There are at least 167 community theaters in Minnesota. That’s the number as reported by the American Association of Community Theaters, and it’s probably low – since, like restaurants that appear and disappear before they’re even old enough to be reviewed, a new theater company may have formed and disbanded in the apartment two doors down from you without you even knowing it. The number's probably closer to 200 community theaters in Minnesota every year, though they may not always be the same ones. 1
Consider also that the Ivey Awards website counts at least 71 “professional” theaters in the Twin Cities and adding these numbers together still doesn’t account for professional non-Twin Cities organizations like Commonweal Theater Company in Lanesboro and the Jon Hassler Theater in Plainview, or Yellow Tree Theater in Osseo and Pioneer Place in St. Cloud, or Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji and Theatre L’Homme Dieu in Alexandria. Nor does it include university theaters like Minnesota State University Mankato and the University of Minnesota, Duluth whose audience has been bigger than just students for a while now.
The point is that there’s a lot of theater in Minnesota. Lots and lots. Tons. Buckets and boatloads (and some theater actually on boats). However much theater you think there is in Minnesota, there’s more – more even than the most theater savvy artists and audiences know.
Before I looked up the numbers, or looked at a map, I woke up one morning in March with the cracked idea that as the Editor of MinnesotaPlaylist.com, I should take a little road trip around the state meeting all the scrappy performing folks wherever they were hiding. Hey, I had a free week.
I realized quite quickly how naïve and impossible that task would be. I also realized quickly, they’re not hiding. They’re waving that theater flag proudly down almost every highway in the state.
My Greater Minnesota Theater Road Trip swiftly became my Mostly Southern Minnesota Theater Road Trip which then transformed in to a Largely Southeastern Minnesota Theater Road Trip and, even then, I had to skip the Little Theatre of Owatonna (whose name I love so much, conjuring as it does fantastical images in my head of scrappy but exotic Owatonnans working away like Keebler Elves at the “Little Theater That Could”). I also missed the mass of theater around Burnsville like Chameleon Theatre Circle, the Dakota Fine Arts Consortium, and Applause Community Theatre.
If you count a trip earlier in the month to the Paradise Center for the Arts, home of the Merlin Players, then my ambitious adventure turned into a visit to just nine theaters that represent a cross-section of what’s available outside the Twin Cities. There’s Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, an newborn babe of a professional theater in a strip mall; Pioneer Place in St. Cloud where brothers Dan and Mark Barth import 86 nights of theater into a space that also houses music, a wine bar, and a commercial production studio; the Willmar community theater is called the Barn Theatre even though it’s no longer in a barn. I visited Professor Paul J. Hustoles at the Department of Theatre and Dance at Minnesota State University Mankato where their shows are seen by more than 40,000 people a year – in a town of less than 50,000. I also visited the only other theater I could find in Mankato: the much smaller, humbly-named Merely Players. In Rochester, I stopped in an actual barn on the back of Artistic Director Bob Sanborn’s farm to talk with Vertigo Theatre Factory. I got a tour of Commonweal Theater Company’s $3.5 million home, and I met Theatre du Mississippi in the creepy, cool Masonic Temple where they put on their shows in Winona.
No one was home at the Phoenix Theatre in Red Wing, but I stood outside and stared, hoping to feel a theater or dance vibe coming off the building. . . I may have stopped at a Red Wing bar before I did that. . .
I’m not from around these parts. I’ve only been here six years, which makes me, I admit, like, still a tourist in the eyes of most Minnesotans. And I really do have trouble distinguishing in my head the fundamental and clearly important difference between Anoka and Edina. Both geographically and emotionally. Plus, I guess, I’m afraid to admit, I’m a snob. I didn’t think I was a snob. I’ve given money to the Fringe Festival and purposefully chosen to go to shows that I knew would be horrible just so that those darn adorable performers could have an audience. But, still, snob that I am, I can’t help but wonder: How can there be this much theater across the state? How is that possible? What do they think they’re doing? And why are they doing it?
What did I discover? One, there are some interesting financial lessons to be learned from some of the theaters around the state. Two, some of the artists seem less bound by what theater is supposed to be and more interested in what they can do for their community. This leads to some worthwhile innovations. Three, if you have the sudden urge to see A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia or the musical Hello, Dolly, you can probably find it playing somewhere in Greater Minnesota every night of the year. Or, all these theaters, no matter their tax status are focused like laser beams on what they think will bring in an audience. And, finally, I think I understand better why they bother to do this stuff at all, why men and women who spend their entire day working hard at “regular” jobs for a paycheck and who may even consider themselves terrified of performing in public, still come to a theater every night to build a set or memorize a song and ultimately do a play in front of their neighbors.
Cheri Buzzeo, the theater manager in Willmar, insisted that I retrace my steps and, at least, drive through New London to see their theater. They’re very proud in New London of the fact that they saved that theater, and even, she said, sometimes do edgier plays than the Barn Theater is able to do. So, though it was getting dark and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to interview anyone at the theater, I drove back up Highway 71 over to MN 23 into downtown New London – ‘cause she really seemed to mean it.
New London is tiny. It’s one of those towns that I don’t even feel like I’m in before I’m not in it anymore. The block I lived on in a neighborhood in Chicago is bigger than downtown New London. But as I drove around those two tiny blocks, looking at the people outside the VFW Hall smoking cigarettes (who were looking back at me suspiciously), I had trouble finding the theater. From the way Cheri talked, I was expecting something impressive. Something majestic, with spires perhaps, like the church that you find at the center of all European towns, no matter how small. But the theater in New London was just this little place, with a little awning and a little, underutilized marquee, tucked in between other buildings on one of the roads off Main Street. In the window, the flyers for their February shows remained, even in mid-March: Antigone was one show, and I ♥ MN (apparently a New London original) was the other.
In a small town, maybe even more so than in a city, theater – the arts in general but theater in particular – fulfills, I think, a fundamental human need to proclaim that we are more than just our jobs or our school or a thousand other pragmatic ways that we are asked, or forced, to define ourselves in everyday life. I ♥ MN is a statement without purpose – except to proclaim that “We are here. Right now. And this is who we are and how we feel. And we like to see things like Antigone too!” We are more than the sum of all the parts of our everyday identity. We are a community, says New London. With a theater. Just because. We like it.
I drove around the block twice in Osseo too, looking for Yellow Tree Theatre. They don’t even have a small unused marquee or their own dedicated entrance. You have to walk inside the strip mall, that’s across from the gas station, off of one of those old highway roads that run parallel to the access roads you need to take to turn into Arby’s and McDonalds and also now, in Osseo, Yellow Tree Theatre.
The space itself is, nonetheless, quite lovely and impressive, especially considering it was built with a small business loan, a builder father, and an electrician uncle-in-law. It’s got a high grid and a 96 channel board and a cozy lobby (wine and beer coming soon!) and a 100-115 seat thrust theater where no seat is more than three rows back from the action. Actor Jason Peterson and his wife, actor and writer Jessica Lind, gave up the rat race in New York – where Jason seemed to be landing his fair share of roles – to build their dream theater in Osseo. (Jason was raised in Champlain.) Though they’ve only been in business since the middle of 2008, their ticket sales have far exceeded expectations, and Jason is already pulling a small Artistic Director salary.
How, or why, is this possible? Grassroots marketing and an unexpectedly high quality of work is part of the reason, Jason suspected. Plus, the accessible season of shows they chose to inaugurate the space with probably helped, including the ubiquitous Sylvia. But also, Jason said, “People from the area feel flattered that people want to do theater here.”
I asked the same question to Cheri Buzzeo. The Willmar Community Theater has survived for 45 years, moving in 1987 from the barn where it first began to a converted, former JC Penny in downtown where it annexed even more space in 2002 for a larger shop and an impressive amount of prop and costume storage. Why such strong support for the arts? Not just in Willmar, Cheri told me, but in nearby New London and Lychfield and Hutchison? “It’s a way of life in Minnesota,” she said, “to have cultural literacy, to have a well-rounded life,” and the people in Western Minnesota “don’t want to think that they don’t have access to” culture simply because they don’t live in the Twin Cities.
The new Commonweal space alludes to the community in every gesture in the building. The stone and wood in the walls of the lobby were recycled from farms nearby. Sculptures (by local artist Karl Unasche) hang from the ceiling and explicitly honor the types of people who will come through the doors, the jobs they do, and the wildlife around them. The wall that thanks the individuals who donated to the building’s capital campaign isn’t just a plaque with gold-tinted names listed on it; it’s actually a series of shelves with small labeled jars, containing whatever personal pictures and mementos the donor wished to be identified with. “The mission of the theater,” Hal Cropp says, “has to be directed toward the community,” and he attributes a lot of Commonweal’s growth and stability to the relationships the theater has forged over time as residents and highly active members of the town of Lanesboro and to the way the theater company has woven into the fabric of life in Lanesboro.
In contrast, Rochester is an enigma that the members of Vertigo Theatre Factory can’t quite figure it out. It’s a transient town, they say, with millions of people visiting the Mayo Clinic each year who have no sense of place. Plus, it’s proximity to the Twin Cities confuses its identity further. “The doctors just go to the Guthrie,” someone in the barn said. (There were a lot people in this barn at one point, and I started to lose track of who was talking.)
There were a lot of people in this barn at one point because the members of the Vertigo Theater Factory really wanted to talk to me. There was Artistic Director Bob Sanborn, then actors and board members Erick Devick and Leisa Luis-Grill and then more actors Debi Neville and Justin Slaven and Dawn Sanborn. At a certain point, I was afraid I was going to meet everyone who had ever been in any of their shows – which seems to be an ever-growing number since they started filming Barn Bar.
As Bob tells the story, one late night-early morning, after a show that barely sold any tickets, he woke up with a revelation. Instead of coming to the show, everyone was probably home on their computers, he thought. So why not put some theater on their computers? Over the course of five weekends, Erick and Bob converted his barn into a bar and makeshift television studio. The afternoon I visited, half the barn was filled by a theater set for Hell.
Each episode is improvised around a general outline and, because it’s improvised, Vertigo invites anyone to join. Anyone who comes down on the nights that they film might find themselves wandering in front of the camera. People get excited by it, someone said, and when I asked “Why?” Erick deadpanned, “Everyone likes to see themselves on T.V.” But also, added that “It’s a [low-pressure] way to get together with people that you get to know very well.”
Ironically, young actor Justin Slavin said that he started doing theater after the military because he didn’t want to spend all his time in bars anymore. He wanted to be “learning something new and trying to find it.” And Erick Devick described the attraction to live performance like this: “I want to live a balanced and healthy life. In order to do that, you’ve got to seek out these other avenues” like theater.
The design of the new Guthrie is a statement to the world that Minnesota produces “World Class” theater, that Minnesota is home to a space that can compete with anyone in both art and class. It’s not as warm and homey as Commonweal Theatre Company’s new space on purpose. The new Guthrie Theater hovers over the city and lake because someone – the board, the artistic director, the city council – wanted to say, “This is who we are!” in much the same way that people in Osseo now take pride in having Yellow Tree represent them. It’s a public representation of an identity. At the very least, the design of the Guthrie suggests that “This is who we might be!” or “Who some of us want to be!” - similar in its way to Erick and Justin of Vertigo Theatre Factory aspiring to be more well-rounded people through acting, and the citizens of Willmar expecting to be as culturally-literate as anyone else in Minnesota.
All art aspires, but no other art form relies so heavily on a communal aspiration for an identity that is more than the sum of the individual parts.2❦
Part 3 (Coming Thursday, June 18): Representing the communities outside the Twin Cities to themselves present certain financial and artistic challenges for the theaters I visited. Or why Minnesota State University Mankato is happy to do a lot of musicals and you would be too. Plus, how many different things can one small theater company in Winona do.
1For those of you who enjoy the uniquely Minnesota game of comparing our level of theater to other states around the country, Minnesota does not possess the most community theaters in the country. Sad to say that Texas, a state three times our size with five times our population, has 383 while California has 474 (so says AACT, at least). We might say that we have more community theaters per capita than anywhere else in the country (1 in approx. 32,000) but we might also say that Billy Elliott is the very greatest stage adaptation of a film about working class ballet dancers with music by Elton John –but at a certain point, you’ve got ask, why bother?
2And how. When you go to the theater in a small town like Willmar or Lanesboro or Mankato, you’re often sitting next to your neighbors. In this light, perhaps, the resistance to swearing on stage seems less prudish and more prudent.