Beneath the Underdog

Poke around behind the scenes of the major theaters in the Twin Cities, and you will find a few hard-working souls--whether in the shop, the development office, or the publicity department--who pay their dues at the big house in order to fund their own nascent, independent theater troupes on the side. It's a baroque food chain, the theater scene is, with the Guthrie at the top and any of around 50 to 60 tiny companies at the bottom. The Twin Cities breed an unusual proliferation of such outfits, most of which run limited seasons on shoestring budgets in rented spaces and often disappear with as little notice as when they surfaced. A few of these troupes also happen to mount some of the most intelligent theater in the Twin Cities.

But these are poor theaters--in the pecuniary sense of the word only--and they regularly play to audiences of five to 20 people. These outfits seem to run on love alone, and bleed into the red even when their shows receive positive reviews and manage an advertisement or two. Alarmed by a steep drop in attendance between 1996 and 1997, a group of small-theater directors joined together last autumn to form a mixture of a support group, social club, and political action committee. Erica Christ, the woman behind Cheap Theatre, got the ball rolling with a one-page newsletter called "The Tip of the Iceberg," which was distributed at plays and listed upcoming shows at other indie theaters. Inspired by her example, and by a growing recognition among small theaters of their mutual self-interest, Matt Sciple (literary manager at Park Square Theatre and a founder of Bald Alice Theatre Company) made some phone calls, and an informal coalition was quickly born: the Twin Cities Independent Theater Partnership.

The alliance now comprises more than 20 groups, from the more established indies like Frank Theatre, Pillsbury House, Eye of the Storm, and Hidden Theatre to more obscure companies like hipp-kitten theatreworks and Ebullient Theatre Company.

These days, e-mails shoot among this network requesting help with set strikes and tech rehearsals, calling for or offering donations of set pieces and props, and plugging shows. The group is already planning the development of an annual independent-theater awards ceremony, and hopes to cross-pollinate audiences through a theater "passport," or punch card. This Saturday, the group will host their first event, a "gala" fundraiser featuring live entertainment, a raffle, and a presentation on last year's most memorable theatrical moments.

It all might sound rather shaky, but one senses that these people mean business, even as they feel their way through a sometimes contentious process of self-definition. Says Sciple, "Decisions have to be made. Some people want consensus on every decision, and others say, let's have a loose confederation instead of a United States. Something that supports the group rather than something that dictates. This is the part where, if we can make it through this, we'll be OK. And I think we will."

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