Why I Hate Walking Shadow Theater Company.

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Okay, maybe hate’s a strong word. I don’t feel about Walking Shadow the way I feel about, say, Hitler. I don’t want them to die, or lose a toe, even. But maybe some weasels in their pants, a persistent bunion, hate on that order.

I blame the Fringe Festival, really. It’s their paperwork that has me in this bilious state of sputtering perturbitude (yes, I know that’s not a word - I’m ranting here). When you sign up to do a fringe show, there’s a space for the name of the show, a space for the contact person, and a space for the Theater Company. And it is in this last empty field that doth sprout the dreams of one hundred and sixty-some wanna-be Sondheims each summer. With that blank line they go from just some goober with a gimmicky Shakespeare mash-up script to a Producing Non-Profit Arts Organization.

I know, because I was that goober/Producing Non-Profit Arts Organization.

In 2002, I filled out the form that would launch my own attempt at theatrical relevance, No Refunds Theater Co. A few pen-strokes and a $400 application fee bought me dreams of season announcements and people knowing my name and all kinds of new and exciting tax deductions. Five years, four fringe shows and one poorly executed (but brilliantly conceived) season later, I was burnt out, exhausted and in big trouble with US Bank. And the crazy thing is, amongst my fellow fringe-risen dreamers that was one helluva run.

And then there’s Walking Shadow. Those poxy bastards.

8 years of taunting

In 2004, they staged their first fringe show, and now, in 2012, they’re staging their 8th season. They didn’t fail. They didn’t burn out. They didn’t even slow down. For the last eight years they have churned out quality production after maddeningly quality production. Eight damn years. And there are only three of them running the thing, none of whom are bitter, debt-laden, chain-smoking alcoholics. In short, they have succeeded in every way that I failed.

And thus, we hates them, precious.

And I don’t mean to run down the little upstart theater companies that started with the Fringe and manage a few weeks run at the Bryant Lake Bowl every 3 years or so. I love those guys. Those are more or less the only shows I see any more (mainly because they start at 10 pm and there’s beer). But these companies are largely vanity companies. A few folks, who don’t have another outlet get to see their script onstage, get the only chance they’ll ever have to play Hamlet.

But Walking Shadow, those uppity snots, they don’t star in their own shows. They produce work by other people. New work. Bold work. Challenging work by modern, living playwrights I’ve never heard of. They put together seasons to shame an established company with its own space and actual operating budget. While theaters you’d recognize are staging glorified summer stock shows, Walking Shadow is putting up Neil Labute and adaptations of Murakami and Camus.

While your average three person outfit would call two chairs and some window blinds hung from the ceiling a scenic design, Walking Shadow fills the theater with Tokyo, Renaissance London, or a Robot-tabulous wasteland of the future. They have casts of three and casts of 14. They stage audience interactive puzzle-theater that is neither obtuse nor painfully awkward—and that, my friends, is saying something.

There are three of them! I need to say that again – three nerds in their 30’s (at least one of which has an entirely other full time job) are fully staging thoughtful, daring pieces in complete seasons at a time when Jeune Leune has folded, Penumbra’s going dark for a full season, and economy scares more established company. And not every show they do is perfect, thank Allah, but the ones I’ve seen were great. I’ve never read a review that panned them and listening to theater folks in town talk about these guys is like listening to Republicans talk about the 1950’s. Shit was, apparently, awesome.

Last spring they landed a slot in the Guthrie Studio space. Which, for a theater company founded on a Fringe show, is like becoming a Jedi Knight.

One of their original plays has even been published by Samuel French, those wordy twats.

What is this respect thing?

And don’t get me started about how they treat their artists & production folks. They pay them, for one. They respect them, for another. They still work at a non-equity level, but they get the best N/E actors out there – Anna Sundberg (non-equity until recently), Mo Perry, Sam Landman to name a luminous few; all folks at a point in their careers where they don’t have to work for jerks if they don’t want.

The point I’m trying to make here is that they’re doing it. Walking Shadow is, has been, and by all indications will continue to be doing it. We all like to talk about doing it. Some of us even get column space to do so. I, personally, am still patiently waiting to be recognized for the daring body of work that I have yet to produce.

But David Pisa, Amy Rummenie, John Heimbuch, those three jerkwads have, out of the chaos, out of the void, out of the blank space on a fringe application, crafted a functioning, significant, prolific theater company that demands mine own most grudging respect. And all you beautiful readers best pay attention, because what we’re looking at here is the ascension of the Twin Cities’ next theater institution. The next Jungle, the next Latte Da.

And it’s not me doing it. And that’s why I hate Walking Shadow Theater Company. Buncha turds.