Sealed With a Pink Slip

Bowled over: Former Bryant-Lake Bowl artistic director Dean J. Seal

"The ax just fell." Dean J. Seal sounds as though he's been kicked in the stomach. A few days after he was abruptly dismissed from his position as artistic director of the Bryant-Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater, Seal is bedridden with a nasty cold. "It was about 5:15 on Friday. I was on the phone and they called me in and said they were laying me off for business reasons. They gave me two weeks' severance pay."

Seal hasn't slept much this week, and he looks haggard, wrapped up in an overcoat. "I don't know what I'm going to do," he says. "I have a 1-year-old baby boy. I suppose my wife's going to have to pick up extra shifts. I'll go on unemployment. I still have the Fringe Festival, but that pays less than a part-time job."

In recent years, Seal has run the equivalent of a 12-month fringe festival on the Bryant-Lake Bowl's cramped stage. The modern-dance duo Hijack might tromp around there one weekend to be followed the next weekend by Mary Worth Theater's camp rendition of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, the queer comedy of Hot Dish, a puppet and mask production by MC2, or Chopping Block Theater's faithful rendition of Ionesco's absurdist play The Bald Soprano. But with Seal's departure, there is doubt as to whether such an improbable slate of low-budget performances will continue to have a home at the BLB--or anywhere else on the local scene.

Although Seal was nonplussed by the decision, he acknowledges having had periodic problems with the management at the BLB. He butted heads over the owners' refusal to develop a Web site and Mary Lucia's live Sunday-night radio show Popular Creeps (on Zone 105), which he claims accounted for 70 percent of the theater's losses last year. ("That's absurd," laughs BLB part-owner and manager Kim Bartmann.) Seal also claims the differences in accounting made the theater appear less profitable than it in fact was: Seal included food and beverage revenue in evaluating profitability; BLB management included only ticket sales. "We never made money off food in the theater," responds Bartmann. "It's absurd to count those numbers as theater revenue."

"We certainly had our problems," Seal admits, "but I thought we'd resolved them a few months ago."

Apparently not. According to Bartmann, Seal's dismissal was caused by a combination of financial constraints and managerial discord. "Over the past few years, we've been progressively losing money," she explains. "Not just Dean, but other people as well, have strayed from our original mission. We need to step back and re-evaluate our system--become a leaner, meaner machine."

If the cabaret was neither particularly lean nor mean under Seal, it was arguably the hottest venue for small-budget and experimental theater in the Twin Cities. Through a combination of marketing savvy and booking, Seal attracted talented fledgling companies in need of guidance. By most accounts, he was often successful. Ticket sales at the BLB have tripled since Seal took over three years ago, and a number of recent shows--like locally scripted pieces Wreckage and The Temp--have garnered substantial coverage from local media.

Not surprisingly, Seal's departure came as a shock to many of the local luminaries whom he helped get onto the BLB stage. Russ King, better known as Miss Richfield, got his start at the BLB in the early days of Seal's tenure. Like many of the performers who pass through the BLB, he had talent but little direction and no idea how to produce theater. While working as an MC at the Gay 90's, King decided to take a shot at writing a full-length show. He quit his nightclub gig and called Dean Seal.

King recalls that, at the time, Seal was booking three shows a night, including both bands and theater performances in the lineup. "He'd never heard of me, because I was relatively new and because I was working in a gay bar, but he said, 'OK, submit a proposal.' A month later, I had a show. I was sandwiched between two shows, and we were hauling our stuff downstairs while a band was hauling their gear up the stairs. That says something about the tight ship Dean ran. If you could prove that you could sell tickets, he'd give you a chance."

Although the BLB has seen its share of bombs, Seal's occasional artistic gambles seemed to be paying off. According to Seal, the commercially successful shows were more than covering for the losses of the less distinguished ones. Under Seal, the BLB seemed to have achieved that elusive balance: selling tickets while taking chances.

BLB management claims that the increases in ticket revenue were not enough to cover spiraling operating costs. "My hope has always been that the theater would break even," says Bartmann. "Labor has tripled. Income certainly hasn't." Nevertheless, says Bartmann, it would be myopic to presuppose that the operation of the theater, bar, and bowling alley necessarily creates conflict between financial and artistic considerations. "This is one business," she says. "The theater and restaurant flow together naturally. It's kind of a beautiful thing. It always has been and will continue to be."

Jason Mclean, owner of the Loring Bar and Cafe and manager of the Loring Playhouse, has worked with Seal and lauds his performance at the BLB. He is also familiar, however, with the pressures of trying to turn a profit off small and independent theater. "The theater certainly has benefits for the business, but it's difficult to gauge," he says. "It's always a challenge--like two different kids with competing interests."

Even so, for many local performers, the decision to drop Seal at this particular time seems unusual. Along with Miss Richfield's Thank God it's Richfield, 1998 included what Seal describes as the two most attended shows in the BLB's history (Martini and Olive's Takin' Care of Christmas, and a revival of the musical comedy The Temp).

Seal's departure has left some BLB regulars wondering if the cabaret will remain a viable venue. Brian Kelly, local playwright and author of The Temp, speculated that the atmosphere created by Seal's ejection may keep companies that interacted directly with Seal from booking at the theater. "It's bizarre," he says. "This is definitely the kind of thing that breeds bad blood. I was working on a new show and I had the BLB in mind, but now...I think that a lot of people will have to reconsider the BLB as a venue."

Other Seal supporters were openly critical of the BLB management. Drew Jansen, one of the producers of last year's successful Martini and Olive holiday revue and the writer of How to Talk Minnesotan, currently at the Plymouth Playhouse, regards Seal's artistic vision as the main reason for the BLB theater's success. "Whoever decided to let him go made the stupidest decision humanly possible," he says. "That place would not be open if it weren't for Dean J. Seal....That's like streamlining a jet by cutting off its engine."

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