After half a century of opening nights, he still gets that jingle-jangle buzz of frayed nerves. Before the regional premiere of Honour at the Jungle Theater, Bain Boehlke even decides not to address the audience before the show, as is his custom. Afterward, the play seemingly a success with the audience, he walks through the after-show party dressed in a black turtleneck and a pair of black slacks, his longish silver hair apparently styled by the repeated raking of anxious hands, a beatific grin on his face. "I'm so glad that's over," he says, as though he hadn't been through this countless times before.
During the weeks leading up to opening night, Boehlke, the Jungle's artistic director, sat in the lobby numerous times before morning rehearsals talking about his life and this latest production, which opens the Jungle's 2005 season. It took time: After all, during his odd journey he's been a small-town child of the '40s, a bohemian army intelligence officer on hand for the erection of the Berlin Wall, a mover during Minneapolis's theatrical flowering of the '60s, a middle-aged desert-dwelling drifter, and, most recently, the eccentric perfectionist behind the Twin Cities' foremost mid-sized theater.
Boehlke isn't the world's leading exponent of linear thinking. His state of mind seems to alternate between flashes of insight and bursts of astonishment. As we sneak cigarettes together after an interview, idle chatter about the weather quickly turns cosmic when he recalls a childhood fear of freezing to death. When asked whether a pervasive fear of death is the consequence of a comfortable existence, he springs to life. Ciggie dangling from his lip, he moves in close, conscripting me into a little scene. "That's right," he says. "First of all there's this, the fear of violence.
Oh my God, this guy wants to do violence. And I don't do violence!"
Bainbridge (a family name, from his mother's side of "old-stock American") Boehlke was born in 1939 in Warroad, Minnesota, not far from the Canadian border. It was a 1,200-person fishing village with an economy centered on the local lumberyard. His dad was superintendent of schools, while his mother was a onetime teacher who quit working to look after Bain and his younger sister. While it was an educated family, it was not one steeped in the arts.
"The expectation was that I would be a surgeon," Boehlke explains.
He was a gifted kid, but in his small town, at that time, "access to the cultural world that explored human drama was absent." That meant no plays, no radio, and no television. Boehlke's imagination turned inward, though soon enough he was finding his vocation. His mother, now 97, recently told him that he was staging plays by age five.
By sixth grade he recognized that life in Warroad offered him limited prospects. "I didn't see a place for myself, and a career in the theater wasn't a popular idea." By high school he had bought a book about the basics of directing and learned theater terminology and the basics of the stage. He was also reading Shakespeare and dreaming of becoming an actor. He was taking in westerns and musicals at the movie house in town, although he was most fascinated by the grown-up films screened on Wednesday nights. Boehlke remembers listening from outside, hearing the voice of Rita Hayworth in all her fire and sophistication.
One morning I arrive at the theater and find Boehlke on hold with the cable company. He pays his mother's bills, and there's been some kind of clerical snafu. He's been waiting for a while, and doesn't dare hang up and risk starting the whole thing over from scratch. On the computer screen in front of him is a half-finished game of solitaire.
"Sometimes he'll be sitting there playing computer solitaire," says Tracey Maloney, one of the four cast members of Honour. "All of a sudden he'll get up and go to two people who are talking nearby, and he'll say something that cuts to the heart of the interaction they were having."
One of Boehlke's natural instincts is to understand the relationship between surfaces and substance. While in high school, he saw a production of Othello at the University of Minnesota that pretty well blew his mind. But it was what followed that was more instrumental in his development. He went backstage, and saw, like Dorothy and friends, that the grand visual edifice of the drama was just a series of deft tricks.
"It was disillusionment in the best sense of the word," he says. "It was but a shell, with surfaces being the ultimate expression. We live in illusion."
When his family moved to Farmington, south of Minneapolis, things brightened considerably. When Boehlke spotted an empty red barn on a hill by Horseshoe Lake, he started his first theater at the age of 16. The old man who owned the barn offered it up, saying, "I wanna keep you kids off the street." What then commenced is what Boehlke now describes as his "first fundraising effort." He got an electrician to wire the place, obtained burlap for curtains, and enlisted a local teacher to direct. For these productions, Boehlke built "salt-water dimmers" with electricity, lights, and buckets of water, a technique discouraged by most anti-electrocution activists.