This spring, several articles on succession and the future of the Twin Cities theater scene in this publication sparked a great deal of conversation in the community. What will the future look like? How will the institutions of today move forward in the 21st century? Rick Shiomi left Mu and Andrew Mayer gave us some thoughts on succession in our local theater scene. Mayer’s article had trouble finding elements of the past in the future. Perhaps this is because the present is changing. There is a fundamental shift brewing in how theater is being made in America, perhaps in the world. And it is a part of a larger shift in how society relates to the arts and the act of creation.
In the Twin Cities, this trend in theater started at least as early as the 1960s but has really come into its own in the last twenty years. I’d like to take a look at a trend I see in theater in America: the emergence of strong independent theater: theater not created by monied producers or funded by large philanthropic institutions, but produced by artists themselves.
First, though, let’s look back a few years. It was the early nineties, and I was one of an assortment of kids standing in a large open room in a building called the “Recycla-Bell,” an old telephone company building in Duluth, Minnesota owned by a left-leaning couple. The building hosted all sorts of events: meetings of local anarchists and peace-niks and the like, and on weekends they let the kids in the area hold concerts. The room was filled with Doc Martens and torn jeans and flannel. A new genre of music was surfacing from the underground, bubbling its way up slowly into the mainstream. At the time, it was called “Alternative” and it meant everything that wasn’t played on commercial radio. It was industrial and folk rock and even some rap. But more and more, it meant bands like Jane’s Addiction or Nirvana. Loud, aggressive bands rooted in art rock and punk whose shows culminated in large unruly mosh pits, seas of young bodies colliding haphazardly into each other, long hair and gangly limbs intersecting, careening off of each other into yet another.
But on that night we had come for something else entirely. They called themselves Low, and their name was meant to reflect their music: slow, intense melodies that burrowed their way into your soul. If you follow indie music, you are probably familiar with them. They are some of Minnesota’s most successful living musicians. They are responsible for a genre of music now called ‘slowcore’. They aren’t famous in the way Prince or Bob Dylan are, have never signed a contract with a major label, had a Top 40 hit or done a stadium tour, but they have forged a long and successful career making the music they love.
Their success is part of a larger trend in music today, a struggle between artist and producer that turned into all-out war with the punk music scene in the 1980s. In the early days of recorded music, the equipment used to record and make records was extremely expensive, in reach only of the record companies. As radio and recorded music became more dominant, if you wanted to make a living, you had to go through the record labels. Fewer and fewer musicians made their living by their art, but the ones at the top became millionaires. And the record companies made billions. Many less successful artists actually became indebted to the labels.
However, as time progressed, recording technology became cheaper and cheaper. More and more, bands didn’t see the point of the major labels. Amongst the punk scene in the 1980s DIY became a mantra. Do It Yourself. And they did. They made their own tapes, t-shirts, posters. And slowly, punk became a scene, and the scene became a movement. As the 1980s ended, it wasn’t just punk rock that had decided to go it alone.
So why are we talking about music? Popular music was the first of the collaborative arts to have a strong, visible independent scene, most likely due to the combination of the highest degree of commercialization and the lowest infrastructure costs. Musicians were the first to pioneer some of these business models, but the trend is beginning to permeate every art form. More and more, artists are choosing to simply produce their own work.
In the twentieth century, every art form had its gatekeepers, the people you had to get past to forge a career in your art. They were generally employees of large companies and institutions, credentialed folks with good eyes and proven track records who felt they knew what their audiences wanted and what an artist needed to meet that demand. In the music world, they were agents at the labels and A/R people, in Hollywood it was the casting agents and producers, and in the performing arts it was the artistic directors and booking agents at large, regional institutions or producers and casting agents in New York.
In the beginning, the independent arts were about getting noticed, a path to a career within industries. It was garage bands and the growth of Off-Off Broadway, then downtown theater, the rise of independent boutique publishing houses and the like. Artists found a way to practice their crafts, and the gatekeepers of the world enjoyed the opportunity to see talent in action before signing it on. Those that didn’t get signed to the big time would eventually find day jobs or maybe a way to work in the industry outside of their art. Gradually, however, audiences around the fringes began to grow. Some artists learned they could earn decent livings by appealing to niche audiences, audiences typically not served well by the mainstream of a given art form. And then, something happened that changed everything. We call this thing The Web.
Suddenly, it was possible to reach audiences directly, without the need for critics or advertising or the massive mailing list of a 50-year-old institution. All this time, technology had been becoming more and more affordable. Now, every phone is a video camera, every computer a recording studio or editing suite. And if you make something, you can distribute it or publicize it to a potentially unlimited audience for free. The generation entering college now has never not had access to this technology. They grew up making and distributing work their entire lives. They don’t wait for someone to commission their work or hire them; they just go out and make it.
At the same time, it has become harder and harder to make a living the traditional way. Funding has become scarcer, and the large, monolithic regional theaters have seemingly placed more emphasis on funding edifices and paying administrative staff than supporting artists. The larger roles increasingly go to out-of-town actors with television or film name recognition. And so more and more artists find it easier to self-produce or to band together with others of similar minds.
One excellent example of this trend is the Minnesota Fringe Festival. When I first participated in the festival in 2001, it was mostly a lot of young artists using the festival as a way to practice their craft and get exposure. Very few artists (Kevin Kling was a notable exception) involved with the festival made their livings mostly from their art. But in recent years, more and more artists with advanced careers have been participating in the festival, and many even see it as a way to get paid. The Festival uses bigger and bigger venues and some of the artists are able to sell out the larger venues, selling thousands of tickets over just five performances.
When we at Nimbus Theatre decided to settle down and make ourselves a home, we didn’t launch a massive capital campaign funded by wealthy donors. We didn’t approach large foundations and ask for support. We relied on a network of supporters who built our theater with hundreds of small donations and thousands of hours of volunteer work. We had more materials donated than purchased, and we scrabbled together solutions from the opportunities we were given. We’re sharing our space with others of like minds, and reaching out into the community that, until then, was just where we rehearsed. It’s paid off: last season we broke our all-time attendance record three times. We’ve filled the space with theater nearly every weekend for about as far as it makes sense to plan.
During this process, we’ve grown a lot as artists and learned a lot of things the hard way. There isn’t a college course or a book that tells you how to do this, and we still have a lot to learn and a long ways to go. And that, I think, is where we all come in. The future won’t look like the past, and the only way we get there is by learning from each other. Learn from each other, share our successes and failures. I suggest we look outside our art and see how the trends in other art forms might influence our own. We do not live in a bubble, and these trends are a part of wider changes in our society and the world.
While the Guthrie isn’t going anywhere, we will see more theater like the Fringe festival. The hard line between professional and community theater will begin to blur, and theater will be found in more places than just the downtowns of our largest metropolitan areas. Artists will learn to cater to niche audiences (Klingon Christmas Carol, for example) and build community through grassroots outreach. We already have a ton of this in our town. Arguably, Minneapolis is an epicenter of independent theater. Off Leash Area produces excellent work in their garage. Open Eye Figure Theater produces work in people’s driveways. As time goes on, this trend is likely to grow stronger. Like the Fringe, tearing down the barriers to creating work will mean less curated, polished work, and more rough and possibly horrible work gets made. Audiences may have to work a little harder.
On the other hand, wider audiences will be reached. The last part of the 20th century was a lot of theater about white people in living rooms, and while that is interesting to a lot of America, vast swaths of the population were left without theater they found interesting. People into science fiction, into fantasy, into crime; people of color and minorities of all sorts weren’t given the theater that might interest them. People into puppetry, expressionism, or minimalism were often left behind by taste makers who favored naturalism. There will be more theater in the future, and not all of it will appeal to everyone. Some may not appeal to anyone other than the people who make it. But there will be more diversity, more innovation, and more availability. This has been becoming more and more true over the last decade, and I don’t see the trend reversing. Just like independent film, television, and music, independent theater is here. And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.