Played Out?

The Twin Cities’ theater scene has boomed in recent years, spawning dozens of new productions and acting companies. But even as new venues have opened, ticket sales have slowed or leveled off. Can the show go on?

It was a dramatic scene in a traditional production of King Lear, and it was not supposed to draw chuckles. But the audience was antsy: The actors of the Minnesota Shakespeare Project, a small theater company performing at an obscure venue in Minneapolis, 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.

So when Lear’s eldest daughter, Goneril, exchanged a peck on the lips with her manservant, Oswald, two 50-something women in the audience could no longer suppress their laughter. They tittered, shifted in their seats, and whispered into one another’s ears. What was so funny? The performer playing Oswald was an ivory-skinned blonde—the same actress who played Lear’s daughter Cordelia on alternate nights.

The Shakespeare Project’s gender-bending casting was not a nod to theatrical innovation. Rather, it was a sign of a festering problem: a labor shortage in the Twin Cities’ theater community. Small companies increasingly have trouble finding not only male thespians, but talented actors of any gender. And that’s a sign of an even larger problem.

Minneapolis has “more theater seats per capita than any other U.S. city outside New York,” as the city’s convention and visitors association is fond of pointing out, and the supply of seats is growing. Add to that St. Paul’s houses (the Ordway, Penumbra, Park Square) and all the suburban playhouses, and it is difficult not to conclude that the local theater market is oversaturated—that there’s an overabundance of troupes and a surfeit of seats. Coupled with a drop-off in audience interest, the situation leads some folks to wonder: Is this sustainable?

In February 2001, the Star Tribune published an article that set the local theater community abuzz. The paper’s arts reporters and pollsters had crunched some numbers and found that, in the year 2000, a total of 2.3 million theater tickets were sold in the Twin Cities metro, an area with a population of just 2.8 million. A lot of season ticket holders and repeat buyers made possible this statistic, of course, but it was an astonishing figure nonetheless: Ticket purchases in the Twin Cities equaled a whopping 82 percent of the populace. Compare that to, say, Boston, where total theater ticket purchases for the same year amounted to only 18 percent of the area population.

It was a sign of the times: The Twin Cities had been enjoying a cultural explosion for nearly 20 years. During the 1980s and early ’90s, along with the blossoming of acclaimed local music and visual arts communities, came the births of such mid-sized institutions as Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the Frank and Jungle theaters. Minneapolis and St. Paul, particularly in the mid- to late ’90s, were fertile ground for planting small troupes: Some of the best to come from the era were Theater Latté Da and the now-defunct Eye of the Storm company.

And then, of course, the do-it-yourself, make-me-a-celebrity ’00s found everyone from recent drama grads to hobbyists forming their own small troupes—the scale and quality of which were formerly reserved for the Fringe Festival. Eager, young pilgrims flocked to our vibrant scene. Shows sprang up in more and more venues, including non-traditional ones like cemeteries and brew pubs. Ensembles that wrote, directed, and staged their own plays (Live Action Set and 3 Sticks come to mind) proliferated.

Today, there are more than 100 theater companies in the Twin Cities. “When I first moved to town in 1991, there were about one-third as many theaters as there are today, maybe even just one-quarter,” observes Edwin Strout, artistic director of Joking Apart Theater.

Such growth was fueled, in part, by funding from the Target, Bush, and McKnight foundations. During the ’80s, as national and state governments slashed arts funding, our metro was uniquely positioned: It had a wealth of foundations and corporate philanthropists willing to finance theatrical work. What’s more, the presence of the St. Paul—based Jerome Foundation, which supports emerging artists who live in either Minnesota or New York City, made the Twin Cities seem uniquely progressive among smaller U.S. metros. Artists started moving here from New York. The Jerome’s grants for playwrights served as magnets for up-and-coming talent: Among the grant’s most famous recipients are August Wilson and Lee Blessing.

But the ax dropped on September 11, 2001. After this, cultural anthropologists noticed Americans were staying home more often, opting to invest their entertainment dollars in, say, Pay-Per-View and Netflix, as opposed to, say, a new show at the Playwrights’ Center. Kathy Graves, a seasoned communications consultant who has counseled the Jungle, Mixed Blood, and SteppingStone theaters, confirms what has been the subject of much chatter in the theater community these past few years: an industry-wide plummet in ticket sales following 9/11. She hasn’t yet seen a full recovery.

Several acclaimed, small theaters closed shop in the years that followed:

3 Legged Race, Eye of the Storm, and Fifty Foot Penguin. Others went dormant: Outward Spiral and, most recently, the Burning House Group. Additionally, some of the best mid-sized theaters—Penumbra, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre—have spoken candidly about their money troubles, which mostly stem from slumps at the box office.

Did we reach a saturation point back in 2000? Audience sizes remain healthy at some of the largest, most visible organizations (both the Guthrie and Jungle reported increased box-office revenue in the most recent fiscal year). But other companies struggle to lure audiences. Attending a show somewhere other than the Guthrie, the Children’s Theatre, the Ordway, or the Orpheum can be a lonely experience. Skimpy turnouts have been observed lately at Gremlin Theater, Illusion Theater, and Open Eye Figure Theatre. One night during the run of a show at the Ritz, the audience was smaller than the cast. One man waved to another theatergoer a few empty rows away and remarked: “This must be a family affair.”


EVEN AS TICKET-BUYING slowed, an optimistic engine kept chugging along. The local theater community added facilities and organizations with little regard for audience or resources.

The first and most-visible result is a glut of performance spaces. In recent years, several new venues have opened—including the Ritz Theater, the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater, and St. Paul’s SteppingStone Theatre—significantly increasing overall audience capacity. The new Guthrie complex has about 400 more seats than the former Vineland Place and Guthrie Lab spaces combined. Meanwhile, the old Guthrie Lab in Minneapolis’s North Loop neighborhood (now known simply as the Lab Theatre) has sat vacant save for a single show: Menopause the Musical.

Peter Rothstein, founder and artistic director of the Theatre Latté Da, says things were very different eight years ago, when his company took up residence at the Loring Playhouse. “At that time, there was a real shortage of space,” Rothstein says. Last fall, the 10-year-old troupe left its longtime home at the Loring (the Playhouse was converted into offices). But finding a new place to put up Latté Da productions hasn’t been as difficult as Rothstein anticipated. “I don’t want to say there’s an overabundance of venues,” he observes. “But right now we have people clamoring for us to produce an event: the Ordway, the Southern, the Guthrie.”

Venues like the Ritz and the Southern are increasingly aggressive about booking shows. Yet directors producing shows in such houses often run into another problem: There aren’t enough good actors to go around. The player with the deepest pockets, the Guthrie, soaks up most of the talent these days. In fact, the number of productions in the Guthrie’s 2008—09 season is nearly double that of the 2005-06 season, the last at Vineland Place. This means the Guthrie needs more performers than ever—and they only hire the best. Most small- and mid-sized theater companies applaud the Guthrie’s willingness to lend out costumes, set pieces, and technical equipment. However, an article that ran last March in the St. Paul Pioneer Press noted that the Big Blue Box is making it increasingly hard for smaller companies to procure high-caliber local talent.

“The Guthrie is doing so many different shows with so many different actors and so many different understudies,” Richard Cook, artistic director at downtown St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre, told the paper, “that, right now, our dilemma is about doing the right show at the right time and with the right people.”

Of course, the Guthrie’s outsize appetite for acting talent is good news for some. Stacia Rice, an acclaimed local actress who three years ago launched her own company, Torch Theater, postponed her production of Macbeth, the remaining show in Torch’s 2007—08 season, when the Guthrie called with acting jobs. For performers, of course, increased demand means more work and an ability to put food on the table. “It’s a good thing for families that have actors in them,” Rice says of the Guthrie’s growing need for talent.

Nevertheless, that’s sour news not only for smaller troupes, but also for audience members: a homogenizing punch to the gut of a theater scene that’s supposedly brimming with diverse ideas and activities. 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.

The final, and most frustrating, symptom of our theater surplus is this: more hastily staged productions. Most theatergoers are willing to put up with the occasional clunker from a small, penniless troupe. But in the past couple of years, audiences have seen professional actors at both the Jungle and Guthrie fail to memorize their lines by opening night. There have been original, ensemble-made narratives at Jeune Lune and a handful of smaller theaters that were so loosely threaded as to feel unfinished.

Scott Mayer, the founder and project director of the Ivey Awards, an annual awards ceremony for local theater, and one of the most fervent boosters of Twin Cities theater, dismisses the idea that there’s a theater surplus. But even he concedes: “It may be true,” he says, “that the amount of theater [in the Twin Cities] does a disservice” to companies striving to produce high-caliber work of which they can be proud.

WHY HASN’T the ticket-buying public weeded the worst companies from the lot? Because Darwinist forces aren’t entirely at play in the world of nonprofit theater. In addition to earned revenue from box office sales and concessions, theaters rely on donations from individuals, corporations, government, and—here’s the rub—foundations. In 2007, Mixed Blood Theatre received $205,000 from the St. Paul—based Bush Foundation, $236,000 from the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation, and $40,000 from the Minneapolis-based General Mills Foundation. A recent playbill from the Jungle Theater thanked 22 foundations. Garnering foundation support is increasingly key to financing theater productions, and it’s only gotten more competitive in recent years as more and more companies apply for grants.

But foundations often have an agenda. Many like to fund educational shows that tackle important, contemporary issues. “I feel like performing artists have to have a social issue…to be recognized,” says the artistic director of one area theater, speaking anonymously. Companies, therefore, are compelled to stage identity art and weepy works of pedantry. For example, the Guthrie’s 2007 production of Boats on a River, a play about Cambodian sex-trafficking, was seeded by a Bush Foundation grant that encouraged “global perspectives.” The Los Angeles-based playwright, Julie Marie Myatt, who has penned several plays concerning women’s sexuality, used the money to travel abroad so that she could study her subject. The resulting play revealed this shocking truth: Child prostitution is bad.

Foundational focus on outreach- and education has given rise to countless other plays that teach special lessons. Not all of these plays are bad per se. Mixed Blood recently premiered a play about the experiences of biracial Americans, called Messy Utopia, which was well-reviewed. But overtly political shows tend not to attract large audience; instead, they get propped up by foundations.

“Visual artists don’t have to have a social issue in mind to get support for making their paintings or sculptures. Nobody says that their work must somehow express the desires or ideas of a particular community,” says the artistic director. “Part of me would like to see the entire funding apparatus collapse. It’d be interesting after, say, 10 years, to see what the public is seeing, what artists are making a living, and what is rising to the surface when money is out of the equation.”

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.

It’s disheartening to see, in several mid-sized companies, that crowd-pleasers have taken a back seat to organization-pleasers. Meanwhile, companies that strive to do excellent work are left with fewer resources. The saturated market makes it more difficult for companies to bring together the necessary ingredients for remarkable theater: money, adequate time to incubate and rehearse, top-notch talent, and, most important, theatergoers. It all undermines the vitality of local theater.

Why be concerned? Because there’s nothing less at stake than three decades’ worth of work. We’ve cultivated a point-of-pride performing-arts scene, which has always been homegrown, independent from the coasts, and distinct in its quirks and regional themes. With so much theater, we ought to be batting a better average.

Sadly, our hard-earned reputation has already taken a hit: Late last year, a prominent local artist told me she hadn’t seen a local show she’d liked in a long, long while. A former board member of a major Twin Cities theater company recently talked of questioning theater’s “relevance” and, after 20-plus years of local theatergoing, has started to wonder about the medium’s ability to connect with audiences. A transplant from New York City, someone who arrived almost two years ago, said she saw “everything” when she first arrived. But she had “given up” after seeing “not one” good show.

“And I was surprised,” she said. “Because the theater here is supposed to be so good.”

Click here to see The Theatergoer’s Dilemma

Christy DeSmith is a Minneapolis-based writer and arts critic.