Inside The C.I.A.

Trying to Crack the Secret of Staging Your Own Show? Talk to the Center for Independent Artists.

 EL COLEGIO CHARTER HIGH school is filled with skeletons. Students brush past these ivory figures at the front door and in the hallways without noticing, while making their way to a roomful of computers. Just beyond is a large room used for arts and crafts, which includes a scene shop for theatrical productions. Here, two oversize skeletons lean awkwardly against a hydraulic lift, attached to backpacker's riggings so they can be carried on a marcher's back like huge, bony children. In one room, skeletons have even climbed aboard bicycles: They ride them in tight, ascending spirals into the air as though trapped in a tornado.

This last group of skeletons is fashioned from papier-mâché, as are the rest, although the bicycles are real enough. According to the tour guide leading a visitor into the school, the skeletons' creator, Victor Yepez, has a thing about bicycles. They appear with some frequency in his work, although not usually with skeletal riders. No, these cadaverous commuters are unique to the Mexican Day of the Dead, and this invasion of skeletons is thanks to the CreArte Gallery, which has occupied several rooms of the high school.

The tour guide then shows off his own little office, just a tiny box near the front entrance. It feels very much like one of those tiny dioramas that are popular on the Day of the Dead: skeletons sitting in a diner, eating; skeletons gathered in a barber shop, reading magazines and getting their bald pates trimmed; or, in this case, skeletons in a tiny office, seated behind a desk, peering at paperwork.

Mistry loves company: Center for Independent Artists cofounders Zaraawar Mistry and Leslye Orr want artists to exploit their group's resources
Diana Watters
Mistry loves company: Center for Independent Artists cofounders Zaraawar Mistry and Leslye Orr want artists to exploit their group's resources

But there is very little of the skeleton to the tour guide, Zaraawar Mistry. He is 38 years old and full-faced, with a somewhat pointed nose and a puckish mouth, and a broad frame that wears a black T-shirt printed with the logotype for his new organization. An enormous letter c surrounds the remaining text, spelling out "Center for Independent Artists." The organization--which intends to provide resources, advice, equipment, and a performing space for theater artists--is a month and a half old and inhabits this tiny office in El Colegio Charter High School. The school was also the location for the Center for Independent Artists' first production: an unusual play titled Hand in Hand, which drew from the life of Helen Keller.

The play's creator, Leslye Orr, is also the cofounder of the Center for Independent Artists. Incidentally, she and Mistry are married ("It is the first time we have ever worked together on a project," Mistry says, "and probably the last. Our projects are very different."). Orr may be best-known for her one-woman show Women Who Drink, which seems to play at the Bryant-Lake Bowl every few months, but she created Hand in Hand 20 years ago and has performed it ever since. Orr, legally blind since birth, asks her audiences to close their eyes throughout the play, then proceeds with a tactile-intensive performance. She touches the faces of her audiences, they touch her face, they touch one another's faces, and, ultimately, spend an hour of their life experiencing a theatrical version of blindness.

It is an unusual production, and Orr claims an unusual inspiration for it: "It's one of those projects that I don't feel like I am the author of," Orr explains via telephone. "I honestly feel like Helen Keller wrote it."

Mistry shows off the little theater used for the production of Hand in Hand. It's not a theater, really. Instead, it's a large room with a curtain drawn across the center, currently in use by a classroom watching a television documentary about Kwanzaa. The high school--situated across the street from an agreeable little park named Bancroft Meadows on 41st and Bloomington in south Minneapolis--is a converted Jubilee Foods grocery store, and many of the rooms still have the feel of converted stockrooms about them. But it is spacious enough for a crowd of 50 or so, and Mistry shows off several makeshift wooden risers that can be placed across the room for audiences.

Nearby are several bathrooms, or, more properly, "spacious bathrooms," according to Mistry, which can be used as a changing room for actors. "And if we need more space, we can use this room," Mistry says in his typically retiring manner, his voice quiet and betraying a hint of an Indian accent.

"The real advantage of this location," Mistry adds, "are all the parking spaces." Some of these are visible through the window, an expanse of the former grocery store's lot. They provide the Center for Independent Artists with a benefit almost unheard-of in the local theater scene: plentiful free parking for audiences. Add to that a scene shop, a functional theater space with ample bathroom changing rooms, a tiny digital camera, a videotape machine in Mistry's diminutive office, plus a handful of iMac computers that are available to artists (when they are not occupied by the students of the high school). Indeed, the Center for Independent Artists ("CIA," Mistry says, winking) has exactly the right tools for a new arts organization.


Which invites an obvious question. In a city glutted with arts organizations, why do we need another one?

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