For months, Bonnie Morris and Michael Robins at Illusion Theater had to keep the news under their figurative hats: The Illusion would be honored as the "Outstanding Theater" at the National Theatre Conference's annual meeting in December.
"They called us the Fourth of July weekend and we couldn't tell anyone for months," Robins says.
Robins and Morris spent first weekend of December in New York City. Along with the ceremony, there was a day-long gathering about theater in Harlem on Friday, and a conversation about Illusion’s mission and work the next.
The National Theatre Conference has met annually since 1925 to talk about issues and trends, and to honor a number of people each year. Along with Illusion, kudos in 2015 went to Polly Carl of HowlRound and playwright Jessica Dickey.
The award also came with the opportunity to name an outstanding emerging artist. Morris and Robins selected Transatlantic Love Affair's Diogo Lopes and Isabel Nelson.
“They are dedicated and committed to a life in the theater. They really want to work with their company and they have developed a unique vision that is their own,” Robbins says.
“We started off as a physical theater company,” Morris continues. “They are always aiming to tell a story and that is not always true in physical theater. They are honest and authentic. There are no cheap tricks.”
For the Illusion pair, the honor provides a capstone the last year and a half, when they were honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Ivey’s and then celebrated the company’s 40th anniversary.
“Our focus is on going forward, so we don’t look back so much. This makes you think about the blessing and the impact and the quality of the artists. We have been part of their lives,” Robins says.
The NEA money is an Arts Work Grant for a full production of James Still's Miranda, which was first presented as part of the 2014 Fresh Ink Series at Illusion. The $15,000 grant will help fund the run, which will be presented as part of Illusion's 2016-17 season.
Still’s play, Miranda, is the third of a trilogy about America in the wake of 9/11. “He wanted to do research, and we found someone in the Twin Cities who recently retired here who was a highly ranked director in the CIA,” Robins says.
“We have been very fortunate with the NEA. We got an early one back when they were doing company grants,” Robins says. “It is a great nod to James as a really important writer that a lot of people don’t know about it.”
Talking with others about life in New York City also gave the a stronger appreciation of the Twin Cities. “We don’t have the incredibly competitive shadow [of Broadway],” Morris says. “There are so many more risks we can take. There are freedoms that we have. I came back with this gratitude. Illusion Theater could never have done what it has done within a 100 miles of New York City.”
It wasn't all fun and games. After Saturday's ceremony, the pair spent the next day working with Still on his new play.
“We went from the award to work as we were talking about this new play. It was a real whirlwind of a time, but we can came back really energized,” Robins says.