Much Ado About Theater
We received considerable feedback on Christy DeSmith’s article in our June issue, “Played Out?” Because of space limitations, these letters have been published online. Parts of all or some of these letters may run in future issues of the magazine.
In your June issue, Christy DeSmith writes, toward the end of the feature article “Played Out?”: “The real problem isn’t that there’s too much theater. Instead, there’s just too much middling, unmoving, playing-it-safe, boring theater. Quality has not improved as our options have grown.” And a little earlier in the article she writes: “Sure, we’ve got more shows to choose from than ever before, but these days we’re less likely to happen upon standout performances when venturing outside the biggest, most conventional shops.” I wholeheartedly disagree, but you do have to know where to look. There are a number of excellent theater companies in the local area that didn’t even receive a well-deserved mention in the article.
Although it is mention in the full-page chart accompanying the article, Ten Thousand Things Theater Company failed to be noted as possibly the best theater company and the best-kept theater secret in the local area. Under the brilliant artistic direction of Michelle Hensley, the troupe presents must-see theater. I saw all three of their productions in their last season: Richard III (incredibly memorable), Eurydice (incredibly moving), and Once on This Island (so incredibly good I went twice).
Also, no mention was made whatsoever of Theatre in the Round. Although I’ve been a season ticket holder for the past several years, this current season I opted to only see the two: one by Shakespeare and another classic by O’Neill, Henry V and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, respectively. Both were excellent, although you never would have known how wonderful their production of Henry V was given the ill-informed review that appeared in the Star Tribune.
Another venue that I try to patronize every summer is Century College in White Bear Lake, the home of Shakespeare & Company. They put on Hamlet several years ago and the young gentleman who played Hamlet put on such a phenomenal performance that I thought he eclipsed the Hamlet that was running at the Guthrie around the same time. (For those interested, this summer’s Shakespeare & Company fare includes As You Like It, Richard II, and Servant of Two Masters.)
Again, other than the chart, there was no mention whatsoever of the Cromulent Shakespeare Company, which put on a tremendous production of Titus Andronicus at the beginning of this year. It was so good I went twice, then went to see their Sense and Sensibility, and was eager to see their Love’s Labour’s Lost as it toured various city parks this past June.
I also happened to see the Minnesota Shakespeare Project’s King Lear that was referenced in the article’s first paragraph. I completely disagree with the author’s assessment that they “had been doing quiet disservice to the Bard’s tragedy for nearly two hours. Stony-faced and emotionally hollow, the players slogged through their lines like grade-school students reading aloud from textbooks.” Not so the evening I attended. I thought they did a great job.
In recent years, I have seen anywhere from 40 to 90 plays annually. Hopefully I know the difference between good theater and bad theater. Our local area has many excellent theater offerings, despite the author’s critic. The tragedy here is not necessarily the state of local theater, but a feature article that has failed to note many of the true gems in town. The article is definitely not representative of the best theater our area does have to offer.
James A. Bofenkamp
Christy Desmith claims the local theater scene is beset with shoddy productions, an actor shortage, and a homogenization of offerings, and that this is evidence of too many theaters in the metro area.
As a long time theatergoer and a production evaluator for the Ivey Awards, I see more than 60 productions annually. And while not all shows are gems, I question her evidence, as well as her conclusion. Either she really hasn’t experienced what the theater community has to offer—or she’s had astoundingly bad luck.
Most fascinating of all was the implication that market forces have not corrected the situation because theaters receive financing and are influenced by corporate and foundation sponsorships. I find this particularly ironic given the publication in which her story was printed, a publication affiliated with Minnesota Public Radio, which accepts millions of dollars in sponsorship money from its listeners—including corporate donors. If she actually believes that sponsorships compromise the integrity of local theater, she must also assume that public radio feels the same pressure.
As an avid theatergoer, a former MPR arts reporter, and a senior program officer at the Bush Foundation, I read Christy DeSmith’s article “Played Out?” with interest and concern. I would like to clarify statements in the article related to the Bush Foundation’s grants made to specific Twin Cities–based theaters.
The author appears to take issue with the level of institutional funding support for some theaters and presents dollar amounts without context. Foundation reporting standards require us to publish the total dollars appropriated at the time funding is approved regardless of the timeframe for the support. Our grant of $205,000 to Mixed Blood Theatre was actually a multiple-year commitment for strategic operating support and technical assistance. The grant amounted to less than 10 percent of the theater’s annual operating budget over the two-year funding period.
DeSmith also states that foundations often “compel” arts organizations “to stage identity art and weepy works of pedantry.” Immediately following that observation, she cites a Bush Foundation grant to the Guthrie Theater that “encouraged ‘global perspectives.’” In fact, the Bush support program for large cultural organizations, such as the Guthrie Theater, is nonprescriptive. Our guidelines, readily available on our website, state that the program’s purpose is to provide an opportunity for large institutions “to undertake strategic projects outside their general operating budgets that enhance their capacity for improved performance.” It was the Guthrie’s intent, not a Bush Foundation mandate, to create a New Play Program because, according to the Guthrie’s proposal, “American playwriting may not be keeping pace with America’s involvement around the world.” While I’ll leave the ultimate assessment of Julie Myatt’s work to the drama critics and audiences, it’s interesting to note that Boats on a River has had subsequent production nationally and was a finalist for the 2007–2008 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for the new theater work in the United State, United Kingdom, and Canada.
In full disclosure, I declined an interview request from DeSmith due to scheduling issues. What’s more, I don’t necessarily disagree with her general observation that there may be too much uninteresting theater these days. It’s probably not the first time those of us who frequent the theater have harbored that thought locally or in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
However, I believe there are some strong and promising Twin Cities theaters that continue to take risks and provide audiences with work that is emotionally moving, intellectually challenging, and, on occasion, personally transformative. It’s for those moments that local theater deserves the community’s nurture and support.
Senior Program Officer
Christy DeSmith’s article, “Played Out?”, is a disappointing diatribe on the Twin Cities–theater scene. In the comments section of the article online, TCTHEATREARTIST states it poignantly in their posting on your website: “Her petty jabs and outrageous overstatements, backed by no discernible facts, undermine anything remotely resembling the thesis that she seems to be trying to support.”
The article looks at the theaters in the metro, but completely excludes the niche theaters in town. I can’t speak for others companies, but the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company (MJTC) has not seen a slump at the box office. MTJC is going into its 14th year; it began as a seedling of an idea and is now a nationally respected small professional theater. MJTC has run its entire existence debt free—without losing high artistic quality—and we have not experienced a shortage of great actors and designers who are happy to work with us.
I think a more thorough analysis of theater in town by DeSmith would have resulted in a stronger assessment of the Twin Cities’ theater scene.
Sarah Rae Helms
Associate Director for External Affairs
Minnesota Jewish Theater Company
Thank you for publishing Christy DeSmith’s provocative article, “Played Out?”, about the local theater scene. As a local playwright, I found the questions and issues raised interesting for both theater patrons and theater makers.
But the question that seems to be of the most importance to DeSmith and to your readers is alluded to in anecdotes at the conclusion of her article but never explicitly stated: With all these theater companies, why do I keep stumbling on bad shows?
One thing that will help us all answer that question is more thoughtful, passionate coverage of the performing-arts community, such as DeSmith’s article, from your publication and others presses in town. Please don’t check in with a broad overview every couple years and wonder what the hell is going on. If you look at the trends, influences, and aspirations on a regular basis, then you’ll help your readers see which companies are challenging themselves and their audiences in entertaining ways, which artists are building names and bodies of work worth watching over time, and which shows will be talked about locally (and perhaps nationally) for years to come. While bad work will always be available, so too is the new and interesting quality work. And, in the aggregate, if you must obsess about numbers, the Twin Cities–theater community is still attended by thousands and thousands of patrons across Minnesota every night of the weekend.
Minnesota Monthly has always been one of the best sources for arts and entertainment news in the Twin Cities. I’m a big fan of senior writer and arts editor Tim Gihring’s writing in particular. However, it seems disingenuous for an arts and culture publication to suddenly look up and puzzle over all the theaters around town as if it wasn’t part of your responsibility to illuminate the nature of those theaters for your audience.
Who else is available to help audiences untangle the beautiful, creative thicket that is the Twin Cities theater? You could easily commission a series of follow-ups to DeSmith’s article that set aside the concerns about attendance for a moment, just to compare and contrast locally, nationally, and internationally the world-class quality and breadth of the work being created from, for example, the Children’s Theatre Company or Open Figure Theater or Live Action Set or the experimental Off-Leash Area, or the scrappy, exciting Bedlam Theatre, or the tiny Four Humors Theatre and 3 Sticks, or the joyous No Refunds Theater and Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater. How did such a relatively small metro area draw so much creative talent that DeSmith could even consider calling it too much?
I’d be equally happy to read that type of provocative article as well.
Although the necessary space to give an adequate review of the metro theaters may not have been available in Minnesota Monthly, “Played Out?” did a disservice to the many excellent productions available locally, particularly in St. Paul theaters.
As a longtime subscriber to the History Theatre, it was disappointing to see no mention of their outstanding performances other than a diagram referring to it as “Fixated on Dead Subjects.” This cutesy caption denigrates the importance of telling significant stories from the past that inform both our present and future. The large number of people who attend performances of original work each year contradicts the impression given by DeSmith that theaters other than the Guthrie are not attracting audiences.
A recent production of Exit Strategy at the Mixed Blood Theatre had no empty seats, indicating that many people are interested in the talents of both local writers and actors. Also, there seemed to be no mention of the Fitzgerald Theater and the many writers and performers (beyond Garrison Keillor) who enjoy enthusiastic audiences.
Twin City theaters deserve more accurate and extensive coverage than they received in this story.