills which have long thrived by working in different situations not be completely stifled?
On the other hand, will the community find the courage to allow some long-established organizations to close entirely when their founding artistic impulse goes into retirement? To allow the spaces they occupy to evolve into something new, either only tangentially related to their former missions or not at all? Each of the existing theaters resides at a different point on the spectrum of what seems preservable. The idea, for example, of Mixed Blood without Reuler, Illusion without Michael Robins and Bonnie Morris, Frank without Wendy Knox, Interact without Jeannie Calvit, Penumbra without Lou Bellamy, Ten Thousand Things without Michelle Hensley, The Jungle without Bain Boekhlke, Jeune Lune without any of its founding four, and on and on; some of these could conceivably continue forever with different leaders, but some make no sense at all. For the health of the whole forest (to employ a useful cliché), the community as a whole may need to prepare to allow some of the big trees to burn to the ground so the scrappy undergrowth can sprout.
And, honestly, what incoming artistic director would want to be constrained by rigorous adherence to a mission first formulated decades ago? A new AD taking over any one of these places would surely want to update his or her mission, to reflect a changing world and a vastly different theater scene. The only constant in the arts world, even more than everywhere else, is change, and trying to cling too tightly to old missions or outdated models of production can only produce ossification and eventual artistic death. But (and this may be the most important question of all!) how willing, or able, will audiences themselves be to migrate with us to new models, after having been comfortably ensconced in the existing ones for so long?
There are currently at least a half-dozen Gen X-run theaters that have demonstrated some longevity, robustness, and audience identification. If and when an O/O theater is allowed to pass away, an obvious idea would be for one of those theaters to move into an existing space that was abandoned by its previous occupant, the way Park Square moved into the Hamm Building after Actor’s Theatre imploded. Park Square already had two decades’ worth of productions and a full-time presence and staff at that time, however, and it’s an open question whether any of the existing Gen X theaters has enough audience base and donor muscle behind it to make that leap.
These are the questions that we will answer in the next several years, whether we like it or not. It appears that Mu Performing Arts will act as the pioneer of this process, as they have in many other realms: Boomer Rick Shiomi will retire later this year, and hand the organization he built over to Gen Xer Randy Reyes. Reyes is more than capable of filling Shiomi’s big shoes, of course. But he has built his successful career as a freelance actor and director, and there is virtually no precedent in recent history for an artistic director of one major theater to take the time necessary to, say, spend six weeks directing a show at another “competing” theater, or thirteen weeks to play the lead in a Guthrie show. The rigorous demands of being an O/O Artistic Director have always more or less precluded that kind of activity. Reyes will be blessed with an active and engaged board, but how sympathetic will they be to any nomadic temptations he may encounter? Will the burden of his new gig mean that he needs to mostly stay in place, and will he be okay with that? Reyes and Mu will be merely the first of many artists and organizations to grapple with these questions.
Here come the Millennials
Regardless of all the above considerations, an era is about to turn, one way or another. If my generation can’t be bothered to take up the burden, or if we fail miserably at it, there is a whole younger generation waiting in the wings. The so-called Millennial have entered the biz in a challenging time. Jobs that were entry-level twenty years ago – board operating, backstage crewing, assistant stage managing, small-theater design – have evolved into skilled positions that provide a solid living which middle-aged people (like me) cling to ferociously. Twentysomethings have to work around the margins, spending a lot of time in places like St. Cloud, or starting theaters of their own in far-flung places (the way Yellow Tree has done in Osseo), to string together a living. A shortage of fulfilling opportunity for them could justifiably sap their patience with middle-aged commitment-phobia: pent-up artistic hunger may well make them prove temperamentally more suited to professional commitment than my generation. You can almost hear those Millennials, smacking their lips, eyeing us for signs of losing our nerve, eagerly awaiting the chance to scamper over whatever wreckage we Gen Xers leave in our wake and take up the challenge themselves.
And if that happens: Hey, kids, throw the old man a gig once in a while, wouldja?
Disclosure: I should say that I have worked at most of the professional organizations which I discuss above and have long observed those with whom I haven’t worked.