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Nonlinear Drama

Tony Nelson

After half a century of opening nights, he still gets that jingle-jangle buzz of frayed nerves. Before the regional premiere of Honour at the Jungle Theater, Bain Boehlke even decides not to address the audience before the show, as is his custom. Afterward, the play seemingly a success with the audience, he walks through the after-show party dressed in a black turtleneck and a pair of black slacks, his longish silver hair apparently styled by the repeated raking of anxious hands, a beatific grin on his face. "I'm so glad that's over," he says, as though he hadn't been through this countless times before.

During the weeks leading up to opening night, Boehlke, the Jungle's artistic director, sat in the lobby numerous times before morning rehearsals talking about his life and this latest production, which opens the Jungle's 2005 season. It took time: After all, during his odd journey he's been a small-town child of the '40s, a bohemian army intelligence officer on hand for the erection of the Berlin Wall, a mover during Minneapolis's theatrical flowering of the '60s, a middle-aged desert-dwelling drifter, and, most recently, the eccentric perfectionist behind the Twin Cities' foremost mid-sized theater.

Boehlke isn't the world's leading exponent of linear thinking. His state of mind seems to alternate between flashes of insight and bursts of astonishment. As we sneak cigarettes together after an interview, idle chatter about the weather quickly turns cosmic when he recalls a childhood fear of freezing to death. When asked whether a pervasive fear of death is the consequence of a comfortable existence, he springs to life. Ciggie dangling from his lip, he moves in close, conscripting me into a little scene. "That's right," he says. "First of all there's this, the fear of violence.

Oh my God, this guy wants to do violence. And I don't do violence!"

Bainbridge (a family name, from his mother's side of "old-stock American") Boehlke was born in 1939 in Warroad, Minnesota, not far from the Canadian border. It was a 1,200-person fishing village with an economy centered on the local lumberyard. His dad was superintendent of schools, while his mother was a onetime teacher who quit working to look after Bain and his younger sister. While it was an educated family, it was not one steeped in the arts.

"The expectation was that I would be a surgeon," Boehlke explains.

He was a gifted kid, but in his small town, at that time, "access to the cultural world that explored human drama was absent." That meant no plays, no radio, and no television. Boehlke's imagination turned inward, though soon enough he was finding his vocation. His mother, now 97, recently told him that he was staging plays by age five.

By sixth grade he recognized that life in Warroad offered him limited prospects. "I didn't see a place for myself, and a career in the theater wasn't a popular idea." By high school he had bought a book about the basics of directing and learned theater terminology and the basics of the stage. He was also reading Shakespeare and dreaming of becoming an actor. He was taking in westerns and musicals at the movie house in town, although he was most fascinated by the grown-up films screened on Wednesday nights. Boehlke remembers listening from outside, hearing the voice of Rita Hayworth in all her fire and sophistication.

 

One morning I arrive at the theater and find Boehlke on hold with the cable company. He pays his mother's bills, and there's been some kind of clerical snafu. He's been waiting for a while, and doesn't dare hang up and risk starting the whole thing over from scratch. On the computer screen in front of him is a half-finished game of solitaire.

"Sometimes he'll be sitting there playing computer solitaire," says Tracey Maloney, one of the four cast members of Honour. "All of a sudden he'll get up and go to two people who are talking nearby, and he'll say something that cuts to the heart of the interaction they were having."

One of Boehlke's natural instincts is to understand the relationship between surfaces and substance. While in high school, he saw a production of Othello at the University of Minnesota that pretty well blew his mind. But it was what followed that was more instrumental in his development. He went backstage, and saw, like Dorothy and friends, that the grand visual edifice of the drama was just a series of deft tricks.

"It was disillusionment in the best sense of the word," he says. "It was but a shell, with surfaces being the ultimate expression. We live in illusion."

When his family moved to Farmington, south of Minneapolis, things brightened considerably. When Boehlke spotted an empty red barn on a hill by Horseshoe Lake, he started his first theater at the age of 16. The old man who owned the barn offered it up, saying, "I wanna keep you kids off the street." What then commenced is what Boehlke now describes as his "first fundraising effort." He got an electrician to wire the place, obtained burlap for curtains, and enlisted a local teacher to direct. For these productions, Boehlke built "salt-water dimmers" with electricity, lights, and buckets of water, a technique discouraged by most anti-electrocution activists.

 

After high school, Boehlke surveyed his prospects. He decided that pursuing a college degree "was not a worthy goal," although he couldn't see himself behind a sales counter at Dayton's. There were only four established theaters in the Twin Cities at the time, so there was little support for chasing an actor's life. He opted for the Army. "It was the only way out," he says. "I thought maybe I could get to Europe."

He did. After acing his entrance exams, he joined the Army Security Agency, working on code breaking, and was assigned to postwar Berlin. There he flourished. "We lived in the same room, four guys to a room," says Russ Swenson, who lives in the Chicago area today and was Boehlke's immediate superior in the service. "He was without a doubt the best German-speaking American. He just blew by all of us. He went out every night to the clubs. He just never was around, other than the eight hours of his shift. He had a lot of German friends, not so many American friends."

While refugees poured into the city, Boehlke immersed himself in dance, ballet, film, and symphonies. Through the Army Entertainment Section, he worked on more than translating intelligence intercepts. "What I did in the Army was a lot of plays," he says. During that first year he was "treated with kid gloves" by the military due to the cachet of his job, and he was able to travel Europe and be exposed to world-class theater. He also enjoyed the "Weimar romance" of the wide-open Berlin nightlife. Then things changed.

"We were there the day that the Berlin Wall went up in 1961," recalls Swenson. Boehlke remembers climbing into bombed-out buildings and watching from windows as refugees were shot trying to cross over, and tear gas wafted over the streets. That traumatic sight notwithstanding, Boehlke says he had "a fantastic time" in the Army. "I knew that something was coming," he says.

 

"When you do a play with Bain, you do a scene, and he might spend two hours on a moment," says Jerry Drake, longtime company member at Children's Theatre Company. "It's like when you get a locksmith to open a door--everyone's sitting there waiting, until finally he makes the key and opens the door. Then everyone says Ahhh."

Boehlke uses the minutiae of existence for fuel; it seems as though his primary struggle is picking which observations and insights to use, while not getting lost in the flood of sensory data that comprises his reality. He keeps his life organized on oversized calendars hanging over his desk. He admits that he has to refer to his organizer to remember to pay his rent on time. He's a guy who has found a way to make his obsessive tendencies work for him, as evinced by the elaborate stage sets he designs for Jungle plays. "People always say that I'm highly visual," Boehlke says. "I don't really know what that means. I have no idea what it's like not to be highly visual."

Last fall, his psychotic trash-house set in The Dazzle elicited gasps from audiences filing in after the intermission. Even if Boehlke were strictly a set designer, he'd be something of a luminary. What other theater displays framed photos of past sets in its lobby and is justified in doing so? One of Boehlke's remaining goals is to find a publisher for a coffee-table book of Jungle sets. Of course, the line between perfectionism and obsession is often thin. Two Jungle shows in recent years have opened a week later than planned while Boehlke ironed out details, unwilling to let a baby walk into the world improperly dressed.

During a rehearsal of Honour, Boehlke ran through several approaches on a seemingly trivial matter, to the point of exasperating some actors. "He works a lot like an actor," says actor Stephen D'Ambrose, who has appeared in several Boehlke productions. "The things he says, you might not think they have anything to do with what you're doing, but in the next scene everything connects beautifully."

Boehlke will talk endlessly about his ideas on the theater and existence itself. Many times he's working out his thoughts on the fly, speaking in complete paragraphs (albeit paragraphs containing a great deal of exotic punctuation). It's with a blissed-out expression that he rhapsodizes about the moment "when everything goes away and you're inside this tale." The "ennobling effect" of art, he adds, is that it can help people "learn to live together in peace and understanding."

 

 

Boehlke took a shot at the U, but looks back with visible distaste on memories of having to sit still and take tests. Instead, he and a group of friends formed Theater on the Road, a guerilla touring group nestled between the end of the Beat era and the cusp of the '60s counterculture.

Boehlke built on the possibilities he saw while in Berlin, even returning there for a time to study ballet. In the Twin Cities, he started working on the West Bank with friend John Donahue. Along with a core group of artists, they founded what would become the Children's Theatre Company.

"We were pretty dropped out," Boehlke says. "Authenticity and poverty were the deal."

The 13 years Boehlke spent with CTC were defining. At the same time, Minneapolis was undergoing its own flowering. With the opening of the Guthrie in 1962, this formerly sleepy town became a major regional player, even leading some to rhapsodize about the "Little Paris of America." In addition to his CTC work, Boehlke was also acting and directing at other venues, particularly through bare-bones theater at the Walker Church. CTC eventually moved into a permanent home at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and productions grew increasingly audacious. "We did these huge productions," recalls Boehlke, whose roles for the theater included Scrooge and Ichabod Crane. "There was such a transformative synergy."

Boehlke left the company in 1978, forming Trinity Films to produce a movie about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German priest who infiltrated Nazi ranks and was executed for treason just days before Hitler's suicide. Cinematographer and filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker got involved, and Boehlke made the rounds of corporations and law firms to raise funds. "People knew me," he says. "I had no idea." After an immense amount of research and interviews in Germany, the rough prints were finished. One problem: All the footage was overexposed. After a return trip to Germany to re-shoot the project, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Memories and Perspectives saw the light of day. It missed the video revolution by just a couple of years, and Boehlke and Drake sold its rights.

After Trinity Films, Boehlke worked in a company called Theater Perspectives, often with Jerry Drake. For a while the money tree was bearing fruit. "You could get a grant for anything," says Boehlke. But as the Reagan years wore on, funding for the arts went south quickly. Numerous theaters shuttered as the always-cyclical nature of the theater took a downturn. "I didn't recognize the landscape," Boehlke says. "It was as if everything had been blown away."

So Boehlke decamped for Tucson, acting at the Arizona Theatre. Between shows he would drive down to Mexico, where he lazed on the beaches and absorbed heat into bones accustomed to a more frigid climate. It wasn't a time of great focus and clarity. "I spent my midlife crisis in the desert and the Pacific coast of Mexico," Boehlke says today.

By the time he returned to Minneapolis in 1986, he was pretty well adrift. A friend states that alcohol was a major factor. He waited tables and baked (self-taught) for the now-defunct Loring Café, until friend George Sutton encouraged him to talk to a jeweler who owned a building on Lake Street off Lyndale that Boehlke had been eyeing for a theater. The jeweler, appraising the dismal state of the neighborhood at the time, told Boehlke he could use the entire building for the summer.

The first Jungle Theater opened in 1991, with a production of Timothy Mason's comedy Only You. The theater had a hundred red velvet seats, only one entrance, and a permanent support pole onstage that had to be incorporated into the set design. The shows sold out. "I simply could not believe it," Boehlke says, apparently still surprised a decade later. Audiences were partly drawn by the urban-hipness factor--"There was an element of slumming to it," Boehlke admits--but there was more to it than that. This was emotional, energetic theater, high-end art in a low-rent space.

The new Jungle opened in 1999, after a $2.5-million renovation of a building previously occupied by Knicker's, a mostly African American nightclub. Boehlke led me on a tour of the theater with matter-of-fact pride, taking me backstage and through the musty Goodwill shop of the props room, the basement and trap door, then to the spacious offices upstairs. He contends now with a board of directors and neighborhood associations, speaking of almost everyone he deals with in complimentary terms.

 

 

These days, Boehlke isn't often seen onstage, so to sample his acting, your best bet might be to rent the Coen brothers' Fargo. In a hilarious scene, Boehlke played a bartender who, when discussing a recent murder victim, expressed his sympathy with wry boondocks stoicism: "Well, that don't sound like too good a deal for him, then." In a recent Chicago Tribune piece, Web Behrens argued that Oscars should be given out to bit players, and selected Boehlke's Fargo turn as one of the all-time great cinematic cameos.

At one point in our talks, Boehlke's eyes pop open when he contemplates the fact that a gulf of nearly three decades divides us. The generation gap between us asserts itself when I realize that, after six hours of conversation, he has said next to nothing about his personal life. Boehlke, while warm and giving of himself, has a circumspection and privacy around him that seems of another time. He manages to both look his age and defy it, moving with his actor's certainty giving the impression of vitality even when he has draped himself over a sofa. When asked his opinion of the last 14 years, Boehlke simply shakes his head. There certainly was no master plan.

"Here's a guy who could have been forced to quit a hundred times," Russ Swenson says of his old Army friend. "But he stuck to it at a point where he never expected anything good to happen to him. He never started the Jungle intending for it to be what it is now. He'd have been happy to do storefront amateur theater. He never sat down and thought about raising money. He just took the opportunities as they came to him, when people saw what that theater could be. He does not have an ego. He just has the drive."

"He lives the life of an artist," says Jerry Drake, laughing. "And how many of those are around?"

After the opening of Honour, Boehlke offers a glimpse of the impishness he takes on when things are tickling him. It was a good show, and the audience liked it. He looks like a guy who has found where he belongs.

"If your home is well-known, you can sail in traffic," the frequently philosophical artist told me a few days before Honour's first curtain. "You cannot be lost if you know where home is."


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