The Minnesota Way

Criticism | Tradition

Editor's note: This article is presented in partnership with mnartists.org, offering "the public a new way to explore art and get to know artists."

That we are blessed by climate is a primary and ineluctable Minnesota reality. (We are also horribly, doggedly, unfairly, and diabolically cursed by climate, but let’s agree not to discuss that right now.) There are few other places that could have inspired works such as Michael Sommers’s Snowman, or John Heimbuch and Jon Ferguson’s recent S. Gunter Klaus and the Story Before.

You have to freeze your ass off for prolonged periods to create works such as those. You have to walk out in subzero temperatures, with an arctic sun overhead, your body clenching up beneath countless layers of life-preserving apparel, for ten fucking days straight, in order to know the despair, the perseverance, and the sheer stubbornness of life in a place such as this.

This can be a hard place to live, and it fuels a particular brand of creativity.

Let’s say it promotes the development of extremely determined, focused, and driven individuals. You can die out here. Keeping one’s shit together, tightly if possible, is a prerequisite for admission. If you don’t start out that way, it doesn’t take long after you receive an MN mailing address.

And there is a particular pleasure in going to the theater on a cold-ass winter night, with everyone’s tires crunching, groaning, and slipping on corrugated, rutted ice. First is the visceral warmth of stepping inside. Then comes the pleasure of taking your seat, knowing that you won’t have to deal with the freeze for ninety minutes at the earliest. It opens you up and makes you receptive. You want to see things the barren landscape has denied you, feel things.

Tell me a story, in other words. Make me forget for a while.

So combine the two things: an environment that fosters dogged, determined types, and individual strength leavened with the necessity of community. (I can’t let that drunk guy fall asleep in that snow bank, or else I’m an accessory to his death.) Then throw in audiences hungry for stories, for images, for a richness so hard to come by for five months out of the year.

Outsized egos deflate here

You end up with a succession of mule-stubborn, passionate, artistic alchemists who, each in their own way, keep producing, directing, or otherwise overseeing sharp, solid, and sensual theater. Knox. Boehlke. Reuler. Bellamy. Hensley. Shiomi. Cooke.

And there’s another generation coming up (in what will undoubtedly be a seismic shift in the decade to come), but based on what seems to succeed best for these newer, younger companies, the paradigm is similar: Find good plays with good stories, stage them well, building institutions with the community along for the ride, then move on to the next production. And try not to get a big head.

The visionary with the outsized ego driving her or his art, by and large, doesn’t appear to be the working model here. Now, I write from the vantage of never having worked with the people listed above, but to a man and woman they are talented, driven, high achievers who are absolutely pleasant to interact with, not to mention generous with their time and thoughts, and warmly inclusive.

Is there anything wrong with the egomaniac that reduces a cast and staff to tears in pursuit of a Grand Vision? In terms of being a decent human being, yes, but in terms of what gets created, niceness is value neutral. All that matters, in a sense, is what ends up on stage. Everyone involved can go home afterward, face the mirror, and tally up the balance of their own actions.

So, it’s not so simple as to say that Minnesota theater visionaries are nice. I’m sure they’re not always nice. I’m certainly not always nice, especially if I feel you’re messing around with something I created. But there’s a sense of knowing a bigger picture.

Look, I write theater reviews every damned week of the year, pretty much. I operate under the assumption that just about everyone I come across, at one time or another, has read something I wrote and been filled with loathing. Yet nearly everyone I deal with understands that, on an important level, we’re all in this together. There’s mutual respect, and it might indeed be traceable back to the fact that, if one of them came across me passed out in a snowdrift, they would pull me out and find some way to get me home.

I most certainly would do the same for them.

The Minnesota Way

It takes ego to make art, no doubt about it. The presumption that my thoughts are worth your time is a form of necessary arrogance, one possessed in the required quantities by the folks I’m talking about. But none of them exhibits the particular megalomania that posits the fine points of their vision first and foremost. Each is focused on the product, the work, the overall expression of the play and the way in which they present it. Nor are they reckless risk-takers, putting all the chips on a single bet and risking a public, humiliating flameout.

They’re all in it for the long haul. Show people go from show to show, focused on the thing in front of them: it’s the nature of the business (and of life, lived a certain way). But the big picture is always acknowledged here, as well as the humility, craft, diligence to narrative, and the ungodly stubbornness it takes in order to see some version of it come to pass.

That is, it seems, if not the Minnesota style, at least the Minnesota way.

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