Mixed Blood Theater Stays True

Jack Reuler’s theater produces some of the most daring work in town and charges nothing for it—challenging the notion of what a theater can be

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Mixed Blood Theatre Artistic Director Jack Reuler

Photo by TJ Turner


You’d be forgiven for thinking that Mixed Blood Theatre has cleaned up its act. After all, a million-dollar renovation of its 1887-built Cedar-Riverside firehouse headquarters last year has seen the lobby, the actor’s dressing rooms, and the offices distinctly spiffed up (not to mention the bathrooms—Halleluiah). But artistic director Jack Reuler—its leader since 1976, when he founded the place on a shoestring right out of college—is still making some of the Twin Cities’ edgiest theater. For example: the first show of the upcoming season, featuring a hard-drinking, smoking, pill-popping family at a public park, a dumpster fire of outrageous scenes and upended expectations about class and race. After 40 years, Mixed Blood’s heart still beats with an unruly pulse.

It’s been a messy mission, and on purpose. Mixed Blood’s niche is a unique one: an artistic social-justice agenda focused on equal parts equality and irreverence, inclusivity and love of an anarchic attitude (politically incorrect, just not in the Trumpian sense). While Penumbra Theatre has mined a living history of the African-American experience, and Mu Performing Arts has been a crucial voice for Asian Americans, the aptly named Mixed Blood has managed to zigzag on the edge of those realms. Its mission also encompassing (but not limited to) disability, LGBT viewpoints, and the autism continuum, it’s never been entirely pinned down to the experience of a single community.

Reuler, in trademark casual knit shirt and baseball cap, assiduously deflects receiving more than what he sees as his share of credit for Mixed Blood’s trailblazing run. But his stamp is such that his theater is as hard to categorize as he is—a white, able-bodied heterosexual man whose career has been staked on a pan-racial, pan-everything utopian vision (and a rare theater professional who also treasures his Vikings season tickets). 

Since 2011, Mixed Blood has taken the concept of audience access and inclusivity to an extreme with a policy called Radical Hospitality, with all tickets to plays given away for free ($20 gets a ticket in advance; otherwise they’re distributed beginning two hours before each curtain on a first-come, first-served basis). It’s become Mixed Blood’s standard operating procedure in the five years since, but when it was introduced some feared that it meant a shift to philanthropic, corporate, and individual income sources that would lead the theater to become more conservative, more anxious about making the bottom line, and being more responsive to its sponsors than its audience.

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Colossal

photo by rich ryan


The opposite has proven true, and now Reuler looks like the gambler at the card table with new way of playing—along with a string of winning hands. There has been buy-in, literally and figuratively, from the funding community, and audiences are showing up for some of the boldest artistic choices in this market in recent years. Sweet spots have included Andrew Hinderaker’s sports drama Colossal, which tackled (sorry) themes of sexual orientation and disability with live choreographed football action; and Taylor Mac’s Hir, a collision of gender identity, class, and the ramifications of an eldest son returning home from combat to a family under social and financial stress.

Some of these hot-off-the-social-griddle plays have been the fruit of Mixed Blood’s membership in the National New Play Network, a coalition of theaters dedicated to shaking things up through fostering original work (it’s the only Minnesota theater in the initiative’s core membership). The stage work has dovetailed with Radical Hospitality to create a new paradigm that also feels in sync with this seismically unsettled historic moment in America. 

The result has been the equivalent of a magic incantation conjuring the elusive target audience that’s almost always tantalizingly out of reach for many theaters: young people. The most recent numbers are fairly startling for theater today: 44 percent of Mixed Blood audiences are under 30, and 39 percent are people of color, audiences other organizations would love to draw. While demographic data across the industry is hit and miss (generally you won’t be asked your age and ethnicity when you’re buying tickets to a big show online, whereas Mixed Blood collects quick paper surveys before performances with a 90-plus-percent response rate), the phenomenon of aging, primarily white audiences is one that regional theaters grapple with on a regular basis.  

Reuler cites his own personal favorite stat: 7 percent of Mixed Blood audience members say that they’ve never before been to a live theater event. (His favorite anecdote is about a woman who was so pissed off by a play last season that she brought five of her friends back to see it.)

In recent years, those numbers have also shown that they were drawing audiences from pretty much everywhere but their own neighborhood. “We don’t want to be an island in a community where we’ve been an anchor,” Reuler says. “So we put a lot of thought into what makes a healthy community—and that’s education, transportation, employment, safety. We’ve started thinking about art as a catalyst and a tool toward those things rather than a product all in itself.”

“44 percent of Mixed Blood audiences are under 30; 39 percent are people of color.”

What that means is shifting priorities away from drawing the diverse population of Cedar-Riverside (a blend of college students and one of the largest Somali populations in the country) into the door for plays and instead searching for other means of constructive engagement. Recent community initiatives draw on theater training and techniques: bringing young Somali men and Minneapolis cops into a role-swapping exercise; a spoken-word event in which teachers shared their perspectives with neighborhood students; and scripted workshops that help healthcare practitioners and their patients communicate better.

Mixed Blood is intentionally a hybrid organization; still, its primary function is as a playhouse, with a robust and ambitious season opening this month that includes an adventure through Southern California’s Orange County told from the perspective of a person on the autism spectrum, a musical in Spanish based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and a site-specific audience adventure that takes place in the bowels of St. Paul’s CHS field.

In spite of the theater’s hard work and strategic planning, it was dealt a major blow this spring that illustrates the fragility of arts nonprofits to a stroke of bad luck. While Minnesota still mourned Prince’s April 21st death, Mixed Blood continued to prepare for its 40th-anniversary gala fundraiser scheduled for May 14 at his Paisley Park complex in Chanhassen. Shortly after Prince passed away, his family and staff offered assurances that the fundraiser would continue as planned. The Bremer Trust, however—which has been assigned to administrate his estate in lieu of a will—stepped in on May 6 and canceled all planned events, leaving Mixed Blood reeling. The theater had sold 1,000 tickets to the gala, which was an essential component of its 2016 fundraising; it refunded more than $100,000 in ticket revenue for the event, as well as thousands of dollars in auction items. Any prospects of recouping those losses are currently held up in legal proceedings.

Reuler cites 39 consecutive years of balanced budgets as a financial calling card for the theater. “For the first time in a long time, we have a deficit,” he says. “It isn’t debilitating. It won’t keep Mixed Blood from operating into the future, but it forces us to rethink a number of things in terms of staff and programming.”

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Barbecue

Photo by Rich Ryan


Reuler has been a fixture on the Minnesota culture scene for so long that it’s difficult to imagine him doing anything else (although his college degree is in zoology, and he once received grant funding to travel to Central America to study three-toed sloths). Yet Mixed Blood is part of a generation of Minnesota theaters run for decades by founders/artistic directors that, in the case of the Jungle, Penumbra, and even the Guthrie, are passing the baton to younger leaders. Does Reuler feel part of that pack?

“I feel myself being felt that way,” Reuler says, adding that his current contract runs through 2020. “I feel like I’m at the top of my game, though there will be a time when the best thing will not be to have an older white guy in the leadership position.”

Reuler envisions the theater moving on from him organically, eventually, and the new and improved look at the firehouse can feel like that of a house being put in order a few years before it goes on the market. Mixed Blood’s mission of creating a place “where humanity collides and ends up in a better place,” as Reuler describes it, will presumably evolve. If anything, the boldness of the theater’s previous five years sets a high mark for what comes next. Ever the idealist, Reuler allows himself to speculate on a time when social justice will finally be achieved, and Mixed Blood will seem quaint and antiquated.

“If we realize the mission and shut down, that would be nice,” he says, with a flash of wistful humor. “But I think this might go on a little bit more.” 


Mixed Blood 2016-17

A Quick Guide to the Current Season

Barbecue
9/30-10/16

Mixed Blood describes this comedy as “the hybrid child of Looney Tunes and Quentin Tarantino.” A drinky, druggy, potty-mouthed clan descends on a public park for an intervention dressed up as a barbecue.

Orange
11/11-12/4

This new play by Mixed Blood playwright-in-residence Aditi Kapil sees a mother and daughter travel from India to Southern California for a wedding; the audience views the entire play through the lens of autism.

Córazon Eterno (Always in My Heart)
2/3-3/4/2017

This play with songs, performed in Spanish with English supertitles, adapts Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epic love story spanning decades in a Latin American city at the turn of the previous century.

Safe at Home
3/7-12/2017

Over the course of 90 minutes, audiences take in a nine-scene thriller about immigration, race, and celebrity that takes place in various locations in the bowels of the St. Paul Saints’ CHS field.

TBA
4/7-30/2017

The last show of Mixed Blood’s season is up in the air pending negotiations.

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