Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tacos
Before we get started: yes, I've seen the Wells Fargo ad that everyone is talking about, and, frankly, I'm not that interested in it. Wells Fargo has already apologized for their bad ad copy that implies that dancing and acting are not worthy professions for smart, hard-working kids; and this will quickly slip from our memories, like so many other cringe-inducing ads of the past. If it's still leaving a bad taste in your mouth, try a palette cleanser, like remembering that science and art are not mutually exclusive.
However, one line in this ad campaign did set the busy beehive in my head to buzzing: "Let's get them ready for tomorrow." This was such a powerful and compelling idea to me that it very nearly dislodged the equally powerful and compelling idea of "taco trucks on every corner" out of my mind. Almost. I still dream of a world where I can buy lengua and cabeza wherever I please. It's beautiful…
[brief pause as the author goes to El Taco Riendo for some lengua tacos]
Oh, boy, I'm stuffed. I really shouldn't have ordered that extra guacamole. This country's going to be awesome when there are tacos just everywhere. It doesn't matter how high a wall you build, I will climb it to get some good tacos. Wait… what were we talking about? Oh yeah, theater!
I've spent more than my fair share of time here on News and Notes pointing out the flaws in our current theater system. It might be fair to characterize that as complaining, wheedling or even whining; but I prefer to think of it as an intervention. The subject of an intervention generally has some seriously self-destructive habits that need to be pointed out so that he can begin to grapple with them, and the subject generally does not want to hear them, because then he would have to grapple with them. In this case, this intervention is lasting years instead of just one awkward afternoon, so it's probably time to move on to the next phase, the one where we point out the promise of the future.
How do we get the world of theater ready for tomorrow? (Other than diverting all that promising talent into botany.) Is anyone doing at already? To get to that, let's remind ourselves of things that I've complained about, and see if anyone is actually doing it right.
I've talked at length about the problems of the Edifice Complex, where the prestige and pressure of having a big building can swiftly subsume an arts organization's mission and budget. We can tick off any number of companies that have ridden an expensive building down into oblivion. Our beloved In the Heart of the Beast is fighting that fight right now. (By the way they're hosting a fundraising concert soon, if you want to help out.) If you've read my articles for a while, you might think that I'm universally sour on the idea of companies wanting buildings of their own; but that's not quite true. I'm sour on the idea of them having them just to have them. It can work out just fine, as long as the building serves the company, and not the other way around. Look at HUGE Improv Theater, which has used their Uptown Minneapolis building not just as a performance venue for a few companies, but as a veritable hothouse for growing new improv companies, forms and fans.
Another good local example would have to be Theatre Latte Da and their recent purchase of the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis. The Ritz by itself is not a key to success (the cost of updating and refitting the space already sank its previous tenant), but Latte Da brings to the table two key elements: (1) a long history of artistic and financial competence (they have been effectively running the space for two years now); and (2) a commitment to bringing some new work to the stage. It's that last point that I think is most important. Controlling your own space (sensibly and within a reasonable budget) means that you have the ability to take chances on developing and putting up new work, and taking chances on new work is exactly what theater needs to do to move into the future. And as long as you aren't overpaying for your space, it's not really a risk. (Just ask the Minnesota Opera how successful and renowned you can become when that big building you own is coupled with creating new and inventive work.) When you pair this with Nautilus Music-Theater, who are also hell-bent on supporting new work, setting up shop in their own space in Lowertown St. Paul, you suddenly get the idea that the Twin Cities are poised to become major players in the future of musical theater.
It's not just about the Cities, though. Out in White Bear Lake, the community theater Lakeshore Players has been slowly but surely putting together the money to build themselves a brand new multi-million dollar space. In fact, they just got a fat $750,000 donation to help them along the way. Again, if you look back over my previous writing, you might think that I hate this idea; but a multi-million dollar facility isn't necessarily a bad thing, so long as it is paired with the right mission. In this case, that mission is to morph the company into a much needed arts hub for the northeastern suburbs. Also, I'm impressed that the company is taking the longer route to paying for the space by actually raising all the money, rather than diving right into borrowing to get it done faster. After all, it's not the cost of the space that kills you; it's how much you still owe when it's built.
But it's not enough to invite people into special buildings. There are myriad reasons why they can't or won't go there, and our modern conveniences are multiplying those reasons every day. The number of people actually going to those fancy art buildings is dropping. So, we're lucky that we live in a community with a number of companies that understand that if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.
Of course, we all know about Ten Thousand Things and their forays out of the theater and into the world, but we're also lucky to have plenty of others who are willing to go out and meet the people where they are, like Mixed Precipitation and their Picnic Operetta, Open Eye Theatre's driveway tour and Off-Leash Area's garage tour. Sometimes, when shows start at a traditional venue, they don't always stay there. Recently in St. Paul, we had Flying Foot Forum's Passing Through Pig's Eye and Live Action Set and Bedlam working together to create The Big Lowdown, both of which took their audiences out of their seats and into the city.
Even Hennepin Theatre Trust is a part of this. Sure, I bashed marketing campaign trying to rebrand part of Downtown Minneapolis as "WeDo"; but this group, which could easily sit back and plow all its resources into marketing the big budget touring musicals they help bring to town, is working on bringing performance to the streets of Downtown itself.
Last week on News and Notes, I was telling you what a drag it is that women aren't better represented in theater. That is still true this week; but after reading last week's article, a reader tipped me off to what's been going down over at Ireland's Abbey Theater. The Abbey is that country's national theater, and for the company's exploration of the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Rising, they announced a season that was so astonishingly male-centric that everyone was flabbergasted. A year later, after the usual rounds of denial and refusal, the Abbey issued a sweeping new set of guiding principles dedicated to getting them to full gender equity. Instead of bemoaning pipelines and saying "gosh it's just too bad we don't have Mitt Romney's mythical binders full of women," the company decided to change its practices. (See, this is how an intervention works.)
I know that's an extreme example, and one that seems so far away; but it reminds me how easy it actually is for a company to change and become more equitable in all realms of representation. It doesn't need a massive protest or a Jubilee. It just takes people who decide to change.
For a good local example, let's look at the Jungle Theater in Uptown Minneapolis. Their 2015 season was a tale of full-scale caution, featuring most prominently the seventh reprisal of one of their previous shows, a musical review, and the play that is the chestnuttiest of chestnuts, You Can't Take It With You; and the casts were remarkably un-diverse. Then the Jungle got a new Artistic Director, and their latest season not only features new, modern works but also gives us gender-swapped Shakespeare, a gay romantic comedy, and plays written by a woman and people of color. All of this, not with a grand pronouncement, but just with the decision to do it.
Equity in theater is not about some squishy sense of political correctness or white guilt. It's a sound investment in the future, one in which there is no longer one racial demographic in total control, one in which more complex and varied cultures will be bumping up against each other all the time. Very few of those people are going to have an easy time seeing themselves reflected in You Can't Take It With You. Remember what we said about Muhammad and the mountain before? Wherever that mountain is, you've got to go to it.
The Twin Cities is already home to several long-standing companies representing people of color (Mu Performing Arts and Penumbra Theatre are well-known, even outside of Minnesota), but more (like New Native Theater) are coming into being every day. Even in the normally whiter than white world of improv, a group like Blackout can find its niche. And then there's Mixed Blood, which still reigns as the undisputed king of diversity in Minnesota theater.
We will need this diversity in the future. We need all these people contributing their ideas and trying new things, because it drastically increases the odds that someone will come up with the next big thing that changes theater forever. The more different tickets you buy, the better chance you have of winning the raffle.
But, what does it matter how new and innovative and inclusive we are if no one is listening? We're losing another of our long-time major newspaper critics. (Want the job?) Also, The New York Times just slashed and burned its regional arts coverage. Fewer and fewer major publications put much more than token effort into covering the arts. It's that old bugaboo, the internet, up to its tricks again. Ad revenues are down. Can't afford to cover those arts anymore. Sorry folks. I guess you should make sure that actor son of yours signs up for those botany classes.
However, as Twin Cities Arts Reader points out, the internet that killed arts coverage is also saving it. How is this possible?
It's the same predicament as "reading" in this country right now. You can find plenty of dire polls warning that Americans are reading less than ever; but if you dig deeper into the stats, you find that, actually Americans are reading more than ever, just not traditional books; and, upon further inspection, you find that the so-called "Millenials" read those "real" books at a higher rate than their elders, thanks to the internet making it easier for people to find books they love and connect to.
So, here's the comparison to local coverage of theater. Sure, the old print journals have been shedding arts coverage as fast as they can; but out on the internet, there are now more people writing about and covering the arts than even at the height of print journalism. Online magazines like Twin Cities Arts Reader, The Tangential and letoile have sprung up to fill the voids, and even older publications like Minnesota Monthly can use the internet to break out of its monthly format and do more up-to-date arts coverage.
And don't forget the bloggers. Here's an incomplete list of the people regularly blogging their reviews of just Twin Cities shows: Aisle Say Twin Cities; How Was the Show?; Cherry and Spoon; Artfully Engaging; Girl Meets Broadway; One Girl Two Cities; Minnesota Theater Love; Compendium; Play Off the Page; The Room Where It Happens; Twin Cities Stages… This list goes on even longer, but I'm running out of space, and I still need to mention that the very website you're reading now employs critics writing reviews.
Whether you believe it or not, you are actually at the beginning of a golden age of arts coverage and criticism. It's just that it's not going to look like any previous golden age you can think of. If you're producing a show, and you're not reaching out to those bloggers and websites I listed, you're missing out on the future.
Actually, if you ignore any of the stuff that I listed above, you're missing out on the future. So, what does that future look like? It's not interested in buildings unless the buildings are the center of a community; it wants new ideas; it values diversity; it is more diverse; and it communicates at the grass-roots level of the internet rather than through traditional top-down media structures. In short, the future has Millenial values. Go figure.
And you're ready to embrace those values, Minnesota. You have all the fundamentals in place, and you can move forward into the future of theater with confidence. You just have to want to do it. So get out there and do it.
Also, the future is tacos. But that dream is going to come true no matter what you do, so don't worry about it. Just eat the tacos and enjoy it.