There are times in your life in which everything seems confusing and horrible, and all you want to do is chuck your computer through an open window, guzzle a bottle of bourbon and disappear under a pile of blankets. For me, that's usually Monday nights, when I'm faced with a looming deadline for writing this article, staring blankly at a list of news stories and wondering how I'm going to turn that whole mess into something even remotely resembling intelligent speech. Oh, how I suffer for you all.
The big problem with covering the news all the time is that controversy and conflict are inherently interesting to human beings. It's easier to spin a story and a narrative out of people butting heads, so I find myself coming across a lot more interesting articles about the negative aspects of our trade. There's a good reason why "If it bleeds, it leads" is a well-worn cliche in the news world, but it can make a person pretty damn cynical after a while. I usually try to beat back the darkness with humor, but even that tactic can become, as some have described, "snarky".
It also makes it hard to sneak in some bit of news that might genuinely be useful to the reading public. For example, if you're a small theater company that wants to build sets, but you don't have the money to invest in tools, you now have access to a brand-new tool library. Where would that normally fit in my attempts to apply a grand, sweeping narrative to disparate news stories? Or in my attempts to undercut that grand, sweeping narrative with a stupid joke? I don't know, but it's a pretty cool thing that now exists, and it should be recognized somehow.
So, this week, we're going to approach the news with honesty, sincerity and hopefulness. There's nothing in here but positive, uplifting stories, even though it would be incredibly easy to do something like make fun of the Academy Awards. It's probably something you all need right now. You know why.
Here it is, Minnesota: my earnest attempt to say to you "Good jorb!"
Great opportunities for the young ones
The quest for a theater company to get its own theater space is often arduous and daunting (as we've discussed before), so Bluewater Theatre Company in Wayzata deserves a big congratulations for nabbing a new home base. This theater company for young performers had already found a permanent home back in 2011, but now they have an even bigger chance to expand.
The impending end of the Ringling Bros. circus has caused a lot of hand-wringing over the state of circus arts. Fortunately, St. Paul's Circus Juventas is still going strong. In fact, the troupe has been invited to perform in a festival at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
Forty years young
Theatre isn't always good about equity and representation when it comes to race, but I don't want to talk about that today. Instead, I would like to jump on the bandwagon of people congratulating Penumbra Theatre for doing that thing very well for four decades. When something has been such a part of your local community for so long, it's easy to forget that this company is still a hugely-influential, nationally-recognized group, and the voice that they have continually given to black artists helped lay the groundwork for Minnesota, of all places, to be place that consistently turns out great performers of color.
As part of the celebrations, the Minnesota History Center is hosting an exhibition that explores the history of Penumbra and of African American art and literature. Not only is it a nice recognition of the company, but you might learn a few things you didn't know.
And, to top it off, Penumbra's founder, Lou Bellamy, just won another award from The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library.
Seasons of change?
Damn, it's Season Announcing Season again, and I didn't realize it. The weirdly warm winter seems to have thrown off my whole sense of time passing, and all of a sudden, it's time to announce the theater seasons again.
I have become blasé about "theater seasons", because the very idea seems out of step with how the world operates now. In the same way that in the music world concept albums have disappeared, and the very idea of a cohesive "album" is crumbling in the face of the ability for people to just directly download single songs, I think that audiences are also losing track of the concept of a cohesive "season" of plays. Into that new world, we see the old institution of the Guthrie drop its latest season.
Any longtime reader will know that I have been pretty hard on the Guthrie in the past. I don't think that's just me pressing sour grapes. I really believe that if you are going to voluntarily take on the mantle of being the biggest, most powerful entity in your community that you must submit to a much higher level of scrutiny. (You hear that, Mr. President?) As either Voltaire or Stan Lee once said, "With great power comes great responsibility".
However, I choose to set aside my cynicism and note that the Guthrie under Joseph Haj really does seem to be taking on the task of making changes. The much-hyped "Level 9 Initiative" actually seems to be turning out new work that is relative to the present moment, and the Guthrie's latest season announcement contains more work by women and people of color than any other time I can remember since I've been here.
So, good on you, Guthrie. You're still leaning on old classics much too much for my taste, but you have put much more thought into how you selected your season than "geez, we gotta get another Shakespeare show in there," and I would like to call attention to that progress.
Minnesota's export economy
As it turns out, Minnesota has such an abundance of talent and creativity that we can afford to scatter it across the country.
For example, it was announced this week that Christina Ham's musical play Nina Simone: Four Women, which was such as success in its premiere at Park Square last year that it's been brought back for an extended run, has found another life beyond the Twin Cities stage. In fact, it's been picked up as part of the next season at Arena Stages in D.C. Be on the lookout for it to pop up in more places across America.
It was also announced recently that Namir Smallwood was named the newest ensemble member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. If you don't remember, Smallwood was a New Jersey transplant who came here to study at the U of M's Guthrie BFA program. In his time here, he rounded up a number of accolades, including Minnesota Monthly's 2010 Artists to Watch and City Pages' 2013 Emerging Artist, as well as featuring in a string of critically-acclaimed plays. Smallwood may have moved on, but it's nice to know that the training and experience he got here set him up for good work in the future.
And speaking of Chicago, playwright and Minneapolis native Ike Holter recently pulled down Yale University's Wyndham-Campbell prize, much vaunted as the "most lucrative" playwriting prize in the country. Holter may have made his name in the Windy City, and may have dedicated most of his writing to a Chicago neighborhood, but we'll always know that he came from here first. If I ever win some major award, I'll be just as happy that the Pike Press back in Pittsfield will remember where my roots were.
I attended the 2017 Fringe lottery with the expectation that I would find out who would be in this year's festival. I walked out with so much more knowledge than that. In fact, the Fringe chose this occasion to announce their new Executive Director. Dawn Bentley comes to the Fringe hot off of heading up the Art Shanty Projects, and on top of that, she has an incredibly impressive resume. With a background in music, biology, marketing and nonprofit management, she seems like a great choice. Plus, my girlfriend, who works at the Fringe, is constantly coming home and telling me something else interesting about Bentley; for example, on top of everything else, she also runs marathons. At this point, I will be surprised if there is anything that she doesn't do.
Keep your eyes on the Fringe Festival's staff page, because, in addition to the new ED, they also have a new Volunteer Services Coordinator (Kaitlen Osburn), and they will hopefully be getting a new Associate Director soon (Who knows? Maybe that's you.)
In other hiring news, I'd also like to congratulate Hannah Holman on her new job at the Minnesota Theater Alliance. Holman is coming on board as the new Program Manager at the Alliance, about a year after they got a new Executive Director in Joanna Scheduler.
That's a bunch of new women in arts leadership positions. Damn, Minnesota, look at you being all progressive and inclusive!
And, hey, if you're looking to make your next move in the arts world, why not check out the 2017 Theater Career Expo, hosted by the Guthrie. There's more to the arts than endlessly auditioning. Maybe you've got what it takes to run some things around here someday.
Lies, lies and adaptations
OK, this one isn't relentlessly positive, and it isn't about Minnesota, but, screw it, let's go out on a weird historical note.
Did you ever notice that even when a movie is "based on a true story", it still usually has the "This is a work of fiction" warning after the credits? Well, I did; but I'm one of those weirdos that sticks around to watch all of the credits, even though the disaffected teenagers trying to sweep greasy popcorn off the floor before the next showing starts keep shooting me dirty looks.
Thanks to Slate, I now know why. It's all because of Rasputin. Or rather, it's all because of the guy who murdered Rasputin.