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Bloomington’s booming: Artistry has quickly become a local theater hub

'Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas'

'Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas' Bob Alberti

“I have to admit that I had a little bit of cynicism about what could be achieved out in the suburbs,” says Benjamin McGovern of Artistry. “It didn’t take me long to realize how foolish that was.”

Three years after the former Bloomington Civic Theatre rebranded as Artistry and hired McGovern, a past member of the Guthrie Theater programming staff, to serve as producing artistic director, the results of the organization’s investment in top-notch talent are plainly visible onstage at the Bloomington Center for the Arts. This season, theatergoers at that venue have additional options as the Chameleon Theatre Circle, a former resident at the Ames Center in Burnsville, presents two productions and its annual New Play Festival.

Last season, Chameleon made its Bloomington Center debut with two shows, including Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales. “It’s been an incredible partnership,” says Megan West, Chameleon’s executive producer. “They were really excited about having us.”

The relationship between the 20-year-old Chameleon and the Ames Center was gradually becoming less of a comfortable fit, says West, but the event that decisively ended the relationship was the venue’s 2017 decision to bar Chameleon from presenting Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas, objecting to the presence of the word “mulatto” in the play’s title. The show, a Fringe success in 2016, was created by Derek “Duck” Washington to comment and reflect on perceptions of his own mixed-race identity.

West, whose company is also presenting Spring Awakening at St. Paul’s Gremlin Theatre this season, says Chameleon is now working to “bridge” the core Twin Cities and the southern suburbs.

Although Artistry is what McGovern calls an “anchor tenant” of the Bloomington Center for the Arts, a striking facility that just opened in 2003, there’s much more that happens in the building. “There is this mix of the municipal and cultural life,” says McGovern. “Right across the lobby from our mainstage is the City Council chamber.”

The several organizations using the space maintain their independence—including Artistry and Chameleon. “At this point we haven’t been that close,” says Chameleon’s West about Artistry, but adds that if her company continues to produce shows in Bloomington, “I feel it’s essential that we have a closer relationship.”

McGovern hints at growing pains as Artistry steps up its programming in a bustling venue that serves many functions. “Of course you like to be a part of a community where you can always expect that there’s something going on,” he says, but cites the need for more rehearsal room. “We really are needing to find some support spaces offsite in order to accommodate our ambitions.”

Artistry, which has won acclaim for recent productions including Sally Wingert’s devastating turn in Wit, is finding an enthusiastic audience for its increasingly professional programming, says McGovern. “This sense that art and culture should be an integral part of the community runs really deep in Bloomington.”