As Theater Latte Da artistic director Peter Rothstein puts it, theater is the antithesis of social distancing. “The very essence is bringing a diverse group of humans in a room together to hear a story other than their own.” Aside from the idealism, the underlying economic hardships that the pandemic has brought to theaters large and small cannot be ignored. That’s why Latte Da’s announcement of Next Up, an intensive laboratory for eight new works, is both exciting and bittersweet.
Instead of finalizing the 2021-2022 season, this year Rothstein presented the Latte Da board with a forecast that didn’t include any ticket sales. Only contributions from individual donors, foundations, and government programs counted as revenue, which amounts to approximately $1 million, a third of the Latte Da’s normal operating budget. Although the budget is lean (and staff has already been cut), Rothstein can now securely support as many people as possible by doubling down on the one thing artists can do without restraint—write.
“We’re all glued to the news, and rightly so,” Rothstein says, “but I also want creative voices to enter into this dialogue because a huge shift is happening in how we are as human beings and how we relate to the planet right now. I want the theater to be alive to that, and when we do come back, I think this moment will reshape the audiences and reshape the stories we tell as well.”
Next Up is designed to keep Latte Da’s spirit alive, well, and growing despite the uncertain future that Latte Da faces. Built on the theater’s value of supporting new works, it’s the latest iteration of a branded commitment that began with the first Next Festival in 2013; 2015’s announcement of Next 20/20, which promised to produce 20 new works within a five year period (achieved in four years); and this year’s $20,000 Next Generation Commission.
The chosen projects are all at different stages of development. Immortal Longings by four-time Tony-winner Terrence McNally is one of the most progressed shows, debuting under Rothstein’s direction in Texas in 2019. The story is based on the true relationship between Sergei Diaghilev, the creator of the Ballets Russes, and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. McNally knew he wanted to shape the story more, but in late March, he passed away due to complications from the coronavirus. Rothstein has received permission to finish developing the play off McNally’s notes with the help of Twin Cities-based choreographer Kelli Foster Warder (Latte Da’s Bernarda Alba, Chicago, Once, and more).
A piece on Frida Kahlo by Joserra Zuniga of Mexico City and Twin Cities designer Kate Sutton-Johnson marks Latte Da’s first international commission, but local theater lovers will recognize names like Sally Wingert, Steven Epp, Bradley Greenwald among the lineup. Harrison David Rivers (Five Points, This Bitter Earth, To Let Go and Fall) is also a part of Next Up, weaving together a story around the 1927 premiere of Showboat and the Great Mississippi Flood.
When it’s safe (or, if need be, virtually), the Latte Da team will work with each group of artists, bringing in choreographers, actors, musicians, dramaturgs, and more to experiment see how to bring each piece to life. Rothstein hopes some of the writers will even be able to be in residence. Throughout the process, the Latte Da team will be working to connect the community with what’s happening, bringing behind-the-scenes insights and previews as well as the historical context that so many of the stories are steeped in.
“We’re calling Next Up the next chapter—no one knows the end, right? Some chapters are long and some chapters are short,” Rothstein says. As theaters around the Twin Cities have tackled their own twists and turns, slashing productions and staff, dealing with leadership transitions and on-the-fly programming, we can only cross our fingers this chapter ends on a hopeful, if not happy, note.
On May 18 at 7 p.m., catch up with Rothstein, associate artistic director Elissa Adams, and some of the Next Up artists as they virtually launch the program on Facebook and YouTube Live.