Photo: Nathan Freitas

How local is your local theater?

Innovation

My fellow Dramatists Guild regional representative from Washington, DC, Gwydion Suilebhan, recently posted an insightful blog titled “Theatrical Biodiversity” in which he discusses the current state of the national theatrical ecosystem and his thoughts on applying a locavore sensibility to new work production. I read it over coffee the morning after I attended “Made in Minnesota, Round 2: A Minnesota Theatre Forum on local new play production,” hosted by Leah Cooper of the Minnesota Theater Alliance and Jeremy Cohen of the Playwrights’ Center. I sent Gwydion a Facebook message along the lines of “I was just part of a conversation on this subject last night,” to which he replied, “All the cool kids are talking about it.” It’s true: locavore principles are a hot topic (farm-to-table, anyone?), and on a freezing cold night in January, the subject was near and dear to those present at the forum.

It’s not like the concept of supporting local artists is new to our creative community (see Springboard for the Arts’ Community Supported Art program), but the “farm-to-table” conversation at the “Made in Minnesota” forum hopefully set the stage for a series of action steps that have the potential to “generate more heat,” as Jeremy Cohen put it, around our local playwriting scene, which is, one can argue, healthy and vibrant, even if our collective identity or national reputation don’t necessarily revolve around it.

But even with all the great stuff going on here, the questions Gywdion raises in his blog are questions we should ask about our own community. What percentage of theaters in the Twin Cities are producing locally-grown work or buying into the principles of a farm-to-table theatrical ecosystem for even a portion of their season? And do we, collectively, really understand the depth and breadth of original work that is being produced here, or for that matter, the people who are doing the producing?

Confession time: every year at the Iveys, when the photo montage flashes member theaters’ work, I mutter at least once to my husband, “What do they do?” and he invariably answers, “I don’t know.” And we are working artists who actually see a lot of theater, relatively speaking. I know we’re not alone in this. One early thread that came up at the first “Made in Minnesota” forum was a collective acknowledgement that many of us, both individually and institutionally, operate within our own “silos.” Even our audiences have their own silos. So the question was raised: What can we do to break out of that? (And no, going to see more theater from people we don’t know is not a dumb answer to that question.) How can we work together to break down walls, to create the “semi-permeable membrane” that Gwydion describes in his blog? (He’s talking region to region—but in our case, it couldn't hurt to start closer to home.)

Besides the “locavore” topic, other really interesting conversations have begun at the “Made in Minnesota” forums. At the first meeting in November, over seventy people were present, and Leah invited everyone to say what they hoped to get out of the evening. A range of issues came up, from audience development to mentoring to seeking new forms of collaboration (and more). We broke out into smaller groups to chew things over, sharing our collective insights with the larger group as the evening unfolded.

Four topics bubbled to the top, which shaped the conversation for the forum’s second round: cooperative development of audiences for new work; script solicitation and review processes; organizational partnerships and co-productions; and models of collaboration with writers. And in January, a smaller but no less passionate group gathered for more focused discussion. With all the brains storming the room it’s no surprise that ideas bubbled to the surface. (“What if we did [XYZ]?”) But as Leah pointed out, the Alliance doesn't want to decide or implement new programs in a vacuum. As she says, “Conversations like “Made in Minnesota” are an opportunity to bring the community together to discover what they can do collaboratively that none of them can do alone, and what actions they have passion to invest leadership in so that the implementation of new Alliance programs are community-driven.” So she asked us: Does this community want to continue to discuss these questions, together, with intention? And would you be willing to give a small group two to three hours to come up with creative solutions to your particular (favorite) issue? I am happy to report that almost everyone present wanted the conversation to continue and was willing to make a personal investment of time and energy to make that happen, which will undoubtedly lead to something happening, somewhere, somehow. (You live in a pretty cool artistic community, y’all. But you already know that.)

Do you create, produce, or incubate new work? Do you want to build your audience? Want to get out of your silo (or invite someone in)? Want to cultivate the “farm-to-table” principles in our Twin Cities ecosystem? Want to see new work generated in MN find further life outside our region? Or all of the above? Join the conversation. See you at the next “Made in Minnesota” forum. (Contact leah [at] minnesotatheateralliance.org to get in on the action.)

Comments

We always keep it local!

I read your article with great interest. Our company, Table Salt Productions, only produces new work by local writers. In fact, we are currently presenting "After the Apple: a collection of short plays by local women playwrights" at the Playwrights' Center through this coming Saturday, 2/23. (http://minnesotaplaylist.com/performance/audience/after-apple)

I would argue that a significant percentage of theaters in the Twin Cities are indeed producing locally-grown work; it just depends on the theaters you're surveying. Does the Guthrie produce local works? Hardly! The Jungle? Chanhassen Dinner Theatres? Ordway Center? Theater Latte Da? Hennepin Theatre Trust? No, the pickings are pretty slim if you look only at the "big boys." But most of the people I know in the theater world spend most of their time producing ONLY local works.

The problem is revealed clearly in your next question: "... do we, collectively, really understand the depth and breadth of original work that is being produced here, or for that matter, the people who are doing the producing?" No, we, collectively, do not. And I'm going to lay the blame for that squarely at the feet of local media.

As you say, we do all operate within our own "silos." To a large degree, this is inevitable. But is this insularity really aided by the fact that the Star Tribune typically publishes three (three!) articles or reviews covering the Guthrie's A Christmas Carol EVERY YEAR while ignoring the raft of new, locally-created works every holiday season?

(A side comment: I really do appreciate the Strib. Despite the fact that finding typos, incomplete sentences, missing photo credits and missing lines of text is a fun daily game for its readers, the Strib remains a quality paper. One of the few left in the nation. Take a road trip some time and you'll see what I mean. Have you read a Seattle or Chicago paper lately? And there are a lot of arts reviews. I just don't think there are enough reviews of the smaller local presenters.)

The fact is, those of us who are out here producing new local works simply do not have the budget to take out a half-page ad or wrap a light-rail train car to promote our shows. We need help! And for whatever reason, the local media has generally not seen fit to give us the help we need to keep going. We drown them in press releases, phone calls, Facebook posts and tweets, and remain mostly ignored.

We are lucky here in the Twin Cities. We have the Minnesota Fringe Festival - a collection of (often) strong material by local writers that is stunning in its sheer size and breadth. We have the Brave New Workshop, which produces sketch comedy by brilliant local comedians continuously throughout the year. We have HUGE Improv Theater - all fresh and all local, when they're not hosting national improv festivals. We have Nautilus, Table Salt, Pillsbury House, and the History Theatre. We have such local luminaries as Kevin Kling, Lorna Landvik, Joseph Scrimshaw, Joshua Scrimshaw, Mike Fotis - brilliant writers and performers all, who self-produce all over town.

We hear all the time that the Twin Cities has more theater seats per capita than any U.S. city outside of New York. What we need is for local media to get their butts out into those seats and write about it.

Dennis Curley
Table Salt Productions
dennis@tablesaltproductions.com