You're the best (already)
Star Tribune, you've done it again! We're a mere four months into 2016, and, for yet another year, you have the awesome temerity to announce to all of us what are the best arts things in the Twin Cities for 2016. Once again, there are many categories for theater people (including a "Best New Face in Theater"). Congratulations to the winners, and I guess the rest of you can just forget about the next 8 months. 2016 has been decided.
This may or may not be the end
The Minnesota Centennial Showboat has been through a lot in its time. The original boat plied the waters of the Mississippi for 60 years. Forty years into its new life as a theater, the boat burned down and was replaced with the current replica barge. Floods and fires couldn't kill the Showboat, but disinterest certainly can. The University of Minnesota, which operates the Showboat, recently announced that the Showboat will be closing. After five decades of melodramas and olios, ticket sales have fallen to the point where the boat can no longer be sustained, and the 15-year agreement between the U and the city of St. Paul has come to an end. If your dream has been to buy a barge with a theater in it, you're a little nutty, and also now's your chance.
Everyone was a little shocked last month when Skylark Opera suddenly announced a cancellation of their next season. As we soon learned, the company's finances have been swirling the drain for several years. This week, the roller coaster of emotions continues as Skylark announces a new interim Artistic Director, Robert Neu. Last year, we were all treated to a partisan fight in the Minnesota legislature as the film and TV support program known as "Snowbate" was audited. The inconclusive audit led to radically different proposals for future funding, with the Republican-controlled House passing a measure to zero out the program's budget and the Democrat-controlled Senate voting to increase its funding. However, last year's budget fight ended with Snowbate funding staying pretty much the same. A year after all that sound and fury signifying nothing, what have we learned? This year, the House has a proposal to scrap the program, and the Senate has a proposal to increase its funding, because the Minnesota legislature is apparently trapped in its own version of Groundhog Day. I look forward to reporting on this story next year when the House puts forward a surprise proposal to cancel the Snowbate program, and the Senate, in a stunning turn of events, insists that it be funded further.
Embracing the new after all these years
You don't have to just take my word for it anymore. The Pioneer Press has declared that the Twin Cities is the place to premiere a new play. Sure, I've been telling all of you to make new plays for years, but now that I have a print publication agreeing with me, everyone seems to be listening.
At about this time last year, I dropped a News and Notes entry that took a few jabs at Joe Dowling as he was making his seemingly unending exit from the Guthrie. They included this gem:
"Why hasn't the Guthrie worked more closely with playwrights in developing new work? Are you waiting on a Mellon Foundation grant?"
As it turns it, the answer to that question was "yes."
The Guthrie just received a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation in support of new programming at their Dowling Studio. (You know, the one without bathrooms that's tucked away on the 9th floor where no one can find it without a guide.) New Artistic Director Joe Haj envisions radically new programming in the space that is more community responsive and more dedicated to new and contemporary work. Also, ticket prices for the Dowling will be reduced to $9. Previously, the only thing you could get at the Guthrie for $9 was a Grain Belt. Now, all of a sudden, it seems the rabble are finally being invited into the palace. (They should probably stock up on more Grain Belt.)
It's a big step for such a grand old organization, and I guess it does deserve the "game changing" moniker that has been bestowed upon it. But let's not lose sight of something: this is the Guthrie playing catch up, not leading. As the Pioneer Press told us at the beginning of this section, the Twin Cities theater scene is already very good at this sort of thing. You could drop in to Red Eye Theater's New Works series, stop by the Right Here Showcase, dip in to any number of new works in the ARTshare program, or just wave in the general direction of the Playwrights' Center. Or you could look across town to a much less expensive building and see another Mellon grant at work with playwright Christina Ham's new residency at Pillsbury House.
But the Guthrie is what people pay attention to, so I guess we're all on this ride. That is, at least for the three years the Mellon grant is in play.
In the meantime, new play makers, don't sit around and wait for the Guthrie to pluck you from obscurity. Keep going out there and making new things happen. Did you know that the next round of the Knight Arts Challenge is open for applications? Go for it! What have you got to lose?
Now you've just got to figure out how to get the normal people to enjoy plays, too.
I spent most of last week talking about Hamilton, so why stop now? In the run up to this week's announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes, Playbill was nervously pondering what would happen if the super hip hip-hop musical didn't win. (According to one New York critic, "I imagine we’d see chaos and bloodshed in Shubert Alley")
This week, the Pulitzers were announced, and it was exactly as the prophets have foretold: Lin-Manuel Miranda won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Hamilton, which means that a Tony will be landing in his lap soon enough.
Last week, we talked about all the people who are coming out of the woodwork to criticize the show for its perceived shortcomings, and based on the angry comments I've seen appended to these articles, fans aren't too happy about that. Look, I know you love the show (or, at least the cast recording, since the vast majority of people still have no chance in seeing the actual show). I know the concept, style and casting are all landmarks for Broadway. I know that the profit-sharing deal with the original cast is a pretty awesome model for for-profit theater. I know that the show helped the treasury finally decide to boot Andrew Jackson from your money instead of Alexander Hamilton. I know that you believe the show is somehow helping America save itself (way to keep things in proportion, BuzzFeed), and that petty griping about the show feels like sour grapes. But (and this is a "but" so big that Sir Mix-A-Lot would fall madly in love with it), criticism is exactly what the show needs.
According to a recent article on Slate, Hamilton is gunning for a place as one of the great works of art of the 21st century, and every great piece of art should come with criticism that forces us to more actively engage with it. After all, where would you be in life if you never asked tough questions about your values and just skated on believing that something was "great" without ever truly examining why that thing was "great"? (Aside from being a front runner for the Presidency.)
I was thinking about Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo and about how not all critics at the time of the film's release were all that into it. Critic Penelope Houston was particularly "meh" about it, decrying the film for having "a plot structure of egg-shell thinness" and chastising Hitchcock for "repeating himself in slow motion." Today, people find that laughable, since Vertigo is regularly at the top of "greatest movies of all time" lists; but I actually find those to be fair criticisms of the film. And that's OK. I still love that movie. It is perfectly possible (actually, highly probable) for something to be both imperfect and utterly brilliant. Despite what you have learned from the internet, not many things can be easily sorted into lists of "OMGSQUEEEEEE!!!!!!" and "WORST. THING. EVER." No piece of art should ever be loved uncritically; great things deserve to be challenged. That's how they become tempered and ultimately stand the test of time.
So instead of spending your time hating critics for finding faults in the thing you love, why not put your energies into figuring out a real world problem, like maybe why Broadway is still so damn white? It will probably accomplish a lot more in the long run.