Easing back in to this whole News and Notes thing

Hey, folks! It's good to be back hosting News and Notes this week. I had last week off thanks to the wonderful writing of my first guest writer, Taous Khazem. If you haven't read her entry into the great pantheon of News and Notes articles, you should go back and give it a look. She did a great job of giving a global perspective on the performing arts, connecting the threads back to shows performing locally. It was a good read, especially since I will now turn 180 degrees and spend the rest of this week's edition descending into petty griping about local issues. Should I be more worried about my job here at Minnesota Playlist, since my first guest writer turned out something of greater scope and substance than I would have? Probably. But, let's hang on until the end of October, when my second guest writer, Laura VanZandt comes on board. Will she also casually upstage me with analysis and opinion that I never would have considered? Probably.

But that's the point, isn't it?

Regardless of the fact that my editor is probably thinking to himself, "Wait a minute! I don't need to put up with Miller's crap every week after all!" I am still here, and I'm feeling pretty good. That's partially because while I was away, the college program where I received my vaunted BFA all those years ago was named one of the top ten in the nation. Am I sharing this in a vain attempt to justify the expensive arts degree that I spent the subsequent decade struggling to pay off? Yes, absolutely. Also, there is a surprisingly large contingent of people in the Twin Cities who also went to Millikin, so let's all go out and be smug together, shall we? (Yes, I know there are probably people here who went to the other nine schools on this list, but, come on guys, when you say to someone at a party, "I went to Juilliard," most people look impressed; when you say "I went to Millikin," most people look kind of confused and then excuse themselves to go get another drink or something. Just let us have this for once.)

I'm also feeling pretty good, because last week's edition of News and Notes happened to fall on the day in which I would normally have had to stay up until four in the morning finding something, anything to say about the Ivey Awards. Now, I am mercifully free of that task. Hallelujah!

What's that? I still have to say something about the Ivey Awards?!

Son of a-

The Ivey Awards

For the first time in years, I did not attend the Ivey Awards. I stayed home and got drunk there, which I am perfectly capable of doing on my own, thank you very much. (It's actually much easier when no one is passing a metal detector over you looking for your flask, er, I mean, weapons.) I expected to be able to absorb all the pertinent information via this social media thing that everyone's been going on about, but surprisingly little seemed to leak out into the interwebs during the whole shebang. The Iveys' Twitter feed, dormant since last March, remained asleep during the ceremony, so I had to content myself with looking up a list of stupid ideas for more honest theater awards. It was a good night for me, but I couldn't help from wondering: why all the radio silence? What were you hiding, Iveys? What are you afraid of?!

Thankfully, my girlfriend came home late at night to give me some of the details, and, even four whiskeys into my evening at home, I did have a twinge of Missing Out. The one year I decide to not go, two local performers end up in a drunken, screaming, hair-pulling altercation on the sidewalk in front of the after-party. To think, I could have been there to witness the whole stupid thing…

Other than that unfortunate incident, this year's awards (the first since founder Scott Mayer stepped away) seem to have gone off without a hitch, and the list of honorees shows that the Iveys are committed to recognizing a broader diversity of theater artists. The majority of both winners and performers represented people of color, which is great!

However, there was one troubling trend: a complete lack of small theater companies. In fact, as Cherry and Spoon noted in its coverage of the event, only six companies were recognized for their work this year:

"This is the first year that I saw all nine shows that received awards. I'm not sure that's a good thing, because even I don't see everything. Three theaters received two awards (Mixed Blood, Latte Da, Pillsbury House) and three received one (Artistry, Ten Thousand Things, Mu). Every award recipient is deserving, and if you ask me which one I'd take away I couldn't come up with an answer, but I do wish that more, smaller, newer theater companies could be represented in the awards."

This is partially due to the tendency for Ivey evaluators to flock to the same small group of established companies. It has been a problem since the beginning; but, honestly, no matter how much they try to nudge evaluators in new directions, it's the inevitable fallout of the ceremony's tiny number of awards and its stubborn insistence on having no nominations or fixed categories. For a field as large and diverse as we have in the Twin Cities, handing out only eleven or twelve awards every year and being unwilling to recognize everyone else who could have been in the running for them can never possibly hope to call attention to all that is great and commendable here. If the mission of the Ivey Awards was "Produce a slick-looking theater awards show that is only 75 minutes long" and "Allow theater people the chance to get horribly drunk on a Monday at an overpriced downtown club," then they're really rocking it; but the Iveys' stated goals are actually "Celebrate and increase awareness of Twin Cities professional theater" and "Create a celebration for ALL people who love Twin Cities' theater." I doubt if its opaque process for giving out a handful of awards can possibly live up to that mission.

However, this is not to say that the Ivey Awards have no value. At their best, they give a platform for people at the top of their game to notch it up one more rung for all of us. That's why, when Michelle Hensley won the Lifetime Achievement award, her speech about the need for putting more women in leadership roles in our theaters became one of those things that I genuinely do feel that I Missed Out on:

"When you put a woman in charge, chances are good that you’re gonna get someone that thinks very differently about hierarchy and power; about wealth and distribution of resources; about relationships with actors; about possibilities for rehearsal schedule and family life.

"I’m sure you are gonna get someone who thinks very differently about casting and gender and possibilities for women and the kinds of roles that women can play and should be playing and the kinds of stories we should be telling about gender. Because who is in charge, and who gets to guide the way we re-imagine our institutions matters. Who is in charge of choosing the stories that get told and deciding how they will be told, matters. And being very clear about just who you’re telling the stories to, and who you WANT to be telling the stories to, and how you are going to make that happen, matters most of all."

Damn, I'm going to miss her around this place.

In the meantime, everyone who's anyone is responding to Hensley's call. Let's see if all that commentary and commitment that people in high places bandy about can translate into reality.

In reality

American Theatre Magazine held its annual ritual of releasing its lists of the top 10 most produced plays of the season and the top 20 most produced playwrights of the season. (Naturally, this excludes A Christmas Carol and anything by that Shakespeare guy, because the list would be pretty damn monotonous from year to year if they didn't.)

One of the interesting turns this year is that for the first time in 14 years, something that didn't get its start on a New York stage is the most produced play (unfortunately, it happens to be an adaptation of the movie Shakespeare in Love). The other interesting thing is that, for the first time I can remember, the most-produced playwright is a woman. After being on the list for the past two years and being edged out of the #1 slot by August Wilson last year, Lauren Gunderson is now the most-produced playwright in America.

But don't get too much into your fist-pumping excitement at the thought of gender parity in theater finally being achieved. According to AMT's own analysis of which playwrights are being produced, gender parity is still far off on the horizon. Of the productions that American Theatre uses for its calculations, only 26% were written by women. Even when you ignore the classics (written back in the good old days, when men were men and men were also sometimes the women, too, because gender bias on the stage is an old, old problem), only 36% of new plays that received productions were written by women.

If you're wondering how that could possibly be, even though we've been harping on this subject for years now, and even though the overwhelmingly liberal world of theater keeps saying that we are "taking steps" and "launching initiatives" and "forming working groups", what it comes down to is that the vast majority of people who run our major theater institutions are men, and, unconsciously or not, they tend to pick other men for things. So, I hope that all those people saying that Michelle Hensley's speech at the Iveys was great and amazing and much-needed are prepared to actually follow through.

At the corner of Vital and Dying

Most people seemed pretty shocked the other day when it was announced that Intermedia Arts is laying off all of its staff. The performance venue/arts gallery has been a long-standing member of the Visual Arts and Performance communities, and its ever-shifting graffiti murals have been a welcome spot of color as Minneapolis' Uptown neighborhood hurriedly homogenizes itself into a fine slurry of upscale condo buildings. Now, the organization is winding down operations and taking 45 days to decide whether they should sell that eclectically-painted building.

If you've been paying attention to Intermedia, though, this isn't surprising at all. After the Great Recession slapped almost everyone in their collective faces, the company briefly shut down its gallery and laid off workers in order to regroup. They apparently accomplished that, but in the past year, after an executive director and a sizable chunk of the company's board left (not to mention two staffers already being laid off earlier this year), it should have been apparent that Intermedia was in trouble.

I was in the middle of looking up Intermedia's past 990 filings with the IRS to see how far back this actually goes—because I am a nerd who enjoys that sort of thing—but the folks at Twin Cities Arts Reader already beat me to it, and I graciously admit when I have been out-nerded. They have lots of charts and graphs over there plotting every number they could cull from over a decade's worth of IRS information. It's actually a bit overwhelming, so if you don't want your eyeballs overloaded with graphics, I'll simplify by saying that the problem at the heart of Intermedia's impending implosion is fairly simple: most years they ran at a loss, and the past few years, they ran at a huge loss.

In their 2014 fiscal year, they reported a loss of $335,000. The following year (the last one we currently have public records for), that shot up to $848,000 in losses. That's the kind of deficit that would make a heavy-hitter like the Guthrie crap its big, blue, angular pants (remember when they ran a deficit half that size in 2014, and they furloughed the staff for a month?); but Intermedia's yearly budget was typically only about 5% the size of a big boy like the G. At a cursory level, the explanation for these losses is also fairly simple. After bouncing back from the 2008 blues, they hit a high in grants and donation of $1.4 million for the 2013 fiscal year. After that, the wave broke, and it broke hard. The following year, contributions dropped almost in half to $680,000, and fell again the next year to $535,000, but Intermedia did not cut expenses to counter this drop in revenue. Payroll expenses stayed around $500,000, with the Executive Director (and later, interim ED) receiving about $80,000 of that.

Revenues dropped precipitously, but expenses stayed the same. No matter what your business or your mission is, and no matter how vital you may be to your community, it's a completely unsustainable situation. I don't know what was going on behind the scenes at Intermedia, but their tax filings paint a picture of a free fall without even the concept of a parachute at hand.

So, who knows what happens next? Intermedia has a $500,000 mortgage on its building, but property values in that part of town have to be off the charts right about now. Its conceivable that they could sell off the building, pay off the mortgage, and still have enough cash to operate in a scaled-down capacity. Then another condo complex can sprout up in its absence. It's the circle of life in Uptown.

We like to believe that arts organizations are vital to their geographic community. Up the street from Intermedia is the Jungle Theater, which has been granted much credit over the years for helping lead the way in reviving the Lyn-Lake district (it's a narrative that nicely helps them pull down grants). There are plenty of examples of urban districts that revitalize around a landmark arts organization; but being vital doesn't grant immortality.

I think back to the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh, which was built in 2009 with the goal of becoming an epicenter for African American culture. That's a vital, necessary mission, and one that could have greatly contributed to Pittsburgh's steady rise out of the ashes of its dwindling manufacturing past into becoming a vibrant 21st-century city. Instead, the AWC foundered and drowned under fiscal mismanagement after only five years. A New York real estate developer was on the brink of turning the building into a hotel, when the city's cultural fund was finally cajoled into stepping in, completely replacing the entire board and organization that had built it and crashed it.

Of course, I know I'm talking about a huge, fancy new facility into which the city of Pittsburgh had already sunk millions of dollars. Intermedia's building is an old, run-down former garage, so I doubt Minneapolis is ready to swoop in and resurrect it. I think its pertinent, though, because it shows that, no matter how big you are, no matter how important you think your mission is, and no matter how vital you may actually be to your community, none of that shields you from the problem of money.

If Intermedia survives this, though, maybe it's a good thing. Yes, we will lose another small performance venue in the Twin Cities; but, maybe being free of the Edifice Complex will get them back on track for their actual mission.

In the meantime, the North Garden Theater just officially opened in St. Paul, so maybe the world is balancing itself out a little bit in that respect. Now, if we can just talk them into letting grafitti artists go to town on their facade...