The Year In Theater

Miss Richfield

The end of the calendar year means it's time to reflect a little on where we've been, where we're going--that is, it's time to wax a bit profound. We hypothesize about theatrical trends that are probably no different from those of the year before: anemic attendance, artistic cowardice, carpetbagging musicals. That sort of stuff. In this spirit, we give you a highly subjective listing of our theater stories of the year--or perhaps just some thinly disguised polemics.

7. Miss Richfield, Minnesota Educator of the Year

The bespectacled diva taught the world about a little thing called class when a representative of American Express asked her to leave the IDS lobby, where she was acting as emcee for the company's gay pride festivities. It seems a representative of Heitman Minnesota Management, the IDS managers, felt "uncomfortable" with her presence. She left quietly and graciously. After a bunch of asinine blame-shifting between Heitman and American Express representatives, Russ King (let's call him Miss Richfield's alter ego) wrote a response in the Strib. Instead of railing in anger (which he had every right to do), he invoked the words of his mother: "Let's make this a teaching moment." Lesson received. Duly embarrassed Heitman managers publicly flogged themselves, apologized to Mr. King, and quickly instituted diversity training.

6. Dean J. Seal, Impresario and Patron

While most indie theater groups have been eyeing the Fringe Festival with some trepidation in recent years, all seemed to have hope for this year's incarnation, thanks to its new director, Dean Seal. The programmer at Bryant-Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater, Seal brought amazing organization and drive to his latest task. And this fifth installment of the Fringe set an attendance record as a result.

Seal essentially runs a year-round Fringe at the BLB, which has become home for the most intriguing variety of theater in town. For this cramped stage, Seal has tirelessly recruited young artists to develop innovative, low-budget work. This year, he's been responsible for nurturing productions by Peter Blomquist, writers Brian Kelly and Todd Price, and actor and writer Edgar Davis.

Perhaps Seal's greatest contribution to the Twin Cities theater scene is his determination to give each participant in the Bowl and the Fringe lessons in self-promotion. He gently guides emerging artists away from any delusions that they can just sit around and let the art speak for itself. While half the companies in town talk about "audience development," Seal delivers the bodies in the seats.

5. Learning to Share

The verdict on the efficacy of the Twin Cities Independent Theater Partnership is still out, though the thousand different ideologies and goals of this diverse bunch of artists have reportedly made it difficult for the group to cohere. Ultimately, the ITP's greatest achievement may be a kind of glasnost: The basic action of opening up communication between these groups has allowed them to share intelligence on actors, spaces, and resources. Groups are beginning to cross-pollinate. Outward Spiral has enlisted Bald Alice's Matt Sciple to direct next year; Cheap Theatre similarly enlisted Peter Peter Pumpkin Theater's John Ursu (who is also this critic's brother). The most concrete accomplishment has been the "Tip of the Iceberg," a calendar of indie theater and dance company events, given out by several dozen companies at their productions.

4. The Birth of the New

How lovely it was this year to see the risks local theaters were taking on new work by local writers. In October it was possible to see five world premieres by local writers in one weekend! Usual suspects Eye of the Storm, Cheap Theatre, and Illusion ran their premieres simultaneously. The Jungle announced a Kira Obolensky play in their next season, and the Guthrie Lab introduced Syl Jones's Black No More to the world. The Fringe Festival saw a heap of new work; the kicker is that much of it was good.

3. The Gilded Age

The Dow Jones climbs above 9000 and suddenly every sock-puppet theater has a new building fund. As we speak, money is being raised for a new Penumbra, and a new Guthrie is being planned for a site yet unknown. And then, need we say it, there's Block E and the Shubert. Meanwhile, that Scottish play will ring in a new Jungle, and plans for a new Patrick's Cabaret have just been announced. A moment of silence, please, for the old Jungle--a lovely theater which has been replaced by a new Fantasy Gifts (of all things).

2. The Jemmy Syndrome

At the matinee of Lyric Theatre's trite Jemmy, more of the audience was asleep than not. At the end of the play, these same dozing audience members turned to each other and said dispassionately, "That was nice."

It wasn't nice. It was awful. They were lucky to be sleeping.

At Guthrie, Park Square, TRP, and others, we've seen the same audience members fidgeting or dozing during plays, only to leave with the same "nice" sentiment. This phenomenon raises the question: Do people actually expect not to be engaged by most theater? Lifeless plays kill theater.

We wish everyone could experience the immediacy of a performance by Ten Thousand Things in Hennepin County Women's Prison. The group performed Aphra Behn and Shakespeare in a small cafeteria surrounded by inmates sitting on the edge of their seats, talking back to the actors, screaming with laughter. Theater should be allowed to do no less.

1. Garland Wright, 1946-1998

Rest in peace.

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