With an artistic community where there are “more theater seats per capita than any city besides New York” plus a pretty accessible metro bus and light rail system - what theater artist wouldn’t want to live and work in the Twin Cities! Also home to the nationally respected Children’s Theatre and leading companies with long histories of presenting new, experimental, or culturally specific work such as Frank Theatre, Ten Thousand Things, Pangea World Theater, and Theater Mu it’s easy to see why the annual Ivey Awards, which celebrate the Twin Cities’ vibrant theater scene, bubbles over each year in an explosive see-and-be-seen red carpet (Emmy-like) evening. Playwrights, directors, actors, and producers of all types, breeds, generations, and backgrounds eager to rub shoulders with others like them (sort of) and marvel on their theater scene. I agree that the Twin Cities is considered a “smart move” for those committed to pursuing theater full-scale while seeking a certain level of artistic sustainability.
Never in a million years would I have guessed that I would choose the Twin Cities to live as a working artist and raise a family. For practical purposes, my southern roots made for an unhappy relationship with the sometimes thirty below wind chill winters. Yet here I am and many others are just like me. I'm talking about people of color whose work similarly speaks to and is influenced by a cultural vernacular that one might not immediately assume exists (fully) in the Twin Cities. So why do (some of us) stay? Yes support from funders like the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome and McKnight Foundations, and the Playwrights’ Center have allowed us to usher forth work on a continuum. Yes relationships with organizations like SASE: The Write Place (now folded), the Walker, Pangea, Frank, and Pillsbury have helped us maintain a critical and blessed visibility.
The combination of a creative climate that feels consistently engaged; alongside an environment that doesn’t offer so much push back (as in other cities) is clearly appealing to new comers. In my ten to fifteen years here there has always seemed a sense of cross-pollination of artistic disciplines and collaborative partnerships that make the Twin Cities both exciting and unique. I would argue less that artists take on the other hats (actor, playwright, director) because we need to sustain ourselves money-wise but more so because we find ourselves in a community where we are indeed encouraged to stretch outside of our primary discipline as we work, teach, take risks and develop in this highly ensemble based playground. In a given two month time frame I may be called on three different projects - one as a playwright, one as a main stage actor, and one as a teacher/director with youth.
This all said, there is a flip-side where our city appears to suffer occasional jetlag. A delayed response to the changing arena, and theatrical landscape - such as our decade long conversation around hip-hop and spoken word theater. “A day late, a dollar short” as my grandma says. Furthermore, there’s still a noticeable access gap that exists. On the one hand the climate is ripe for new companies to emerge (such as Workhaus Collective) and present work at partnering institutions (like the Playwrights’ Center) but on the other hand there’s a number of folks on the fringe that don’t have the access or clue-into the networking rubric that, from the outside, may seem quite daunting.
Our city, like many, sometimes suffers from amnesia – forgetting who was here before us or who else might be doing similar work as ours. In fact there are other companies such as Exposed Brick, Mama Mosaic, Ananya Dance Theater, and Tru Ruts/Freestyle Theater that are solely dedicated to creating new work. Access, media attention, and equitable resources help determine the reach, visibility, and longevity of companies like these whose voices help balance the dominant paradigm. Theater artists of color here seem to have seasonal success and less long-term growth trajectories. This can easily be alleviated by new systems of support – creating organizational and people systems that extend past one project. Funders seem to get stuck in the sticky ‘emerging’ artist verbiage where it’s unclear how the term is defined to artists who may be on the cusp of emerging for more than a decade (as theater artists of color sometimes are).
Finally, I'd comment that formal cross-generational mentorship systems are far and few between here. Implementing them would help create a healthy ecology of people helping people and contribute to the fertile soil of our theater canvas - playwrights, dramaturges, directors, actors, and producers. I heard a rumor that the old Guthrie had an apprentice program similar to this that ushered forth key directors now on the national scene. I can only imagine what the results might look like if a city-wide commitment was given to this type of intentional ‘home-grown’ growth.