Our dear friend sue
For a long time, the sport of baseball has been cited as America's "national pastime," which is pretty funny when you consider that it's just a bastardized version of a game we stole from the British. American mythology is permeated with stories of baseball, which is also pretty funny when you consider that professional baseball was largely isolated to the urban northeast of the country until the advent of television; but, hey, when has America ever let facts interfere with its mythology?
In the 21st century, though, that notion of the game's cultural supremacy is severely in question, as Americans shift their interest from baseball—a wonky game with a nerdy obsession with rules and statistics—to football—an aggressive game with an obsession with crashing beefy men into one another at top speed. Football also happens to be a bastardized version of a game we stole from the British. It's nice to know that we as a nation have a theme.
Many a contrarian think piece will argue that baseball is still America's pastime, despite the fact that more people today sit down to watch grown men voluntarily give themselves traumatic brain injuries than watch grown men bicker over slow-moving, arcane rules. Unfortunately, as it so often does, reality interferes with these think pieces: 67% of Americans polled say that football is now our national pastime. This shouldn't be surprising. It's much more fitting with our current national character: we basically view the world now as an unending series of aggressive, head-on conflicts in which one side must lose ground in order for the other to gain anything. (See literally any coverage of the presidential race.)
I would argue, though, that until we get this transition from baseball to football finally finalized, our real national pastime should be lawsuits. They combine the slow-moving obsession with arcane rules of baseball with the combative attitude of football, and Americans do love watching them play out. Thanks in part to our common law practices (A bastardized version of the ones we swiped from our British forebears. See? Told you we have a theme!), America has a system of law in which it is relatively easy to bring a lawsuit, and many of them have been pretty damn entertaining (though, in fairness, many of these cases only sounded entertaining because our media is terrible about reporting actual facts about them).
Despite many, many people trying to explain why America is an endless sea of torts, the fact is that the number of lawsuits filed by Americans has actually been dropping, and this whole "litigious society" thing may actually be a myth. But since when have we let facts interfere with our mythology?
(Besides, sometimes civil litigation is our only option for keeping pathological personalities in check.)
But I see you theater people fidgeting. This is supposed to be a theater column, and I think the Venn diagram of my audience between people who are interested in theater and people who are interested in torts has an overlap of about 1 (Hi, Josh!). Why am I talking about lawsuits? And why did we have to wander down that long hallway of sports to even get there? And why am I filling up so much column space with rhetorical questions?
Some of you might be thinking that this is leading back into a discussion about the current lawsuit against the Minnesota Fringe Festival; but there has been no news about that since the last time we talked about it. When it comes to Fringe festivals and lawsuits, I'm personally waiting for the New York Fringe Festival's sneaky subsidiary rights contract clause to wind up in court. That one should be fun.
But, stick with me, friends. The reason I'm leaning so heavily on the lawsuit angle is that the theater news this week has been so curiously lawsuit-heavy. I didn't plan this. It just happened. Please stop drafting that cease-and-desist order, and I'll get on to the actual lawsuit news right now:
Mixed Blood and Prince
In a recent Minnesota Monthly feature on Mixed Blood Theater, Artistic Director Jack Reuler was quoted as saying: "For the first time in a long time, we have a deficit. It isn’t debilitating. It won’t keep Mixed Blood from operating into the future, but it forces us to rethink a number of things in terms of staff and programming.”
That unexpected deficit was the result of the last-minute cancellation of the company's annual fundraiser, which had been scheduled to occur at Prince's Paisley Park. As you probably know, something went wrong at Paisley Park, and Bremer Trust, the company assigned to administer Prince's estate, decided that it was too complicated and too disrespectful to Prince to have people crawling all over the grounds where he died. Mixed Blood claims that Bremer said they would make them whole for the lost revenue, but that money hasn't materialized, so now Mixed Blood is suing for almost $350,000.
Because it's Prince, and because it sounds funny that a theater would "sue a dead man" for "canceling our party," this story has been getting a lot of play in the national entertainment news. However, it's just one of dozens of suits currently filed against the estate. Prince didn't leave behind a will (which is understandable, since we all kind of believed he was an eternal pan-dimensional being made of pure sex) and that lack of a will has doomed his estate to a morass of legal motions that is getting more complicated by the minute.
But at least this means you'll be able to tour Paisley Park soon, since the estate may have a huge tax bill due and really needs that income. What's that about it being too complicated and disrespectful to have people crawling all over the grounds where Prince died? I don't remember anyone saying that.
If this episode is teaching us anything, it's that you should have a will. I know you'd rather pretend that your own impending death won't happen, but, man, if Prince wasn't immortal, you definitely aren't. Get a will and save everyone a lot of trouble later on.
Actors Equity and Los Angeles
Out in California, the dispute between Actors Equity and the actors they claim to represent lurches on into another contentious day. All negotiations have failed and the big lawsuit is a go, as local LA actors push back against Equity's attempts to eliminate the 99-Seat Plan.
Now I know that theater people have a reputation for being an emotional lot, but I would have thought that, in a pinch, they could all get their ducks in a row and present a unified front. Unfortunately, the actors on the side of the lawsuit can't always seem to agree on a single plan. Some of them took the undignified route of making threats against Equity. Another group separate from the lawsuit bunch took a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (which was soundly rejected).
In the meantime, Equity has had plenty of time to get their ducks in a row. They rolled out a new website detailing just how wicked awesome they say their new plan will be, and they managed to sell plenty of news outlets on the idea that the new plan is inevitable. The union also endorsed Hillary Clinton using language reinforcing the idea that their organization is the only thing standing between actors and tyranny.
But this epic showdown in court between Equity and its members doesn't have to happen at all. In fact, a group of actors in LA recently put out a proposal for a compromise that seems to address the concerns expressed by both sides of the argument. I hope that this idea can rise to the top, but at this point, both sides may be so locked in to "winning" that the lawsuit will have to go forward.
And while LA actors are fighting for their right to not get paid, actors on the opposite coast have been lining up to support Equity's efforts to increase pay for performers in Off-Broadway productions. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.
Jason McLean and pretty much everybody at this point
If you were in Dinkytown this past weekend, you might have noticed the group of demonstrators holding the space between the Varsity Theater and the Loring Pasta Bar. They were there to demonstrate against the owner of those two establishments, Jason McLean, who currently has several pending civil suits against him over alleged sexual assaults against minors during McLean's previous time teaching at Children's Theatre Company. (If you need more context and more sadness in your life, this is from the same period at CTC in which founder John Clark Donahue was convicted for molesting children participating in the theater's programming.)
Since the filing of these lawsuits against McLean (and several more against CTC and Donahue), there have been growing calls to boycott McLean's businesses. The popular Transmission dance night dumped the Varsity back in January. The Fringe Festival, which had long used the Varsity for its closing night party, decamped to the Triple Rock Social Club this year. One band after another has dropped a gig at the Varsity from their tour.
I understand that people may feel uncomfortable with these boycotts. The decreased business at McLean's establishments is most immediately hurting his employees; but these accusations against McLean have been waiting for three decades to finally be aired. It was never going be easy on anyone, and there's no reason why we should expect it to should be, but it needs to happen, if only to finally clear the fallout from John Clark Donahue's tenure thirty years ago.
Some fun stuff instead
OK, that was all contentious. Here's your palate cleanser: a list of fun stuff that has nothing to do with lawsuits! Hooray!
(1) Sean McArdle is an incredible local props builder and one of the most interesting guys I know. You should read City Pages' profile on him and all the weird things he's built in his life.
(2) I could harangue you more for your irrational hatred of smartphones in theaters, but instead I'll let this HowlRound article talk at you about the storytelling opportunities that phones are opening up.
(3) You know that there's this whole thing with electing a president. Did you know that other people are running for other offices, too? Some of them even in the state you live in? It's true! And Minnesota Citizens for the Arts is out with its annual arts survey of candidates.
(4) And, finally: No, Shakespeare did not coin all those phrases.