The decade in theater: New leaders, #MeToo, and more POC visibility defined the ’10s

Lily Tung Crystal (Mu), Sarah Rasmussen (Jungle), and Joseph Haj (Guthrie) were new faces in town.

Lily Tung Crystal (Mu), Sarah Rasmussen (Jungle), and Joseph Haj (Guthrie) were new faces in town. Mu/Jungle/Guthrie

From the outside, the 2010s in Twin Cities theater haven’t seen any changes as visible as the Guthrie’s 2006 move to its big blue riverfront home. The view from theaters’ seats, though, has changed significantly—a result of even more dramatic shifts behind the scenes.

This decade saw a sea change in the leadership of local theaters, with new artistic directors taking the helm at the Guthrie, Penumbra, the Jungle, Theater Mu, Park Square, Ten Thousand Things, and elsewhere. The shift is generational, but it’s also marked a fundamental shift in focus as Twin Cities theaters recognize the need to tell stories that much more authentically and extensively reflect the diversity of their communities.

“I have been thrilled to see women and [people of color] assuming leadership roles in our theater community,” says actor and director Austene Van. “These changes have allowed audiences to see images and artists of various cultures that are not frequently seen on our stages. These changes have allowed our audiences to experience relatable stories through diverse lenses.”

Sun Mee Chomet agrees. “It has been wonderful to see diversity celebrated on stages throughout the Twin Cities. As an Asian American actor, there have been many doors that have opened at theaters like the Jungle and the Guthrie that did not feel as wide open 10 years ago for actors of color.” What’s more, Chomet adds, “I’ve also seen much more opportunity for directors, designers, and technicians that are people of color, women, and non-binary-identifying folks.”

As the worldwide #MeToo movement has heightened the visibility of exploitative behavior in the arts, the Twin Cities theater community has also begun a reckoning. One major leadership transition (at Mu) came about as a result of #MeToo-related issues, and a judge asked the Guthrie to admit that its staff had inappropriately retaliated against a carpenter who called out a sexist environment in the scene shop. New lawsuits are forcing the Children’s Theatre Company to publicly grapple with a shocking history of past abuse.

One important change at local theaters, says actor and director Luverne Seifert, protects performers onstage. “The biggest change I’ve seen is the emergence of the intimacy director, who is essentially a choreographer for sexual contact. It’s a good change because it provides a clear physical sequence that the stage manager can identify and address if the behavior changes in a performance. It protects vulnerable actors from aggressive scene partners because everyone is aware of the lines that shouldn’t be crossed.”

Changes in funding structures and audience expectations will continue to drive shifts onstage and behind the scenes in the 2020s. One thing that probably won’t change, despite occasional experiments: the request that audience members pocket their phones when the show begins, so as to be completely present in the room. The essential magic, and perennial challenge, of live theater remains the same. In Chomet’s words, “We have been tasked with preserving the reflection of the human condition.”