MN Theater Celebration, fka MN Theater Awards, eschews awards for a big party

Sun Mee Chomet (left) and Merritt Rodriguez at the podium

Sun Mee Chomet (left) and Merritt Rodriguez at the podium Jay Gabler

Last year, the MN Theater Awards launched in a distinctly community-minded spirit. At this year's event, that spirit continued—to the point where not only were there no awards presented, there weren't even any nominees.

During initial brainstorming sessions for last year's event, presented by Four Humors Theater as a successor to the defunct Ivey Awards, the one point of consensus was that everyone wanted a party. That's what they got last year at Aria, and again Monday night at the Lab Theater for the renamed Twin Cities Theater Celebration.

Hundreds of local theater practitioners arrived in fanciful finery, making their entrances via the subterranean North Loop venue's open stairway rather than over the red carpets of years past. The event's designated hashtag was #PartyForThePeople, but some revived a tag that dated back to the Iveys era: #TheaterProm.

Organizers initiated a nomination process last year, but amid reservations about the limited number and diversity of nominees, they decided not to bestow actual awards. Instead, all the finalists in each category were invited to step forward for group photos and shared ovations. This year, no individual artists, shows, or companies were singled out at all. Instead, members of the event's advisory committee took the podium for what amounted to a kind of annual report.

There were numbers—"the Twin Cities are second only to New York City for percentage of the workforce employed in theater companies," said Mixed Blood artistic director Jack Reuler—and there were proud mentions of new spaces recently opened and soon to open.

There were mentions of the importance of environmental stewardship. "I recently sat in a meeting in which 72,000 napkins were being ordered for patrons for the run of one play," said actor Sun Mee Chomet. "All of those napkins could have been composted. I'm welcomed to every theater event and every panel with a plastic water bottle. I'd like to see that end."

Last year, revelers voted for less awards, more party. This year the votes appear to have gone to more awards, less party.

Last year, revelers voted for less awards, more party. This year the votes appear to have gone to more awards, less party. Jay Gabler

In the gravest segment of the brief program, Chomet and Laura Leffler stepped forward to acknowledge the fact that, as Leffler noted, "several of our large institutions are dealing with lawsuits. Many community members are speaking out about abuse of many kinds."

"We aren't here to point fingers or to assign blame," said Chomet, "but we are here to say truth... and the truth is that a lot of people are hurting, and that we can all do better." She continued with a challenge to local institutions to embrace difficult conversations. "In order to clean the house, you must open your doors, literally and metaphorically."

Leffler then voiced a challenge to local artists. "We remind you: Our institutions are important. Let's look for thoughtful solutions and responses instead of knee-jerk reactions. These are real problems that took years to make and years to uncover. It may well take years to continue uncovering and to address and fix them."

After the program, attendees happily danced to beats provided by DJ Shannon Blowtorch, and there were repeated exclamations about how much theatermakers appreciated the chance to reconnect with longtime friends and past collaborators. So, two years after the Iveys, the annual fall party looks likely to continue... but will awards ever come back?

After entering the venue, attendees were invited to drop their tickets in one of two receptacles, voting for whether the annual event should be focused on celebration or recognition. As the tickets piled up, "recognition" seemed to be the favored option. Precisely how that might work, though, remains a very open question.

"The status quo is simply not good enough anymore," said Four Humors' Ryan Lear at the podium, reflecting on the committee's discussions. "We're in a time of change, and we need to answer that call. We needed to hear from more voices."

"Something I feel very passionate about," added committee member AnaSofía Villanueva, "is recognizing that there is a value system at play in our community and in this industry, whether we recognize it or not. In doing a recognition program, what the goal would be is to start to shift that value system to be more equitable."

In other words, there are still some very big questions to be asked about what kind of recognition program might feel right to the local theater community. In the meantime, some of Monday's attendees had more immediate questions.

"What," asked an older man stepping up to the bar as the dance party began, "is a 'White Claw'?"