Let's conference

Hey, you know what's cool? Meeting your fellow theater colleagues from all over the state. You know what's really cool for you theater colleagues from here in the Twin Cities? It'll be super convenient for you. Registration is open for this year's Minnesota Theater Alliance Statewide Theater Conference, and you should sign up. MTA has already announced the schedule, including the list of offerings for breakout sessions and guest speakers. I was there last year, and I can tell you, without hyperbole, that it was one of those eye-opening, soul-searching, enlightening experiences that you should all be seeking out as curious, free-thinking human beings with an eye toward expanding your horizons. Also, it's literally happening in your back yard, you Twin Cities folks. Come on out. Buddy up with someone from out of town. Get them slap-happy drunk and take them to a show. Let's be the best damn hosts we can be.

So, a white supremacist walks into a bar…

Hey, you know what's not cool? David Duke. It shouldn't have to be stated emphatically again and again that the unapologetically racist white nationalist former head of the KKK is a greasy stain on the fabric of America. That should go without saying, right? And, yet, here we are, having to say it all over again.

If you're an internet denizen, you've no doubt heard about the recent hubbub over Julius De Roma, the owner of Minneapolis' Clubhouse Jäger. City Pages recently disclosed that De Roma made a donation to Duke's 2016 Senate campaign. Immediately, everything at Jäger went to hell, as DJs and events, including the popular, long-running Transmission dance night, cut ties with the bar. (And this is after Transmission already had to ditch the Varsity Theater following accusations against former owner Jason McLean of sexual misconduct with minors.)

De Roma's defense? "It's just free speech." (In case you didn't know "free speech" is the new dog whistle for the whacko right.) Well, I guess he's free to say what he wants, associate with whom he wants and spend his money where he wants; but so is everyone else, and after a staff walkout at Jäger, De Roma's bar looks like it's pretty well done for. Sorry, Julius; that's free speech, too.

There are a lot of theater people I know who frequented Club Jäger, and who were very surprised by this revelation. However, there are plenty of people in the music scene who aren't all that surprised. Back when De Roma had a more hands-on role in the day-to-day operation of the place, there were an unsettling number of racist and anti-semitic instances that he apparently endorsed.

But what does this have to do with the theater world? Well, in disclosing De Roma's unsavory political donation, City Pages also reported that De Roma is a major property owner in town, and one of the many buildings he leases out houses HUGE Improv Theater. The gang at HUGE was blindsided by this revelation, since no reporter from City Pages contacted them to let them know that this article would be running.

This is where the situation gets tricky. Club Jäger is already kaput, for obvious reasons, but how far would the backlash against De Roma go? Would it also land on good businesses that had done nothing wrong except for enter into a ten-year lease with someone that they had no way of knowing was such an unsavory character? In the race to stamp out bigotry, it is awfully easy to steamroll right over nuance and context. (For example, look at the impending end of The Great Comet, in which intense criticism over diversity in casting helped kill one of the most diverse shows on Broadway, even though plenty of people loved the show.) Good intentions can have terrible collateral damage if they're not deployed with care.

Fortunately, HUGE has been at the forefront of building a community based on open arms, empathy and care, which is why it was heartening to see their board immediately draft up the only good response to finding out your landlord is a bigoted piece of crap. As a second step, they have organized a public forum on Wednesday, September 6 so that they can get a better understanding from their community as to how they should respond next.

In the meantime, while you're hopefully puzzling over what your own personal response should be to this situation, I would like to direct you to a recent Minnesota Playlist article by one of my favorite new Playlist writers, Rachel Teagle, in which she wrestles with the depiction of Nazis in theater. It's a complicated issue, and she looks at it with the nuance and care that you deserve.

After the flood

It's a hard time in Houston right now. I'm sure you've absorbed plenty of frantic news coverage about the devastation that this latest hurricane has inflicted, but I want to zero in on one particular slice of that devastation that has affected your fellow theater folks in Texas. Among the many people, businesses and institutions that were affected by the storm and the flooding that followed, Houston's theater district was hit hard. These theaters, many of them housed in basement spaces, had already gone through a long period of recovery after tropical storm Allison flooded them out in 2001, and now they've been hit again.

This time around, Houston's Alley Theatre was particularly affected. The downtown theater just finished up a major $46 million renovation two years ago, and, now that they've finally been able to get back into their space, it seems that everything they built has been destroyed by the rising waters.

American Theatre Magazine released an article about the Alley and the other affected theaters, and at the end of it is a list of places where donations can be sent to help them get back on their feet. It will be a long road to recovery for our friends in Texas. Hopefully, we can help them out.

New voices

Also in American Theatre Magazine this month is a pair of articles about the upcoming vacancies in leadership in America's theaters. A whole host of leadership positions at major institutions are suddenly opening up as the Baby Boomers settle into retirement. According to the Guthrie's Joseph Haj, it's high time for those institutions to take tangible, meaningful steps towards diversifying that body of leadership. Despite many words being said about the need to diversify, the number of women and people of color in top positions at America's regional theaters has actually shrunk a bit in the recent past. We can do better than that.

This is all part of the reason why you're going to see something new happening with News and Notes soon. I've been writing this column for more than three years, and it has occurred to me that, as much as I like ripping on the theater news, it's probably time to diversify the viewpoints coming out of Playlist. After chatting with Playlist owner Damon Runnals, I've decided to give over a bit of whatever power my position here affords me to some new voices with different experiences and viewpoints than my own.

For the rest of the year, one News and Notes column each month will be penned for you by someone other than me. The last column in September will be brought to you by locally-based, internationally-performing theater artist Taous Khazem. In October, you will get a guest spot from Laura VanZandt, the blogger behind One Girl, Two Cities and one of the organizers of Twin Cities Theater Bloggers. In November, you will hear from actor and clown Gregory Parks, who I quoted at length in discussing the end of the Ringling Bros. Circus earlier this year, and who had some great points in his City Pages article about cake-eating and Tina Fey. In December, your guest writer will be Joy Dolo, who's been onstage all over the Twin Cities, from the Guthrie to Ten Thousand Things to Blackout Improv.

It's a great list of people who I think will have great things to say. I'm very excited to see what they come up with. Plus, I get one week off a month where I can just drink and let other people do the exhaustive analysis. Everybody wins!