Winning

Congratulations to the newly-minted Sally Ordway Irvine Award winners! For the 24th year, the Ordway has given out awards to leading arts organizations and individuals from around the state for their achievements in the arts and arts education. From the theater world, playwright May Lee-Yang was awarded for Arts Access. Some other people won, too, but we're selfishly concerned with theater over here at Minnesota Playlist.

More congratulations to the winners of the third Knight Arts Challenge. Many people, including that guy who thought up the idea of a "snowblower ballet", submitted one-sentence proposals to the Knight Foundation, and now a few people, including that guy who thought up the idea of a "snowblower ballet," will have to turn those single sentences into full-blown projects. Theater projects getting sweet Knight cash include a "site-specific theatrical extravaganza produced at the St. Paul Saints’ CHS Field" from Mixed Blood andThe Sex Show by performer and playwright Sun Mee Chomet. There's also dance, music, visual arts, film, poetry, and, yes, a snowblower ballet.

And final congratulations today got to Yellow Tree Theatre. The little company from Osseo that could just pulled down a National Theater Company Grant from the American Theatre Wing. The $10,000 "Initial Support" grant they received is one of the rarest of rare grants out there in the arts world: general operating support. Those of you who run nonprofits and spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out how to pay for utilities, rent and copier paper when most granting organizations would rather fund a big, sexy project that they can slap their names on are drooling at the sound of that.

Opportunities abound

I was recently made aware of an ad on Minnesota Playlist, in which Park Square Theatre is looking for new companies to join its Theatres in Residence program. Man, this is making me feel like time is just flying right by me. It doesn't seem so long ago that Park Square opened its new second stage and invited a few small, itinerant companies to set up shop in their new digs. Theatre Pro Rata, Girl Friday Productions and my company, Sandbox Theatre all came on board for three years, and, holy crap, this theater season is the end of that three years! So, Park Square is going to be trading us all in for some younger, sexier models. It's fine if you want to try to replace us. We'll always know that we were their first.

Northern Spark, the one-night-only arts festival that dares you to stay awake 'til dawn (and which is only occasionally drenched by huge thunderstorms) just announced their call for submissions for 2017. This year's theme is a continuation of last year's theme around climate change, which should make for a rip-roaring time. If you've been looking for the perfect place for your site-specific performance art piece about the effects of rising sea levels on the great Christmas Island crab migration, then here's your chance. And if no one out there had that idea before, well, there you go, free of charge.

In with the new?

Dang it, Star Tribune. Not too long ago, you were telling us all what a good job the Playwrights Center does at getting theaters to produce new work. This week, you decide to rain on the very parade you started by telling us how risky it is to produce new work and the lengths that companies have to go to in order to sell tickets to a dwindling audience. Can't you just let people feel good about something without cutting it off at the knees with a sharp swing of the reality scythe? That's my job. (Also, please return that reality scythe with the edge sharpened. Thanks.)

I just came across an article boasting about all the new plays being produced in Chicago. It even quoted Broadway in Chicago president Louis Raizin as saying "I’ve heard Chicago referred to as the Silicon Valley of new plays." Yes, this article brags, in this season, Chicago will premiere over 30 new plays… Wait a minute. I think the Twin Cities premiered over 30 new plays last month. You can't swing a Playwrights Center Playwriting Toolkit around here without hitting several befuddled people who want to hand you postcards for this brand new show they're doing. Where do they get off claiming that Chicago is this major innovator of… Oh, I see. They mean "new plays with big budgets behind them."

Yeah, OK, guys, you probably win this one.

Make 'em laugh

Last week on News and Notes, we spent some time bemoaning the state of the grim, soulless death march that is the current election process. It wasn't even really connected to theater. It's just all-pervading now, seeping into every pore and coating every surface with an oily, viscous wash, like being doused in ten gallons of cod liver oil. Normally, I would find solace in laughter, going at the problem with a flippant smile, but, damn, I think we're all worn down at this point. This election feels like it has been going on for about a jillion years, and I, for one, can't wait for November 8 to come. Or November 28. Either one.

At this point, it would take a politically-themed haunted house to make me feel anything anymore.

So, it was even further dispiriting to learn that playwright, political activist and Nobel prize winner Dario Fo died last week. Fo made his name in Italy, playing the role of national jester in the long-running farce that was Italian politics. He wrote over 70 plays, all of them comedies, all of them with one underlying theme: laughter is the only way to fight back against the darkness.

His most famous play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is brimming with dark humor, despite being about a real incident that still divides Italians to this day. At first blush, it may not seem respectful to turn the death of a political activist in police custody into a comedy, but Fo made sure that Italians could never sweep this incident under the rug and forget about it. Laughter seared that moment into the national consciousness and forced the nation to confront the creeping authoritarianism seeping into their political system.

As Fo wrote in the opening line of "The Birth of the Jongleur":

"I am the jongleur. I leap and pirouette, and make you laugh. I make fun of those in power, and I show you how puffed up and conceited are the big shots who go around making wars in which we are the ones who get slaughtered. I reveal them for what they are. I pull out the plug, and... pssss... they deflate."

Jon Stewart at The Daily Show and all the other satirical news programs that have followed are all part of that tradition that Fo championed and kept alive. If the only thing saving your sanity this season is Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Saturday Night Live or any other people willing to crack a joke when everyone else acts like the world is just freaking ending, it's because guys like Dario Fo came before them.

At times like these, the world needs a jester more than ever.

Who owns Who?

It's really been a banner year for the good old public domain. That reservoir of old works that anyone can legally dip into without fear of repercussion got a big boost earlier this summer with a ruling that put the Happy Birthday song into the public's hands.

Now, cut to last week, when a judge ruled in favor of the Broadway play Hand to God. That script borrows a hefty chunk of the classic Abbott and Costello routine "Who's on First?" for its main character to perform with a sock puppet. Abbott and Costello's heirs took it to court, claiming that it was a clear copyright violation. The producers of Hand to God argued that it fell into Fair Use territory. The judge in the case ruled that the use was transformative enough to qualify as such. Then, on appeal to the 2nd US Circuit Court, the court upheld the ruling, but for a dramatically different reason: they ruled that A&C's heirs couldn't prove they had a valid copyright, which is a big damn deal for one of the most recognized comedy routines in the English language.

Of course, the heirs' lawyers are quick to point out that this does not mean that the work is in the public domain, and say they have trademarks and blah, blah, blah… but this is exactly the hill that the Happy Birthday song started rolling down when Warner Brothers couldn't prove they had a valid copyright. Hopefully, someone will give it another little nudge.