Acting Up

How the University of Minnesota has quietly shaped the area’s theater scene

IT SOUNDS LIKE the beginning of a bad joke: what do you get when you put the pope, a witch, and 100,000 starving orphans together? If you’re the University of Minnesota’s theater department, the answer is a thought-provoking play by Nobel Prize–winning playwright Dario Fo. But if you’re Archbishop Harry Flynn of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who criticized Fo’s drama in an opinion piece in the Star Tribune, it’s something closer to Catholic-bashing. In any case, the controversy surrounding this month’s staging of The Pope and the Witch by U of M students has spotlighted a program whose influence during its 75 years on campus has been tremendous, if largely behind the scenes.

Many people are aware, for instance, that TV actors Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible) and Loni Anderson (WKRP in Cincinnati) once trod the U’s stages. Less known is the fact that the Children’s Theatre Company, Penumbra Theatre Company, the Jungle Theater, and other major arts institutions have all been founded by graduates of the program. And just as importantly, the students filling the U’s popular theater classes have swelled the ranks of local patrons, bolstering the area’s outsized arts scene.

A large local audience—and one that is tolerant of daring productions (theater professor emeritus Charles Nolte says only “professional bellyachers” have objected to the Fo production, not the community at large)—is the legacy of the U’s program, which began in 1931 as part of the speech and communications department. It was quickly taken over by the graduate student Frank Whiting, who became head of the University Theatre in 1944 and over the next 30 years almost single-handedly sculpted the program into a pipeline of creativity that Nolte says the Twin Cities “would be considerably different” without its contributions.

In the early 1960s, Whiting cited a strong interest in theater among local residents as proof to Tyrone Guthrie that the Twin Cities not only could support a world-class theater but that it also had the acting, directing, and design chops to supply the necessary talent. “Guthrie chose Minneapolis over places like Milwaukee and Detroit because he knew the audience was already here,” says Nolte, who was hired by Whiting in the 1940s. “And the reason the audience was here is that the U provided the seed bed.”

The U’s program drew top professors, including Arthur Ballet, who for 30 years taught one of the most popular classes on campus, Introduction to Theater. Ballet packed some 700 students into classes every quarter for 30 years and made attendance at local theaters compulsory. His former student David Ira Goldstein, now artistic director of the Arizona Theatre Company in Phoenix, says theater majors, as well as others, benefited from Ballet’s expertise. “That class inspired and terrified so many students over the years,” he says. “Today I’m very jealous of the amount of arts exposure students get at the U. We don’t get that here.”

With Ballet’s ready-made army of attendees graduating into regular patrons, stages sprouted up that not only formed the backbone of a burgeoning theater scene but also pushed the medium’s boundaries. This comforts Nolte when he is confronted with the possibility of negative reactions to Fo’s play. “In this city, which is so smart about theater, you would get as strong a reaction if the university tried to censor or close down The Pope and the Witch,” he says.

Today, the university benefits from the local scene as well. Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy has long taught theater classes at the university. More recently, Luverne Seifert, an actor who regularly appears at Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the Children’s Theatre Company, became head of the department’s undergraduate programs. And the director of Fo’s play? Robert Rosen, cofounder of Jeune Lune. And so the cycle continues. But who knows where these thespians (and their audiences) might be if it weren’t for Whiting and the U?

The Pope and the Witch runs March 1 to 9 at the University of Minnesota’s Rarig Center, 330 21st Ave. S., Mpls., 612-624-2345.