Fake News: The Twin Cities Theater Scene’s Claim to Fame

In the fight for second-most theater seats per capita (after NYC), everyone’s bluffing, and no one’s impressed

An illustration combining Minneapolis and St. Paul's theater districts.

illustration by Kevin Cannon

It was a dubious statistic to begin with. For years, media outlets and civic boosters, including the Star Tribune, the Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Where Twin Cities, have claimed that our metro area boasts the country’s second largest number of theater seats per capita—behind, of course, New York City. It’s always rung a bit hollow, like vaunting an award for good attendance. We have the seats, but are there butts in those seats? And if there are, are they being treated to quality theater?

The biggest blow to this point of pride—second-most theater seats per person—is that it has already been disproved. Writing about the scene for TwinCities Business in 2008, arts journalist Camille LeFevre found other ways to measure the metro’s performing-arts boom: 30 percent more performing artists working locally than nationally, for example—demonstrating our state’s plentiful theater funding and employment opportunities. But theater seats? LeFevre looked and found nothing. No one, it appeared, could corroborate a fact we’ve brandished for decades.

To do so would navigate the murky world of census taking. First, you would need to define geography. (Should the Twin Cities, for instance, count Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, or is that too far west?) You would decide whether to include venues used primarily for dance, radio plays, or stand-up comedy. You would then call every applicable theater—because, one thing about seats: They don’t pay taxes. So there’s no reason for the government to count them. And after all that, there’s the asterisk inherent to every per-capita calculation: A town of 700 with one or two theaters could technically have more seats per person than New York.

Simplifying things by expanding the geography-of-interest to the entire state would water down your per-capita figure. Local arts writer Jay Gabler, in a 2014 article for pop-culture blog The Tangential, noted that the National Endowment for the Arts ranked the state of Minnesota 10th by number of nonprofit theater companies per capita in 2005, behind smaller communities in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Maine. New York state placed third, after Vermont and Alaska.

Some theater companies don’t have their own venues, or seats. But they should count, too, right? And what if one city has a couple many-seated theaters while another has more venues with fewer seats overall? “Seats per capita” sounds more and more arbitrary. Since it’s practically unprovable, though, that hasn’t stopped other cities from claiming the same thing. On its website, Houston says only New York City has more theater seats “concentrated in one geographic area.” A visitors’ guide to Detroit calls the city the “second biggest theater district,” if you’re counting places to sit.

Of course, we still flaunt the apocryphal accolade, too. “It will not die,” Gabler says, even after his, LeFevre’s, and other journalists’ articles have all but debunked it. Civic boosters, including the University of Minnesota, still advertise us as proudly second on their websites. Tour guides still use it. “And it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me every time,” Gabler moans.

Where did this faux-stat come from, anyway?

Kristen Montag, a PR manager for tourism bureau Meet Minneapolis, says she started digging around for a source nearly 10 years ago. Anything published she found cited the Star Tribune. Meanwhile, a 2011 Star Tribune article repeating the stat cites Meet Minneapolis. Montag couldn’t get to the bottom of it, and so forswore it as a selling point. But she can’t say everyone else at Meet Minneapolis has followed suit. (In fact, when this article went to press, the stat was still touted on the Meet Minneapolis website.)

In his article, Gabler points to a now-offline internet forum for local theater lovers known as Callboard. It worked the way the Twin Cities Theater People Facebook group does: as a place to talk about anything from ticket prices to scene pride. There, Gabler recalls finding a thread tracing the stat to decades-old studies—from which someone could have hazarded “seats” out of “tickets sold.”

Retired theater critic Graydon Royce wonders if fact became factoid after someone misread a 2001 Star Tribune article he wrote quantifying the theater scene. For each of the country’s biggest metro areas, he had reached out to some of its clearinghouse organizations, which serve as one-stop shops for regional theaters’ ticketing transactions, and tabulated their sales. The Twin Cities fared well: more tickets sold per capita in 2000 than Seattle and Chicago. Someone in marketing could have fudged Royce’s “tickets sold” into “number of seats” to create an evergreen stat good for promoting the Cities year after year.

Fudging aside, neither tickets sold nor number of seats speaks to actual quality. For that, Royce suggests looking at how many locally adapted shows we export. (Places such as Chicago, Seattle, and San Diego have the Twin Cities beat, he says.)

There are other ways to measure theater-geek prestige, of course: our abundance of mid-size theaters; Penumbra’s standing as one of only three African American theater companies in the country with a full season of programming; the Children’s Theater Company’s nationally acclaimed productions in the kids’ market. And, by one verifiable quantifier, we actually are second. The U.S. Census Bureau puts the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro behind only the New York-Newark-Jersey City area in number of theater companies per capita. (Before you disseminate this at dinner parties, remember: companies, not seats, and per capita, not total.) This means that, yes, if drama really matters to you, the Twin Cities can stand proud in that apparently coveted spot: one behind NYC.