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Theater 2016 in review: Changes in the scene raise big questions for 2017

Minnsky Theatre took over Nimbus’ old space this year.

Minnsky Theatre took over Nimbus’ old space this year. Courtesy of Minnsky Theatre

This year marked a period of transition for the local theater scene, with several major institutions finishing or beginning leadership handoffs — in some cases from founders to their successors. Here’s a roundup of this year’s top stories on the Twin Cities theater beat.

Big hires pay off for Guthrie, Jungle. This was the first full calendar year in which Joseph Haj led the Guthrie Theater and Sarah Rasmussen oversaw the Jungle. Both hires were part of a much-discussed leadership change across three major local theater companies (also including Sarah Bellamy, who’s currently collaborating with her father Lou before fully taking the reins at Penumbra in 2017), and audiences and critics have given the new generation a clear thumbs-up. The Guthrie saw a strong response to Haj’s programming, and there wasn’t a weak link in Rasmussen’s diverse inaugural season at the Jungle.

New frontiers in Fringe. This summer, the Minnesota Fringe Festival debuted a new ticketing system: single tickets are out, and daily wristbands allow unlimited admission. Response was generally positive, and executive director Jeff Larson claimed the new system as part of his legacy when he stepped down in October. A search for Larson’s successor is now underway. The new director will need to decide whether expanding the sprawling festival’s programming makes sense — and what that would look like.

Some new venues now, some... eventually? In October, Nimbus Theatre opened the doors on its new Crane Theater, a sizable northeast Minneapolis venue that will eventually house a black-box theater alongside a larger, traditional stage. Nimbus’ previous home is buzzing with burlesque as the Minnsky Theatre, and the cozy Strike Theatre opened along Central Avenue. Things are moving a little more slowly for St. Paul’s North Garden Theater, with the opening of the extensively renovated venue on West Seventh pushed back to spring.

Transitions on Hennepin. After leading the revival of Hennepin Avenue by saving three historic theaters and establishing the Hennepin Theatre Trust as a nonprofit powerhouse, organization president Tom Hoch announced in October that he’ll leave his position in mid-2017. Then, in December, Scott Mayer said he’ll step down from his role at the Ivey Awards. Will new leadership take the West Downtown Minneapolis Cultural District (now trying to make “WeDo” happen as a brand) to the next level?

Political storm clouds on the horizon. When the Guthrie announced its Level Nine Initiative in April, Joseph Haj explained that it would allow the company to respond to “a Ferguson moment.” In November, the nation suddenly found itself facing the prospect of a president for whom social upheaval was practically a campaign promise. It’s hard to know exactly what the theater community’s response to the Trump era will be, but this year’s many politically charged shows represented just the tip of an iceberg that we’re about to smash right into.