The big turnover


Meanwhile, in Little Falls

Last week on News and Notes, I boldly asked you, the readers, to do my job for me. I need as much information about the Minnesota theater world outside of the Twin Cities as I can get, and I need your help to get it. Reader Kathryn Fumie responded to that call:

NICE ARTICLE. Though, I felt yelled at, a little, This does not fit in with my less direct, passive aggressive Midwestern sensibilities, I'll have you know. So, of course, my feelings of guilt forced me to read your entire article and queue up the other articles mentioned. Bravo.

Great River Arts in Little Falls is on the rise. Jill Moore took over the arts space a little over a year ago. The space, downtown Little Falls, used to live quietly as a space for local artists to show and sell work. It was boring and underused. I tried to find the article the St. Cloud Times wrote about her, but have failed.

Unfortunately, I have also failed, Kathryn. I was unable to find the specific article you mentioned. However, in the process, I did get a chance to read up on Great River Arts and the renovations they've been making to their space in Little Falls. I also ran across an article in the St. Cloud Times about how the group is growing in its third season of dinner theatre.

So, thank you, Kathryn, for being the first person to come to my aid with non-Twin Cities news, even if you felt like I was yelling at you. I will endeavor to use fewer exclamation points in the future.

As for the rest of you: go forth, minions, and bring me the news!

The big sea change

Something is happening in the Twin Cities. Things are not quite what they used to be. As I slide through the waters of the theater scene, small fish that I am, I get the overwhelming sense that the tide is shifting. The currents are starting to flow in new directions.

It's hard to pinpoint when this all started, but I think I'll go back to 2011, when the Southern Theater nearly imploded. Out of the financial carnage, the theater emerged with a new leader and, in a few years, the theater's mission, purpose and methods would radically change in a most interesting way. Looking at it at the time, you wouldn't necessarily call it a radical shift in the theater world, but it was a start.

Then, we got word that Rick Shiomi was stepping down from Mu Performing Arts, the company he founded. Shiomi handed off his duties to Randy Reyes.

Soon after, it was Lou Bellamy at Penumbra Theatre making succession plans with his daughter, Sarah Bellamy.

In the middle of all this, Robin Gillette stepped down as the executive director of the Minnesota Fringe. After steering the festival through impressive growth, she left it in the hands of Jeff Larson. Doug Scholz Carlson took over as Artistic Director of Great River Shakespeare Festival in 2014, and the Old Log Theatre changed owners in 2013.

Even so, you probably didn't think of it as a trend at the time. I certainly didn't. But, then, the biggest fish in the bond jumped in to the turnover fray. Joe Dowling's impending retirement from the Guthrie clinched it: the leadership of the Twin Cities theater scene was changing rapidly. Dowling's replacement, Joseph Haj came from a completely different realm of theater from Dowling, signaling that, finally, even the Guthrie has caught on to the idea that it was time to change.

Since then, we've been playing the "who's next?" game. If you had "Bain Boehlke" down in your betting pool, then you either know the Twin Cities well or you picked a random assortment of tiles from a Scrabble bag. Either way, you were a winner. He announced his retirement from the Jungle last year. In his place, we will soon have Sarah Rasmussen.

Up at the Paul Bunyan Playhouse, Zach Curtis will be stepping down as the longest-serving artistic director of that theater after nine seasons.

And we just found out that Theresa Sweetland, executive director of Intermedia Arts, will be moving up to the Minnesota Museum of American Art.

Now, another big damn shoe is dropping. Tim Jennings, the managing director of Children's Theatre Company, will be leaving the Twin Cities, drawn inextricably back to the waters of his birth (like salmon) to run the Shaw Festival in Canada (actually, not much like salmon).

If you're a part of the Twin Cities theater scene, you're in the middle of a sea change. It may not feel like it right now. A true sea change never really feels like one until it's done and the survivors look back on it. I'm not in the business of making predictions about how the theatre world will unfold; my business is more shadowy than that, and it wouldn't do you well to go around asking questions about it. What I can say, though, is that all this new blood coming into the top echelons of the theatre scene is sorely needed, and I, for one, welcome our new theatrical overlords.

It's a pretty rare alignment of the planets that will be bringing in so many new, younger people into good leadership positions all at once; but I hope we can make the most of it. I'm hoping we'll see new directions, new experiments, new audiences, and a new willingness to go forward boldly, and, yes, even fail boldly, if it comes to that. We've all been too cautious for too long, and that will hopefully change soon.

Like I said, I'm a small fish in all of this; but I do know a bit about changing the guard. While all this other change was going on, I myself took over a theater company after its founding artistic director stepped down. Even though I'm sure everyone listed above is probably a few pay grades above me, I would like to share some advice I received from my predecessor:

-The role of the Artistic Director is to serve. We serve the art, the artists and the community.

-The act of inspiring people is creating a frame within which they see themselves doing something amazing. Be specific and intentional while building that frame, then get out of the way. Know when to build and when to step back.

-Humans are… complicated. You’ll be overwhelmed by support, ambition and energy. You’ll also be confronted with resistance, confusion and antipathy. Fortunately, there’s a single cure for all of those – honesty.

Visions of the future

So, in the spirit of honesty, let me share with you Michael Kaiser's dire warnings for the future of arts organizations. The former leader of massive Kennedy Center recently released a book in which he predicts that most small and medium-sized organizations will bite the dust in the coming years, in favor of fewer more massive organizations (not unlike the Kennedy Center).

Kaiser's prescription for avoiding the coming apocalypse is for arts organizations to focus on creating new, innovate, excellent work that cultivates and engages to create its own community. For an example of how this might work, look at HUGE in Minneapolis. (The McKnight Foundation sure is.)

You might think that this is what arts organizations would be doing already; but in times of crisis, the arts actually tend to fall back on what they think their audiences will find familiar, warm and unthreatening, which may explain why people are so eager to prove that Shakespeare has another play hiding out there for us to run into the ground.

In the meantime, the folks at Medium have a few other suggestions for how to grow and change for the better.

Or maybe Seth Lepore can tell you a little bit about why you, as an artist, need to stop waiting for institutions to discover you and be your own entrepreneur.

On the other hand, there's this new Shakespeare play, and you know people like Shakespeare, right? Right?! Of course they do! This will fix everything, and then nothing has to change ever again!

Headshot of Derek Lee Miller
Derek Lee Miller

Derek Lee Miller is an actor, puppeteer, writer, designer, builder and musician (basically, he'll do anything to make a buck). He is a founding ensemble member of Transatlantic Love Affair.