Soon to retire, Star Tribune critic Graydon Royce reflects on his years covering local theater



“I really love newspapers,” says Graydon Royce. “[Working at one has been] really, really good for me.” He’s had what he describes as several different careers, all at what locals often call simply “the Minneapolis paper.”

After spending the better part of four decades there, Royce is retiring from the Star Tribune, where the most recent of his various roles has been that of longtime theater critic and arts reporter.

A native of Mound, Royce graduated from high school thinking he might make his career on the other side of the footlights as an actor. After a short stint onstage, he took a job in radio ("I let my dad talk me into getting a paying job"), ultimately moving into newspaper journalism at the encouragement of one of his UW-Eau Claire professors.

"He said, 'You really should look at newspaper, as opposed to broadcast, journalism. There are so many more jobs,'" remembers Royce. "Of course, we couldn't see 30 years into the future."

Royce landed his first job at what was then the Minneapolis Tribune in 1980, when he became a copyeditor on the night desk. He made his way through various positions at the paper, while maintaining his occasional involvement in the theater world. In 2000, he moved to the theater desk as his primary focus.

That put him in a front-row seat for a period of enormous growth and change. "There was the big building boom of mid-decade: the Walker, obviously the Guthrie, the Mia -- just really huge capital investments. The Guthrie's expansion is something that will probably take them another five to 10 years to grow into."

Royce has also seen many success stories beyond the brick-and-mortar. “The emergence of Theatre Latte Da,” for example, “from a company that was just a ragtag one-off group in the late ’90s doing shows down at the Bryant-Lake Bowl to where they are today has really been fun to watch.”

Overall, Royce praises the scene's increased diversity. "Mu Performing Arts is one of the great success stories of the last 17 years, my tenure in doing this. Pillsbury House has become more of a presence," he says. "The growth of the Fringe Festival has been significant in [demonstrating] how theater can be made on a shoestring budget. It's really knocked down barriers."

Theater news hasn’t all been happy, though. “Jeune Lune was one of the unfortunate departures from our landscape,” says Royce, who acknowledges that he also misses the old Guthrie. “I liked that building, and I liked the old Guthrie Lab. I know it’s the Lab Theater now, but it’s just not quite the same.”

You might think that a big-city arts reporter would have a long brag list of celebrities he’s talked to, but Royce shrugs that off. “Interviews are... interviews. You get to go home and tell someone that you talked to Neil Simon.”

His most memorable experiences, instead, have been among audiences: watching gripping shows like Topdog/Underdog (at Mixed Blood) and the Tony Kushner premiere The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (at the Guthrie).

One especially moving moment occurred when Ten Thousand Things produced the musical Ragtime in 2005. “I saw it at a women’s correctional institution,” remembers Royce. “When that show ended, the women in that room leapt to their feet as though they were pulled by some force other than themselves. I can still see that scene. I can still see the faces of those women.”

Though Royce officially retires on September 2, it will be a slow goodbye — he’ll continue to contribute to the Star Tribune’s reviews and features, just to a lesser extent. “It’s kind of like a methadone program,” he explains. “[You can’t] leave the hard stuff cold turkey.”

When Royce started in 1980, the newspaper was just beginning to use "video display terminals" for editing and production. Now, the web is at the center of the the media universe, and there's been a proliferation of independent online publications. In Royce's view, that's all to the good.

"It feeds the community," he says. "I don't work for arts organizations, but I work because those arts organizations exist. More conversation and discussion is really good, because it keeps those organizations a little more lively, and if they're more lively, that means I've got something to write about."