In keeping with tradition, we're stepping off the soapbox to give the purveyors of the local theater scene their due say on the highlights of the past year. Here, then, is a broadcast version of some backstage chatter--direct from the proverbial equine aperture.
Rick Shiomi, artistic director, Theater Mu
I was in a small theater in Tokyo, near the famous Asakusa Shrine. Lured by my wife, who had been there several years earlier to see a traveling troupe, I wanted to see a bit of this traveling theater myself (like that in the film Floating Weeds). We went in for a while before the Grand Kabuki show. We never made it to the Grand Kabuki. The performance was an old-style vaudeville variety show, with all kinds of vignettes and dance numbers. In one of the short plays, I saw a wonderfully melodramatic relationship between a drunken father and his exiled son, with the returning son finally slaying the father and committing seppuku. As I watched the son screaming into the red followspot, I felt the door opening to the father-and-son relationship in my own play, The Tale of the Dancing Crane. It was one of those moments when I realized that the gods were sending me a gift; I was full of gratitude for their generosity.
Patrick Scully, dancer and choreographer, Patrick's Cabaret director
Poetic justice: A faerie godmother bought a fire station to provide Patrick's Cabaret a permanent new home, solving the problems caused when we were closed by the fire marshal three years ago. After [they'd spent] 30 musty years selling furniture, we forced out the same furniture company that evicted the Firehouse Theatre 30 years ago. We have dusted off the old Firehouse and reclaimed it for the local performing community as our permanent new home. It was a great year for local theater and real estate. Bain Boehlke also got his new home for the Jungle, and Myron Johnson is headed toward having the Ritz for the Ballet of the Dolls. Look for Michael Sommers to get real estate next year for his own theater.
Meena Natarajan, literary director, Pangea World Theater
It is February 1999. Pangea is rehearsing Ajax by Sophocles. The actors are from the Twin Cities, Ireland, Liberia, Vietnam, and Puerto Rico, and the director is from India. English spoken in different accents flies across the room. Each actor brings her or his own cultural memory and body language to the choreography. There is magic in the air. The magic of theater, of crossing borders and boundaries with a unity of purpose. As the rehearsal unfolds, Puerto Rican actor Alberto Panelli transposes the word ship for sheep: Ajax has just killed a flock of "ships." Alberto and the cast burst into laughter. The director brings us back from that moment of levity to working out the ritual the chorus performs after Ajax's death. As we end the day, I know that this is why we do theater--this coming together of people in a space to create.
Faye Price, dramaturg, Guthrie Theater
It's all about space. The Jungle and Patrick's Cabaret moved into new quarters. Penumbra is in the development stage of a new space, while the Guthrie is in search of a place to build its space(s). Meanwhile Pillsbury, Illusion, and the Playwrights' Center are upgrading existing spaces. This kind of growth could not happen without the continued support and enthusiasm of our audiences--proving that live theater is strong and relevant. Theater that relies on brilliant visuals and provocative imagery--e.g., Robert Lepage's Geometry of Miracles--is speaking to a culture saturated in quick cuts and special effects, and helping to develop a new audience.
Timothy Lee, director
My favorite experience was seeing two one-acts by a brand-new company, the Gray Space, at the tiny Phoenix Playhouse. I think they averaged four audience members a night through most of the run. Being that they're a theater about human-rights violations, I have doubts that they'll ever do a huge crowd-gathering musical comedy. Still, I love it when a low-budget, first-effort production is that well thought out and performed. I was able to forget that I was a quarter of the audience and really let the plays get under my skin.
Barbara Kingsley, actor
In the charged atmosphere of the approaching millennium--the disentangling of where we've been versus where we're going--simple things were most memorable to me:
* The deliciousness of making an entrance in a "great pumpkin" lamé party frock in Children's Theatre Company's Mr. A's Amazing Maze Plays and the giggles that greeted it.
* Standing in the lobby of the Jungle's new home on Lyndale.
* The thrill of barely recognizing my son in his first role as a bad guy in a musical, The Little Shop of Horrors...16 years, and I never knew he liked coconuts or that he could sing so well!
* Meeting my class for the first time as a new faculty member at the U of M...there's nothing like teaching to keep you learning.
* Watching my daughter in Orphan Train at the [Great American] History Theater, and the pride I feel as she becomes an actress of her own merit, not encumbered by attachment to her parents or siblings.
* Getting the opportunity to stretch my acting muscles as Ariel in Ten Thousand Things' The Tempest...and the added rare treat of acting opposite [my] husband [actor Stephen D'Ambrose], as Prospero.
* Celebrating the contribution of theater and dance critic Mike Steele at the Steele Ball....With style and wit, he helped pave the way for countless local artists' careers, firmed the foundation of struggling theaters and dance companies, and seduced Twin Cities audiences into supporting the performing arts and their artists. Here's to you, Mike.
Wendy Knox, artistic director, Frank Theatre
Looking back over the past year for moments of theatrical inspiration (defining "inspiration" as something that moves one to jump to one's feet in appreciation for what one is witnessing), I find I'm having a crisis of faith....I just didn't see much theater that truly knocked my socks off. Without question, my performance high point of 1999 wasn't a straight theater event. It was the Walker Art Center's presentation of Fred Ho's Black Panther Suite. Ho created one of the finest examples I've witnessed of an artist's politics sharpening their art, while their art is simultaneously sharpened by their politics. Whether you subscribe to his ideology or not, the evening was an energetic, smart explosion of music and images which pushed boundaries and truly did have me jumping to my feet.
Annelise Christ, artistic director, Hidden Theatre
In November I attended a roundtable discussion of local artistic directors at Normandale Community College. We discussed the relevance of theater in our culture with about a hundred students from Normandale and North Hennepin Community Technical College. Through this conversation, as well as a day of discussion at St. Olaf College, I have come to believe that the future of Twin Cities theater is bright. These students are excited and knowledgeable about local theater. In addition, I look for the torch of local performance arts to be carried by two of my favorite local institutions: the Playwrights' Center and the Southern Theater, both of which are working to achieve the goals of their current capital campaigns.
Bonnie Morris, producing director, Illusion Theater
It was three days before Memorial Day weekend. My in-laws were coming for the weekend. Our campaign for a new theater was in high gear. We had just revived new bids on the project. The costs had risen $300,000. We had hundreds of dollars out in requests but we only actually had $400,000 in the bank. We'd arranged to perform our Fresh Ink Series on the second floor of the Hennepin Center for the Arts so demolition could begin. Three days before Memorial Day, the financing for construction of the theater fell apart. The construction manager began talking about assigning his contractors to other jobs. The architect suggested that maybe we should postpone the project for a year. What had seemed a carefully constructed dream was now crashing in all around us. We made appointments with every banker we knew. I didn't sleep much. I didn't see my in-laws much. Colleen Carey, co-chair of our capital campaign, led the board through the numbers. The board voted unanimously to go ahead. Here we are six months later, and we've raised $910,000 of the $1.2 million. The auditorium seating will arrive two days before the audience. The carpet may come after our first preview. Miss Richfield 1981 and Connie Evingson lead off the merriment in two Holiday Housewarmings. We hoped we'd be here in December, but there were no guarantees. We needed to focus on the dream to get through the details. I'm struck by how the drama of building a theater is the same as the drama of creating new work.
Casey Stangl, artistic director, Eye of the Storm
My favorite performance this year was Bob Davis in the Jungle Theater's Lobster Alice. Subtle, restrained, and full of emotional depth--the kind of true comedy that comes from a fully realized character. Bob is always good, but this transported me--especially when he quietly sang that little tune and, in one magical moment, made us all feel his ache and loneliness and dignity.
Steve Hendrickson, actor
Theatergoing is tough on autistic kids; noisy, crowded spaces can quickly overwhelm them, turning a children's matinee into a prison sentence. It's work. So watching my younger son's newfound enchantment at Steppingstone's The Stinky Cheese Man, the Guthrie's A Christmas Carol, and CTC's Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse was a keen pleasure. Fresh gusto notwithstanding, my youngest firmly forgoes all post-performance offers to visit backstage, meet the actors, etc.--even passing up touring CTC's open house with his older brother and me. Then, one night at dinner, he dreamily announces, "I wonder how they make Jacob Marley's ghost-smoke when he scares Scrooge?" I stuck my foot squarely in it: "Honey, if you'd gone on the backstage tour, you'd know how they do it!" His patience shames me: "Dad, I don't want to know...I just want to wonder." Just so. May the same be truly said of us. And all of us. Coraggio.
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