Inside The C.I.A.

Mistry loves company: Center for Independent Artists cofounders Zaraawar Mistry and Leslye Orr want artists to exploit their group's resources
Diana Watters

EL COLEGIO CHARTER HIGH school is filled with skeletons. Students brush past these ivory figures at the front door and in the hallways without noticing, while making their way to a roomful of computers. Just beyond is a large room used for arts and crafts, which includes a scene shop for theatrical productions. Here, two oversize skeletons lean awkwardly against a hydraulic lift, attached to backpacker's riggings so they can be carried on a marcher's back like huge, bony children. In one room, skeletons have even climbed aboard bicycles: They ride them in tight, ascending spirals into the air as though trapped in a tornado.

This last group of skeletons is fashioned from papier-mâché, as are the rest, although the bicycles are real enough. According to the tour guide leading a visitor into the school, the skeletons' creator, Victor Yepez, has a thing about bicycles. They appear with some frequency in his work, although not usually with skeletal riders. No, these cadaverous commuters are unique to the Mexican Day of the Dead, and this invasion of skeletons is thanks to the CreArte Gallery, which has occupied several rooms of the high school.

The tour guide then shows off his own little office, just a tiny box near the front entrance. It feels very much like one of those tiny dioramas that are popular on the Day of the Dead: skeletons sitting in a diner, eating; skeletons gathered in a barber shop, reading magazines and getting their bald pates trimmed; or, in this case, skeletons in a tiny office, seated behind a desk, peering at paperwork.

But there is very little of the skeleton to the tour guide, Zaraawar Mistry. He is 38 years old and full-faced, with a somewhat pointed nose and a puckish mouth, and a broad frame that wears a black T-shirt printed with the logotype for his new organization. An enormous letter c surrounds the remaining text, spelling out "Center for Independent Artists." The organization--which intends to provide resources, advice, equipment, and a performing space for theater artists--is a month and a half old and inhabits this tiny office in El Colegio Charter High School. The school was also the location for the Center for Independent Artists' first production: an unusual play titled Hand in Hand, which drew from the life of Helen Keller.

The play's creator, Leslye Orr, is also the cofounder of the Center for Independent Artists. Incidentally, she and Mistry are married ("It is the first time we have ever worked together on a project," Mistry says, "and probably the last. Our projects are very different."). Orr may be best-known for her one-woman show Women Who Drink, which seems to play at the Bryant-Lake Bowl every few months, but she created Hand in Hand 20 years ago and has performed it ever since. Orr, legally blind since birth, asks her audiences to close their eyes throughout the play, then proceeds with a tactile-intensive performance. She touches the faces of her audiences, they touch her face, they touch one another's faces, and, ultimately, spend an hour of their life experiencing a theatrical version of blindness.

It is an unusual production, and Orr claims an unusual inspiration for it: "It's one of those projects that I don't feel like I am the author of," Orr explains via telephone. "I honestly feel like Helen Keller wrote it."

Mistry shows off the little theater used for the production of Hand in Hand. It's not a theater, really. Instead, it's a large room with a curtain drawn across the center, currently in use by a classroom watching a television documentary about Kwanzaa. The high school--situated across the street from an agreeable little park named Bancroft Meadows on 41st and Bloomington in south Minneapolis--is a converted Jubilee Foods grocery store, and many of the rooms still have the feel of converted stockrooms about them. But it is spacious enough for a crowd of 50 or so, and Mistry shows off several makeshift wooden risers that can be placed across the room for audiences.

Nearby are several bathrooms, or, more properly, "spacious bathrooms," according to Mistry, which can be used as a changing room for actors. "And if we need more space, we can use this room," Mistry says in his typically retiring manner, his voice quiet and betraying a hint of an Indian accent.

"The real advantage of this location," Mistry adds, "are all the parking spaces." Some of these are visible through the window, an expanse of the former grocery store's lot. They provide the Center for Independent Artists with a benefit almost unheard-of in the local theater scene: plentiful free parking for audiences. Add to that a scene shop, a functional theater space with ample bathroom changing rooms, a tiny digital camera, a videotape machine in Mistry's diminutive office, plus a handful of iMac computers that are available to artists (when they are not occupied by the students of the high school). Indeed, the Center for Independent Artists ("CIA," Mistry says, winking) has exactly the right tools for a new arts organization.  


Which invites an obvious question. In a city glutted with arts organizations, why do we need another one?

"If you are an artist, and particularly a theater artist, and you only want to do one or two shows per year, there aren't many resources," Mistry says. "You can go to an existing theater, like Red Eye or Intermedia Arts, but then you have to fit in with what that theater wants to do, fit in with their mission statement. Otherwise, there is only one option: Start your own theater company. Then you have to think about perpetuating the company, creating a season--four plays, five plays. Last year I took a course at Resources and Counseling for the Arts on starting your own business, and I thought, 'Oh, man, too hard, too much work.'

"All this work to put on one play," Mistry says, arching his eyebrows in exasperation. So he and Orr decided to begin the CIA with the intention of supporting artists who want to create a one-time artistic production. "Leslye has been doing her thing in her own way for ten years," Mistry says. "Of course, she's doing solo work, so it's more manageable. But she still has had to struggle with PR, getting equipment, the sort of stuff that a theater company's infrastructure would take care of."

As a playwright and director, Mistry spent the past several years developing his own projects, such as Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a stage adaptation of the book by Salman Rushdie, which Mistry developed over a period of a decade. The production played last year at the Mixed Blood Theater. "Jack Reuler [Mixed Blood's artistic director] was very supportive of what I was trying to do, thank goodness," Mistry says. "And we had good box office for that, or I would have paid for it on my credit card.

"I turn down a lot of work. I don't want to just be cast as a drug dealer, a holy man, or a perfect Ganesh. I try to discourage people from calling me with a job just because I have brown skin," Mistry says, with distaste. "I just turned down the Children's Theatre Company. They called me to ask me about a role in Dragonwings"--the CTC's most recent production, set in San Francisco's Chinatown--"and I asked them why they were calling. They said, 'You know, we thought you might be interested. It deals with an Asian subject.'"

Mistry comes from a minority community in his native India, the Parsi, who are Zoroastrians. "We're a very small religious and ethnic minority," Mistry says. "In a country of one billion, there are about 120,000 of us." The Parsi originated in Iran but fled to India, where today they are, according to Mistry, "a dynamic, active community."

Mistry went to engineering school but dropped out in favor of pursuing a degree in theater. ("I drove a dagger through my mother's heart," he says ruefully. "In India, young men are expected to be doctors or engineers.") He studied at a variety of theater schools--Vermont, the Suzuki school in Tokyo, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London--before ending up pursuing a postgraduate degree in theater at UC San Diego.

It turns out that there is a secret pipeline from UC San Diego to the Twin Cities, thanks to the Children's Theatre Company's former artistic director, John Cranney, who had a habit of scouting for potential employees there. (Some fellow UC San Diego transplants include the Guthrie Theater's Richard S. Iglewski, 15 Head artistic associate Chad Sylvain, and McKnight fellow Naomi Iizuka). But Mistry quickly became dissatisfied with the sorts of roles offered to him in Minneapolis even as he started to get better ones. (At the Guthrie he appeared in King Lear, The Firebugs, The Fire and the Rain, and Many Colors Make the Thunder King.)

"Just as I was a minority in India, I am a minority here," Mistry says. And just as I was pigeonholed there, I was pigeonholed here. I was viewed in the context of someone else's vision; I was fodder for their vision. I had aspired to be at the Guthrie, and as soon as I got there, I realized how meaningless it was for me."

It was through his work with the Children's Theatre Company that Mistry met Orr, an actor and vocal coach from North Dakota who was a member of the Children's Theatre's acting company for ten years, between 1978 and 1988, appearing in more than 60 productions. "We occasionally talk about doing a show about our backgrounds, and how we met," Mistry says, grinning. "We would call it Indian Country."  

After leaving the Children's Theatre Company, Mistry worked for three years with Theater Mu, writing and directing what Mistry terms "tons of shows," including The Demon's Wish and Fall. He left that group to work independently on whatever project appealed to him most: Haroun, for example, or a recent project for the Ragamala Music and Dance Theater called The Transposed Heads, for which Mistry was actor, playwright, and director. In the meanwhile, Orr was a member of the Ballet of the Dolls company for two years, taught voice lessons, and pursued independent, one-woman shows, becoming a Jerome Fellow in 1990.

Having spent the past several years originating their own projects--with all the attendant frustrations of that act--Mistry and Orr fell quite naturally into founding an arts organization designed to help other artists launch their own ideas. "It's not me and my culture that I want to start a theater company for," Mistry says, "because that would be very boring to me. But who else? Who else has a story to tell?"


The CIA is intended to act as a surrogate infrastructure for artists. "All kinds of artists," Mistry says, "all kinds of projects. One person, twenty people. We provide space, marketing, PR, equipment. We can provide a roster, help people write grant proposals. What does it cost to make a little postcard, four-by-six inches, put it in the mail?"

He points to the digital video camera. "People can come in and edit their videotape work sample. I remember when I would try and make my own work samples. There was a place in Edina, you rented the editing equipment and it cost you $15 or $20 dollars per hour. By the time you had figured out how to use the equipment, you had already been there two hours.

"We don't have deep pockets," Mistry admits. The center was started with a handful of grants and a small group of donors. "It's all five-dollar, twenty-five dollar, fifty-dollar donations," according to Mistry. He staffs the office for a dozen or so hours per week, as does Orr, answering the telephone and meeting with artists.

"We get a lot of calls for advice at this point," he says. "An actor I know called me a few days ago. He had just been hired by the Old Log Theater, and he wanted to know if it was a good idea for him to join Equity. I told him who he should call. We do a lot of referrals. We want to have a referral page on our Web site""linking people to other sites with information they can use. Lead them to a site that tells them what theater spaces are available for rent, for example, and how much it costs to rent them."

As to the sorts of programs the CIA hopes to attract, Mistry shrugs. "Right now our funnel is pretty wide. We hope to have the artists who use our organization determine the course of the organization.

"Our model," he adds, "is no model. We're not planning a season, a festival, a genre. We are simply starting with the question, What are the compelling projects?"

Mistry describes the application process, which is minimal. "There is a piece of paper, a questionnaire. Of course, some artists don't like filling out paperwork, so I might sit opposite them and ask them the questions. It's questions about what their project is, what resources they need. I gave one to Andy." (Here, Mistry is referring to director/performer Andrew Kim, who will be performing Want, a one-man performance with masks--"and a few puppets," Mistry adds--at the center December 6 to 9.)

"Did he ever return it? No." Mistry says. "But he filled it out, and it gave us a good idea of what Andy needed to produce his show. With any artist, the first thing I ask is that people come over to look at the space. Do you like it? Do you like me? We have a lot of little meetings. What are your needs?"

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