What is Minnesota theater?

This is our project at MinnesotaPlaylist.com, to explore this question.

I grew up in Chicago—City of Steppenwolf, theater in any abandoned retail space with a street-facing window and room for 40 folding chairs, shows with titles like Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack, Coed Prison Sluts; and White Trash Wedding and a Funeral. And an improv troupe on every corner, in every bar. Old Chicago joke—“What do you call five actors standing on a Chicago street corner?” Answer—“A new theater company.”

As I grew up, I learned about theater, which mostly meant New York theater—Broadway and Performance Art, Uptown and Downtown, lots of angst and Jewish humor, or lots of rich well-educated, mostly white people with parent problems, or lots of big musicals: Les Miserables, Cats, Miss Saigon.

Graduate school is where I learned about the nonprofit regional theater—of which the Guthrie is a leading light, a shining beacon, one of the largest theaters in the whole country, and an attention magnet.

So, if you just look at the Guthrie, do you know Minnesota theater? Yes and no, of course.

A breathless and incomplete attempt to hug our theater scene

Hennepin Theatre Trust is actually a larger non-profit arts organization. Theatre in the Round Players (TRP) and Old Log Theatre are older.

But it isn’t really a competition—such a Minnesotan thing to say—because more and more I’m seeing more and more thrilling theater everywhere in this town, homegrown high quality intense. From site-specific theater to new theater spaces; from ensemble-driven, physically-inventive, actors’ bodies-create-faucet water-drip-drip-dripping to post-modern dance that is basically theater. Our Opera churns out original material that earns Minnesota national attention. Our Bedlam may be the most grassrootsy, anything goes, everywhere is a stage, "Is that Theater?", multi-headed hydra in the country. A bowling alley bar presents some of the wackiest work in town as does the country’s largest non-juried fringe festival.

We have a core group of mid-sized ($500,000 to $3 million budgets) high-quality adventurous script-based theaters that are also some of the most influential culturally specific theaters in the country, and some super industrious and successful improv and sketch comedy theaters. We’re innovators in theater for social service, creative placemaking (whatever that means), in service organizations for the arts and arts advocacy, and children’s theater. Did you know we have not one but two children’s theater companies that tour nationally (which is not even to mention the Childrens Theater Company’s or Steppingstone Theater’s record of success)? Plus, we have more community theaters across our state than any other states but Texas and California (which are, you know, much much larger than us—and, additional addendum, if you think that community theater in Anoka isn’t good or popular, then you simply haven’t seen it lately.)

I haven’t even started to talk about all the great artists, with multi-disciplinary talents you should be thinking about, or the fact that dance and film and web series in this town basically overlap with theater, or— I write all first drafts in pen, manually, so now my hand hurts. Suffice it to say that we’ve got a lot going on here—more than even the most knowledgable arts lovers know. I feel that even since we started this website 6 years ago, Minnesota performing arts—which was pretty awesome at the time—has grown in leaps and bounds in terms of quantity and quality.

A virtual town square (where it's kind of loud)

So here’s what we’re going to try to do on this website—this is our project—create a space where all these things can meet, and bounce against each other like atoms, and help articulate the different molecules and the way they come together, and what they make, and what is good about it. And, ultimately, make it more possible for everyone to be a part of the art making and consuming that they want. (Why? you ask. See below.)

We can’t do it alone—and don’t want to. For one, we need your help. Put your shows in the calendar. Get listed under talent. Use the site for auditions or to find businesses, or get businesses to list so you can find them easily. It’s a site that is designed to work as well as you want it to work, to connect dots that you have to help us fill in. If you’re interested in this project too, please participate.

And then, right off the bat, we’re blessed with the help of a lot of great resources. Unlike so many other regions in the theater world, we’ve still got Rohan and Graydon, two regular critics at our largest daily newspaper plus entertainment editor Claude Peck, who has been known to write reviews more than occasionally. Over at the Pioneer Press too, the second largest daily, arts editor Kathy Berdan can also be found in many a theater lobby, plus Chris Hewitt is actually bringing a fresh perspective to what he’s writing, and Dominic Papatola is still rattling around out there, still writing in exchange for free tickets. He just can’t quit us. Quinton Skinner is back in the theater commentary world over at Minnesota Monthly and are you reading Susannah Schouweiler's writers at mnartists.org? You should also be reading Pamela Espeland over at Minnpost; and we’ve got some vibrant other web resources like the tireless Jill Schaefer at her Cherryandspoon blog and John Olive and Janet Preus at howwastheshow.com. (And more and more—The Tangential, Cakein15, what am I forgetting?)

There’s actually a lot of stuff to read and know, if you’re interested, and we feel no need to be redundant. We want to go a little deeper at times, or come toward something sideways, and sometimes point you toward stuff you might not otherwise notice all as we try to figure out the whats, whys and the what nots.

Unabashed, yet appropriately midwestern and humble, idealism

But Why?, you ask, Why do this? (Well, why does anyone do anything but anyway. . .)

This I believe: No matter what kind of live performing art you’re into—either as an artist or an audience—you are participating in a regular ritual in which strangers come together and consider what it means to be human. Don’t get me wrong—not every show is deep as dark ocean, or even enjoyable—but you’re still considering things, or laughing, or rolling your eyes, in a room with strangers.

You’re not involved in a riot or a crime, a Kafkaesque bureaucratic meeting that wastes your precious hours on earth discussing the cost of Styrofoam vs. Dixie cups, or a solo retreat into your own narcissism. You are engaging, in a room full of strangers, powerfully, peacefully, and with your entire body. (This is why bad theater is so much more torturous than bad television, because its body to body, it infects you.)

This is always an excellent thing (even when its not an excellent show). It’s not the only good thing in the world or the only good thing you should consider doing; it’s not some kind of magic potion, all-kids-will-learn, all-crime-will-cease, all-neighbors-turn-into-unicorns thing but it absolutely adds a little bit more good and takes time away from the bad in the world every time you do it. Every single time

So—there—welcome to the new MinnesotaPlaylist.com.

Check out a more pragmatic rundown here or get help here (Like “How do I post shows exactly?”) But, if you wanted to know why we do this and what we think we’re doing. This is it.

We hope you enjoy it, and we hope you participate.