Once, in the lobby of the Public Theater, I was introduced to a New York playwright as being from Minneapolis. The fellow playwright’s response was, “Why?” with a tone I can only describe as Thurston Howell-esque. (Maybe that’s a new YouTube sensation - “S*** New Yorkers Say to Midwesterners”?)
I might’ve even responded, “It’s a very livable city.”
And it is.
There isn’t as much new work happening here as there should be. It’s baffling to me that the Guthrie or the Jungle haven’t produced an Allison Moore, Carson Krietzer or Melanie Marnich play. I believe I did a spit-take of my breakfast cereal when I read the Guthrie describing their commitment to new plays in a press release announcing the premiere of the adaptation of The Great Gatsby. (You think I’m kidding - read Joe Dowling’s quote). I agree that the Fringe factor is something that’s unique to Minneapolis. People LOVE the Fringe here, often at the expense of theater that takes place in the other eleven months that aren’t August. Kevin Kling has started to do an annual “not-Fringe” show, after being a Fringe fixture, I assume because he didn’t like the restrictions, the short run, the lack of a set etcetera (But he’s so Minnesotan, he would never complain…).
But Minneapolis’s playwriting stamp is everywhere - how many of the emerging and/or emerged playwrights in New York and beyond have made a pass through the Twin Cities? Kristoffer Diaz, Sheila Callaghan, Janet Allard, Lisa D’Amour, Deborah Stein, David Adjmi, Peter Gil-Sheridan, Jordan Harrison, Naomi Iizuka, Vince Delaney, Steven Dietz, and the list goes on. Then there’s the truly local talent, people who have made their lives here for decades: Kira Obolensky, Jeffrey Hatcher, John Olive, Carlyle Brown, Aditi Kapil, among others. There have been years at Humana where you can’t swing a stick without hitting some frickin’ Twin Cities expatriate. I even had a national theater critic lament to me, “What is it about Minneapolis?!” because the American Theater Critics Association kept bestowing the Primus Award to some deserving playwright, only to discover they had given it yet again to someone from Minneapolis.
Obviously, we’re doing something right. And that “something” seems to be the amazing support we get from the Jerome and McKnight Foundations and the Playwrights’ Center. But how does that translate to plays being produced locally, organically and sustainably? The small theaters are working plenty hard. Urban Samurai, a plucky, by-the-bootstraps theater, is producing Slasher by Allison Moore after its Humana run, just as years ago, Tallgrass Gothic by Melanie Marnich was produced by Emigrant Theater (also a sassy, shoestring theater, now defunct) after premiering at Humana. Carson’s work until recently was produced almost exclusively by Frank Theatre here in the Twin Cities, although Workhaus Collective recently got in the game. Bitching about the Guthrie, while a lot of fun, is about as useful as complaining about campaign finance reform. We all know something needs to change but it feels like a losing battle because big money always makes its own rules. (Can we get Stephen Colbert interested in the fate of emerging playwrights perhaps?)
Regional theaters were born because professional actors wanted to live a life outside of New York and it was a game-changer. So what’s the next model and how does it pertain to playwrights?
Rather than railing at big theaters who will always choose stiff productions of Shakespeare (or even worse, “hip” productions of Shakespeare) over new plays, I think small theaters banding together is the more useful strategy. It’s easy to get clique-y and competitive when you run a small theater. Believe me, as a producer at a small theater, I know. But turf wars don’t help anyone. Have we learned nothing from the 1979 classic The Warriors? Just as trade unions figured out that co-ops were the way to go in the face of increasing industrialization in the 1700s, small theaters interested in new plays have to unite, sharing resources, information and funds. Larger regional theaters have discovered co-productions as a means of producing new plays, what’s to stop smaller theaters from doing something similar so we can share the risk and enjoy the advantages?
The ecology of a small theater town like the Twin Cities is delicate. But if we don’t want to lose the writers we have, we have to find a way to make it more than livable. We need to make it thriving, flourishing, and vital.