The Trouper

How to win over critics and lose money, sleep, and ambition: A life in local theater

 

The Twin Cities are proud of their theatergoing audience. There is the oft-cited claim that Minneapolis and St. Paul are second only to Manhattan in the number of theater companies and in per-capita ticket sales, a factoid partly documented in a rosy overview of the local scene in the Star Tribune this February. That list begins, as it inevitably must, with the Guthrie Theater; it just doesn't get bigger than this, the largest regional theater in the nation. The Guthrie's recent production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf played to 96 percent capacity in the theater's 1,441-seat auditorium, finding an audience of 54,565 people over a five-week run.

Jealous comments about the Guthrie sometimes seem de rigueur in the local theater community, and no wonder. When the cast of the Pillsbury House Theatre's marvelous production of Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika looked out during a recent show and saw six people staring back at them--two fewer than were onstage--they must have wondered what has become of this vaunted community of theatergoers.

Playwright, director, dramaturg, actor...and waiter, Matt Sciple
Geoffrey P. Kroll
Playwright, director, dramaturg, actor...and waiter, Matt Sciple

Certainly, they are at the Guthrie. Pass by the Orpheum and State theaters in downtown Minneapolis on a Friday evening and you'll see them again, stepping off tour buses, clutching their fur coats. There they are at the Hey City Theater as well: Smokey Joe's Café raked in a reported $500,000 in advance sales. Advance sales.

True, there are other local companies with permanent spaces and healthy budgets: Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Penumbra, Mixed Blood, the Jungle. But with these theaters the full-time staff is small, grant-reliant finances are usually tight, and a single flop can send an entire season into a tailspin. A six-member audience can put a deathly pallor over a production, each empty seat representing money that was not made and, frequently, debts that cannot be paid.

But at least these theaters have venues. Other Twin Cities groups compete for the dozen available stages; performance space is simultaneously almost nonexistent and expensive. While companies such as Eye of the Storm and Hidden Theatre plan their entire seasons around single locations (the Theatre Garage and the Old Arizona Studio, respectively), they often must rehearse elsewhere. Eye of the Storm spent a week preparing its newest play, Two Sisters and a Piano, in a children's classroom in a church located in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood, because the Theatre Garage was then occupied by 3 Legged Race's Hand Driven production.

And what of companies that have no regular location? Theater Mu. Pangea World Theater. Outward Spiral. The artistically redoubtable Frank Theatre produces one play each year at the Southern Theater but otherwise must constantly shift locations. (Their most recent production was mounted at Old Arizona; their next will appear at the tiny theater in the Playwrights' Center.)

Zach Curtis has booked the People's Center theater in advance for the next few years, even though it is a small performing space with a minimal lighting system and a shallow seating area that accommodates fewer than 100 people. Additionally, the theater is so obscure that audiences are often hard-pressed to locate it. Audiences of six or seven, far from being a worrisome anomaly, are common. But if Curtis doesn't book the space as far in advance as possible, it is snapped up by any of the dozens of upstart theater companies that are looking for an inexpensive performing venue.

"We're headed for some sort of crash," Frank Theatre artistic director Wendy Knox says. "I'm competing for space with theaters that are two or three years old." Many of these troupes are also competing for the same dwindling pot of grant money and the attention of the local media. Theatrical successes in the Twin Cities, despite this locale's reportedly active theatergoing population and favorable funding climate, are hard-won.

Midlevel actors and directors, such as Sciple and Curtis, have found that making the transition into earning a full-time living on local theater is virtually impossible. "I feel at 33 like I wish I was further along in whatever my career is going to become," Sciple admits wistfully. "But then, I've had a lot of fun."

Both Sciple and Curtis have worked in the Twin Cities theater scene for a decade, performing in dozens of plays, founding their own theater companies, writing original scripts (Sciple's most recent, The Great Americ'n Play, debuted at the People's Center a few months ago), and picking up freelance work as directors. In fact, it is common to see Sciple and Curtis taking tickets at the box office of each other's production.

"I agree with the Buddhist concept that we earn the work, but we don't earn the reward," Curtis says. "But, believe me, everything I have achieved, I have earned." Curtis worked as a temp until July of this past year, when he was hired as artistic director of the newly formed Director's Theater.

Sciple worked as the literary manager of the Park Square Theatre for five years, doubling the part-time job with long shifts as a waiter. A year ago he quit to devote himself to writing, directing, and acting. "I got close enough to the process to want more of it," Sciple says of his literary and dramaturgical work at the Park Square. "Sitting in rehearsals and biting my tongue was too hard."

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