I am not the only person to have dreamed this dream. I am not the first and won’t be the last to have reached for this particular star thinking, perhaps, that he was the first to have spotted that particular handhold. Not the first (in the face of innumerable impassioned entreaties to wake up for God’s sake, you’re having that dream again) to have dreamed the dream…of "bringing Theater to Rural America."
For five and a half years I was Managing Director (as well as Producing Director, Actor in Residence, Sound/Props/Costume Designer, Property Manager, etc, etc) at the Jon Hassler Theater in Plainview, driving eighty-five miles down Highway 52 from the Twin Cities, under the sway of this dream.
Some have approached it with the proselytizing zealousness (and, at times, narrow-mindedness) of a missionary tasked with shining the lamp of Art on the People Who Walk in the Darkness of Ignorance, others with the boundless joy of unselfconscious kids making costumes out of Mom and Dad’s old clothes and putting on the gol-darnedest backyard Sound of Music West Elk Street ever saw.
Seduced by success stories
Think of Canada’s Theater Pas Muraille and The Farm Show, a now-legendary collective creation of the early 1970s that started with eager young actors living among, talking with, and working beside workers of small family farms--- a heretofore largely ignored demographic--- and culminating in a theatrical regurgitation of that shared experience in a series of performances with those same family farmers as audience.
Virginia’s Roadside Theater, sprung in the mid ‘70s from the rich cultural wells of the back hollows and small farming and mining communities of Appalachia, has toured its original productions to over 2,000 communities in the U.S. and Europe.
The Old Creamery Theater Company was once the collective pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for ten crazy hippies. Now, after nearly forty years of staying between the ditches on an often bumpy road, it’s Iowa’s oldest professional theater company.
Wisconsin’s Door County ain’t exactly the big city, but American Folklore Theater has made the woods of Peninsula State Park ring with laughter since the early ‘70s. Down the road a ways, Door Shakespeare is still hanging in there, too, thanks.
The Commonweal Theater Company has managed for twenty years to successfully navigate the back roads in and around the tiny, picturesque Root River Valley village of Lanesboro, Minnesota without hitting too many deer.
Some, of course, didn’t make it. The folks in Hurricane, West Virginia, smack-dab between Huntington and Charleston, thought The Mountaineer Dinner Theater would forever be “the second best way to spend an evening.” Now the barn doors are closed, their once-famous homemade pumpkin bread with hand-churned butter only a fragrant memory. Other dreams have joined it, dotting the narrow shoulders of the country roads of rural America like so many busted-down pickup trucks.
She’s a tough row to hoe, as they say out there, and still the dream has no lack of dreamers.
The birth of a theater in Plainview
In the late ‘90s, a small group of like-minded patrons of the arts living in and around Plainview, Minnesota, having each one achieved a measure of success, decided at roughly the same point in time that they wanted to give something back to their community. They certainly weren’t in it for the money, although they all agreed that any little boost to the little farm town’s flagging economy would be a welcome benefit of any plan they might happen to put in place. Mostly they agreed that they loved their little town, and that they wanted to keep its unique cultural, historical, and, yes, rural heart beating. They also wanted you to get to know that heart, too. After a while they made it official on government paper, as they say, incorporating as a not-for-profit arts organization under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
Anyone not yet sharing the love will not immediately see the beauty of Plainview. It’s there, though, and you don’t even have to dig all that hard. As State Highway 247 becomes West Broadway (right around the “Welcome Home” sign) and you top the rise leading into town, St. Joachim’s Catholic Church, an architectural gem as prairie churches go, will pull your eye to the left. Make sure your speedometer does not creep over thirty; tickets have been (politely) handed over to motorists clipping along at thirty-two.
Plainview-Elgin-Millville Community School, also on the left, dominates the next block or so. Beloved Minnesota novelist Jon Hassler went to school there during WWII. He grew up in the picture-perfect Crafstman-style bungalow just to the east, across 5th Street from the broad-shouldered old bastion of learning. The little house, formerly situated a few blocks to the east and south of there, right next to where The Giant Steer now stands, was literally rescued from the bulldozers by the aforementioned civic-minded group of arts patrons and rechristened the Jon Hassler Boyhood Home and Rural America Writers Center.
The Rural America Arts Center stands two doors to the east of the Boyhood Home, at 412 West Broadway. Shoulder-to-shoulder within the long, low building an eclectic little bookstore/coffeehouse bearing the folksy moniker of “Words and Afterwords” coexists with the Jon Hassler Theater, a black-box performance space that seats a little over 200 for plays, concerts, lectures, meetings and classes. The Arts Center was constructed originally in 1948 to house a farm implement dealership.
A few doors east of kitty-corner, at 333 West Broadway, Jon Hassler’s dad ran a Red Owl grocery store out of that Victorian storefront which now houses JT Variety & Toys.
Backtrack to the west across 4th Street and walk south a few steps to the old Methodist Church, now home to the Plainview Area History Center, an entity dedicated to providing a future for the area’s past, in the form of genealogical records, photos, memorabilia, and the archives of the local newspaper.
The Plainview Area History Center, along with the Rural America Arts Center/Jon Hassler Theater and the Jon Hassler Boyhood Home/Rural America Writers Center, make up a sort of campus containing the triumvirate of “affiliates” sheltered beneath the 501(c)(3) umbrella legally known as the Rural America Arts Partnership. While the History Center is by choice a stand-alone operation, the Arts Center/ Theater and Boyhood Home/Writers Center share a decidedly symbiotic relationship, the latter being used from time to time to house the performing artists providing entertainment at the former and the former being used occasionally as a showcase by the literary artists of the latter.
Here’s where I come in
I was born in a big city (Chicago, Illinois) and raised in a small rural town (Geneseo, Illinois). Music and Theater literally saved my life (but that’s another story). I graduated with a degree in performance, bummed my way around the business for a while and eventually ended up in San Francisco, where I spent most of the eighties. During the latter half of that decade, I picked up a novel called Grand Opening, a coming-of-age story arguably as good in its own unassuming way as To Kill A Mockingbird. Its author? Jon Hassler.
Fast forward nearly ten years, to 1996. Having moved from San Francisco to the Twin Cities, I responded one day to an audition notice in the 550s, read and won the role of Stan Kimball, a small town undertaker/furniture merchant, in the highly anticipated Lyric Theater production of a theatrical adaptation of the novel. . . Grand Opening, by Jon Hassler.
Unbeknownst to me, a group of civic-minded citizens from Plainview (the very ones, of course, who would one day plant the seeds to sprout the Rural America Arts Partnership) came up to see that production. Shortly after that they invited Sally Childs, the producer/director of Grand Opening, down to Plainview to discuss the idea of opening a professional theater in the little farm town. Being already intimately familiar with the vagaries of the show business, Sally did her best to dissuade the idealistic band from embarking upon such a lunatic endeavor. Convinced that the subject would never again be broached, she made the return trip to the Twin Cities.
Somewhere just south of Cannon Falls an unbidden little voice whispered: “What if?” It was the voice of the dream. She told it to shut the hell up, and kept driving.
Not quite four years later, Sally accepted the position of Artistic Director of the new Jon Hassler Theater and moved her Lyric Theater to Plainview lock, stock and barrel. The kickoff production of the 2000 season? Grand Opening. The dream is a silver-tongued devil.
The next summer I was in the running for the job of Managing Director at the History Theater in downtown St. Paul. Long story short: I didn’t get it. Then, the phone rang and, still wallowing in disappointment, I answered it. It was Sally Childs. The Jon Hassler Theater was in the market for a Managing Director. Was I interested? The pay was half of what I was presently making, the commute an hour and a half from my house. “Hell no!” I opened my mouth to say but in my stead the dream replied “Of course!”
How do you fill a “rural” theater?
When I came on board, the programming at “The Hassler” consisted mostly of Hassler adaptations (Grand Opening, then in its second reprise, and Simon’s Night, with Dear James, The Staggerford Murders and Rookery Blues yet to come) along with productions based on the work of other Minnesota literary lights such as Bill Holm and John Calvin Rezmerski, all directed by Sally Childs. There was little, in my opinion, to attract actors, directors and designers outside of the erstwhile Lyric Theater sphere. It was to my mind a bit of a closed shop, and I worried over what would happen once the Lyric repertoire had been exhausted.
I wanted more. I wanted to expand the boundaries to include the talents of those with whom I had worked in the Twin Cities. Matt Sciple, Zach Curtis, Curt Wollan. Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson. Jody Briskey, Prudence Johson and Dan Chouinard. Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan. Scott Hansen and Louie Anderson. Stephen D’Ambrose and Barbara Kingsley. I wanted to bring in long-running Twin Cities productions like How to Talk Minnesotan.
Happily, I was given plenty of opportunity to realize all of those wishes and more, but were they the right choices? After all, audiences were already buying tickets to see the Lyric programming. They built it, and they came. Why rock the boat?
But how does one go about deciding what to put in front of any audience? Are rural audiences any more or less sophisticated or accepting than urban or suburban audiences? Are they more attracted to popular, name-brand fare like On Golden Pond, Driving Miss Daisy and The Odd Couple? Do they prefer book musicals like The Fantasticks and Honk! or musical revues like And The World Goes 'Round and My Way? Will they come to see Edward Albee? David Auburn? Martin McDonough? Do they want dinner before the show?
We did everything on that list with varying results.
And if you can ever figure out the artistic side of the equation, you then have to figure out how to market that programming, and to whom, and what form that marketing should take. We tried posters and postcards left in local businesses, direct mail marketing, newspapers, radio, television, the internet.
Eventually the failing economy caught up with our little rural enterprise, as it caught up with so many small professional theaters in cities and suburbs across the country. Audiences got a little tighter with a buck, took cuts in pay or lost their jobs altogether. Gas prices soared through the roof, making even the shortest trip inadvisable. Previously unshakable sources of arts funding gradually became less reliable as their investment portfolios took major hits. Finally there was no money to pay my salary. I hung in there as long as I prudently could (longer, if you ask my wife or my creditors), then it was back to “the day job” for me.
A little over a week ago I went back down Highway 52 along with a friend of mine to see the latest offering at the Jon Hassler Theater. Even though the tightened budget has unquestionably impacted production values, it was worth the trip. Dean and Sally Harrington, two of the original visionaries behind the Rural America Arts Partnership concept, greeted patrons just as they have from the beginning. Sally Childs, having directed the production, paced the lobby this opening weekend like an expectant mother.The boat is still in the water, and she is yet a yar and seaworthy vessel. Will she weather the storms yet to come? Can she ride it out until the economic pendulum swings back in the right direction? Only time will reveal the answers to those questions.
I am fiercely proud of the work we did in Plainview. I would still be down there slugging away if things had worked out differently. Over time my recollection of our good work has overshadowed any regrets I might care to mention.
I often find myself thinking of the little Illinois town in which I grew up. I wonder if a day might come when I might return there and start a professional theater company, maybe in the old American Legion or the basement of the old hotel. Could happen; who knows?
Wake up, for God’s sake, you’re having that dream again. . . ❦
Top Ten things I learned as Managing Director of the Jon Hassler Theater
- Theater is an art form but it is also a business.
- In terms of their artistic palate, audiences are pretty much the same in the country as they are in the city. You will hear otherwise, and there may be places where it is true, but my experience hasn’t borne it out.
- People won’t consume what you think is good for them. If you think Power Bars are a healthy snack food and they prefer Snickers bars, for example, you had better stock the Snickers. If you also stock the Power Bars, they might one day take a bite, say “Hey, these aren’t half bad!” and eventually incorporate them into their snack food universe. Should that happen, forget about taking credit for it. They won’t do it because you think Power Bars are good, but they might do it because Power Bars are good.
- Do good work no matter where you are, city or country or backyard, and keep making it better as long as you have breath left in your body. I once had a loyal Hassler patron tell me the following: “We come to this place because the shows are really good. It reminds us of a great restaurant with an exotic menu. We may not have heard of half of the items on that menu but we know if we order something, it’s bound to be good.” I loved hearing that.
- Marketing works best if it is targeted. Take the time to figure out who your customers are or are likely to be and market to them.
- Believe it or not, direct mail marketing is still the most effective form of advertising. As annoying as those little postcards, flyers and coupons are, they tend to work. That’s not to say that newspaper, radio, TV, internet and email marketing don’t work. Everything is worth a shot, and eventually if you have any savvy at all, you figure out what works for you and refine it.
- Any change in marketing or programming direction takes time to take root. Don’t offer discounted tickets for Thursday night or Saturday afternoon shows and decide after two weeks that it isn’t working.
- One person can’t do it all. Over the course of the next five and a half years, I was involved in nearly two dozen productions at “The Hassler.” Out of necessity, Sally Childs and I wore many hats, at times simultaneously producing, directing, marketing, performing, designing and doing the cast laundry. Most theaters of our size required a staff of at least six; at our peak we had two full-time employees.
- Volunteers are worth their weight in gold.
- Make sure you let the people with whom you work know that you appreciate them. You would be surprised at how far a clean, safe, comfortable environment, fresh water, good snacks, frequent breaks and the occasional pizza or round of drinks will go. Do this because you should, not because it is expected or required to do it. There’s a reason it’s called the golden rule.