The Year in Theater


Let's be frank. Local theater is boring. Too often, that is. And this doesn't have to be.

The Twin Cities are bizarrely endowed with a profusion of talented actors, designers, and directors, not to mention a singular script-development institution in the Playwrights' Center. Still, the theater scene fails to generate the kind of excitement and consistent audience turnout enjoyed by local music. So here we offer an opinionated list of ailments and possible remedies for this sick but salvageable scene.

DISEASE: Nostalgia

DIAGNOSIS: We had our fill of it this year, what with the Jungle Theater devoting its entire season to revivals celebrating its eighth (!) anniversary, Penumbra Theatre resurrecting August Wilson's Fences at the Guthrie, and a host of other theaters digging through their drawers to come up with something tried and... trying. On the upside, if this continues, maybe we can start to recycle the same old reviews.

CURE: If we've seen it before, don't do it. That goes for Christmas shows too. And while we're on the subject: Theaters should receive funding based on how many adventurous new scripts they produce each season. By that yardstick, Cheap Theatre, Frank Theatre, Theater Mu, and a handful of others would be way ahead of the game.

DISEASE: Joe Dowling, Publicist

DIAGNOSIS: Doing A Christmas Carol once a year for fun and profit is one thing. But 1997 at the Guthrie saw a parade of vapid fun and superb superficiality. To wit: the vapor-thin Blithe Spirit, the calcified You Can't Take It With You, and the MTV-worthy A Midsummer Night's Dream. Dowling's own directing has been limited to plays he's previously produced elsewhere. What courage! Meanwhile, the Guthrie Lab's program has been all but torched.

CURE: Install tables, drop the nonprofit status, and officially christen the finest darn dinner theater this town has ever seen.

DISEASE: Critical Mass

DIAGNOSIS: This year saw massive upheavals in theater criticism: Both dailies lost their critics and went through wild fluctuations in the quality and depth of coverage. And, of course, the Twin Cities Reader suffered a miserable, needless death. Though Pi Press arts editor Bob Shaw erred seriously in sacking talented former critic Jayne Blanchard, he did, finally, replace her with an actual hire. The Strib, by contrast, has yet to find a replacement for retired critic Peter Vaughan, leading a pack of hopeful no-counts, and a few smarter cookies, through an excruciating, endless swimsuit competition.

CURE: For a start, the Strib might think about committing to a hire. And all those renegade alt-weeklies of the future might think about picking up the slack.

DISEASE: The Middle of the Road

DIAGNOSIS: The Twin Cities are awash in safe, comfortable theatertainment. If it isn't the Ordway mounting a Cole Porter revue, it's the nth bombastic cabaret at Mixed Blood. You know you're experiencing the phenomenon when intermission arrives and it doesn't seem to matter whether you stay or go--or when you're not awake to make the decision.

CURE: Try to mount a play so awful that no one will want to stay past intermission. Theatre de la Jeune Lune almost accomplished this feat with its two-part, stream-of-unconscious mind-scrambler, The Pursuit of Happiness, but they didn't go far enough. Rest assured that perfection has yet to be achieved at either end of the theater-tolerance spectrum.

DISEASE: Broadway on Hennepin

DIAGNOSIS: Imagine, if you will, an Amoral Ice Cream Man from Mars, who descends on Earth disguised as a high-class purveyor of magical desserts unlike anything Earth's children have known or could ever create themselves. He sells them sidewalk sundaes coated with gold paint. The children spend all their lunch money on ice cream and end up with empty stomachs and pockets. This happens over and over, and even school officials are so mesmerized by his exotic Martian ways and the glittering coins he commands that they don't notice the children growing thin and stupid. The corner grocery cuts back hours and expands its ice cream section in an effort to avoid Chapter 11. Soon, other Ice Cream Men discover Earth's hungry, dumb children.

CURE: Force members of the Minneapolis City Council, who ultimately control theater on Hennepin, not only to attend every Broadway show that comes through the State and Orpheum theaters, but to buy their own tickets as well.

DISEASE: Sports Fever

DIAGNOSIS: If the Twins ever do split town, it will leave the Twin Cities full of people who love nothing more than plunking down $50 to experience a three-hour dose of aching mediocrity. Theater can perform that service just as well as baseball. The theater community should not squander this rare opportunity to, as they say in the business world, take advantage of certain "synergies" between theater and baseball.

CURE: Serve beer and hot dogs to the huddled masses and don't tell them they're watching a play. Maybe they won't notice.

DISEASE: Social-Service Art

DIAGNOSIS: Contrary to popular belief, the function of art is not to educate inner-city kids about the dangers of AIDS, serve as social therapy for different communities, or address urgent social concerns in the most dramatically balanced and compassionate manner possible. Unfortunately, most of the institutions that give grant money to theater artists have either forgotten what art is for or never knew in the first place. Every art dollar tied to a social-service string or matched to a social-engineering agenda is another fiber in the rope that strangles artistic development in this country.

CURE: Let artists be artists. Set them free. Give them money, with no strings attached, based solely on the quality and potential of their work.

DISEASE: The Incredible Shrinking Audience

DIAGNOSIS: Small theaters are starving for audiences, to the point where some admit anyone off the street, for free, just to fill seats. Even excellent productions close early or regularly cancel performances.

CURE: 1. The Bryant-Lake Bowl/Patrick's Cabaret/7th St. Entry approach: Serve beer and food; create evenings of theater and live music; allow people to smoke; try to create a theatergoing scene as vital as the open-mic subculture. 2. Form a small-theater think tank. In fact, after years of talking about it, in 1997 a coalition of small, independent theater companies did form an alliance (tentatively known as the Tip of the Iceberg) to discuss audience-building strategies and share mailing lists and technical help, and perhaps even fundraising power. Let's hope there's strength and wisdom to be found in numbers.

DISEASE: Puritanism

DIAGNOSIS: When was the last time you got titillated or aroused by a local play or musical? It doesn't happen very often because Minnesotans are decent folks, and decent folks don't like to have their libidos charged up in public. What a shame.

CURE: More nudity. 'Nuff said.

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