Catching the Red Eye to theater innovation

The tiny theater company celebrates 25 years as a launching pad for local talent

When the Red Eye's Miriam Must took in last year's production of Peer Gynt at the Guthrie, she was struck by the show's mastery and scope. At the same time, she couldn't help but feel a swell of pride over seeing more than a couple of performers in the Big Blue Box who at one time passed through her own theater's tiny, doggedly experimental space.

"Artists have a sense of possibility here," Must says of the Red Eye.

I sat down with Must and Red Eye artistic director Steve Busa recently in their little theater off Nicollet Avenue, and the mid-morning atmosphere was oddly incongruent. Going to the Red Eye at night—with its crimson neon sign, phone booth-sized box office, and dim pre-show lighting—always feels like slipping into a half-remembered dream. In the stark light of day, it's apparent that this company celebrating its 25th anniversary this year has survived not just because of its visionary approach to theater but from the sheer hard work of building a company on a shoestring budget.

The company started in the early 1980s, when Busa arrived in town from New York at the behest of the Playwrights' Center. Must was a recent college graduate who was getting roles as a performer, but working with Busa cemented the notion that life on the stage might be a calling.

"If I hadn't met Steve, I wouldn't still be doing theater," Must says. "That was the aha moment, in terms of theater making sense to me."

Busa returned to New York after a couple of commissions at the Walker and the Southern, but he and Must began to conspire. This was in the days when long-distance phone calls were outside the budget of struggling artists, so their budding artistic collaboration had to be conducted late at night, when rates were cheap. Hence their theater's name—an inevitable byproduct of this after-hours scheming.

The Red Eye incorporated in 1983, and from the get-go inaugurated two annual festivals—Isolated Acts and Works in Progress—that focused on snippets of new work to complement the theater's main stage productions. For several years, the company settled into digs in the Warehouse District—in the upstairs of the building that now houses Sex World.

"Before it was sexy to be in the Warehouse District, we were in the Warehouse District," Busa says.

In 1989, the Red Eye moved into its current home—a former Fred Astaire dance studio. Today the theater seats just under a hundred, with a wide, deep stage with ample room for movement and projection (video and otherwise) that a number of smaller venues lack. In recent years, productions such as Patty Red Pants, The Swim, and Reservoir Bitches have burst forth with an imaginative power that, when it works, can touch on the uncanny.

Yet the Red Eye isn't necessarily a theater with a signature style. That may derive from Busa and Must, who, in contrast to their envelope-pushing work, in person are entirely affable and down to earth. Their creative longevity, they say, is due both to the generosity of local funding and the depth of local talent. They even talk of tentative plans to one day hand the reins to the next generation.

"There's a possibility for the Red Eye to, and I use this word very delicately, institutionalize," Must says. "There's a reason for it to have a longer life, that it's not just based on mine and Steve's personalities."

The Red Eye has developed a wide and affectionate following among local artists. Arwen Wilder, of the dance duo Hijack, who has developed a number of works at the Red Eye, mentions the theater's new-works series in particular as a nexus for local artists. "It's just what you do, every week in June," Wilder says. "It's like going to church for us."

Maren Ward of Bedlam Theatre points to the Red Eye's generosity in offering its venue to other artists. "It's kind of personal to me, because [Bedlam] did our first three shows there, before we had our own space," says Ward. "Really, we've always felt like we were able to start a company because they were there."

Next month the Red Eye opens its season with Gregory S. Moss's Amanda Tears, Teenage Detective, a genre-crossing work that appealed to Busa with its unique challenges for translating to the stage.

"I love the way it deals with pop culture, and California," Busa says. "Finding a format was the hard part, transposing it from another medium. It's a radio play written about a television show, very short and snappy and fast in attention span. There's a soundscape that represents the television aspect of it, a shadow play without being literal. You don't know if it's a television show or if it's a real mystery."

Must is also excited about the cast, which features seven young actors and four she terms "more seasoned." Red Eye's season opener is typical of its focus on what Must calls "titles by artists no one has heard of yet," and its openness to new talent—qualities that give the Red Eye its distinct, albeit low-profile, local niche.

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