Twin Cities burst with stage energy

I believe there is a renaissance going on right now in Minneapolis," says Steve Richardson, producing director of one of the leading theater companies here. Many other theater artists and critics agree, seeing a new energetic burst in the performing arts.

One reason: "There is a great spirit of collaboration" between arts organizations, Mr. Richardson says.

He mentions a joint project by his company, Thtre de la Jeune Lune; the Guthrie, the major regional theater company here; and the Walker Art Center as an example. His company is also collaborating with The Children's Theatre Company to produce "Gulliver's Travels."

This cross-fertilization pays off in dynamic new works. "There is a whole new audience springing up," he says. "Our theory is: The more people going to the theater, the better."

Another reason for the lively theater scene in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul: When artists can't find work in resident companies, they start new ones. One such example is the Hidden Theatre Company, which manages to provide modest incomes for its actors and crew.

Of course, Twin Cities theater companies still have to deliver good productions to survive. And they're doing that. Take the Jungle Theater's production of "Lobster Alice," by Minneapolis playwright Kira Oblensky. So fresh, bright, and irresistible is this play, based on Salvador Dali's six-week stint in Hollywood, that it earned a spot at Playwrights' Horizons, a theater company in New York, early next year.

"Our audience is so diverse," says Bain Behlke, artistic director of the Jungle Theatre. "Of course, Minneapolis has an unusual theater history. In the 1960s, the Guthrie came in, heralding an unprecedented expansion in the arts. There were four theaters in Minneapolis before 1962, and by 1972, there were more than 100. (That number is unchanged today.)

"So there were and are so many styles of theater going on, from classical to modern to deconstructionist efforts of contemporary theater. This audience is really very sophisticated."

The Guthrie is dedicated to the classics. But with Joe Dowling, appointed artistic director in 1995, there is an emphasis on new play development, too. The American premire of the operetta "Martin Guerre" is an exciting, polished production right now (see " 'Martin Guerre' travels to US theaters," Oct. 8).

Asked about the viability of the theater, he says, "They talk about the theater as the fabulous invalid - as if it is always 'dying' - but across the country attendance has doubled."

Dowling points out that pundits today are referring to William Shakespeare as "the man of the millennium." The need for live theater will go on, he says, because it represents a kind of communion between the performers and the audience.

The Guthrie is in no danger of irrelevance: The people of the Twin Cities revere it. Dowling's plans are expansive - he expects to build a three-theater complex so the Guthrie will be able to return to a three-play repertory style without the expense of striking sets between shows.

The Guthrie's counterpart is The Children's Theatre Company (CTC) - a progressive, inventive, and enchanting place where the great works of children's literature, as well as new plays by some of America's best playwrights, delightfully come to life.

Its current production, "A Village Fable," by James Still, is based on a novel by John Gardner. It aims at older children, dealing with issues of racism, intolerance, and other forms of prejudice with great wit and skill. But the heartfelt story is no simple moral tale. It isn't condescending to children, nor are parents left bored.

The CTC's charming "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse," based on the books by Kevin Henkes and adapted by Minneapolis playwright Kevin Kling, is playing to packed houses of enraptured children and parents. A 14-year-old actress, Britta Ollman, captures the quirky humor of Lilly with incredible finesse.

CTC artistic director Peter Brosius says, "We set a standard of performance - always making something beautiful. Children think about the important issues - life, God, justice. I've never met young people who weren't complex."

The company has a core group of adult actors, and children are cast from the community as needed. CTC also runs a theater academy for children, exposing them to the technical side of the theater as well as acting.

CTC may be one of the primary reasons the theater continues to thrive in Minneapolis. Children taste the fruits of the theater early, and it makes them hungry for more as adults.

Another remarkable part of the Twin Cities theater scene is its diversity. Penumbra Theatre Company is dedicated to the great works of African-American writers and to creating an "American mythology that includes African-Americans and other people of color in every thread of the fabric of our society," according to its artistic director, Lou Bellamy.

Penumbra's classy production of "Blues for an Alabama Sky," by Pearl Cleage, though seen only in rehearsal, is lively, thoughtful, and beautifully performed by its all-professional cast. Many of August Wilson's plays have premired here, and Penumbra will produce Rita Dove's "The Darker Face of the Earth" in collaboration with the Guthrie this season.

Theatre Mu springs from a union of Asian and American cultures that melds ancient forms (such as taiko drumming and ancient music and dance forms) with contemporary and traditional stories.

Even in rehearsal of a new play by artistic director Rick Shiome, "The Tale of the Dancing Crane," the grace and professionalism of the performers was evident, while the play itself, layered with traditional and contemporary metaphor, was captivating.

Founded in France, Thtre de la Jeune Lune represents a different kind of diversity. Among its founding members, two are Americans. All are products of the famous theater school cole Jacques Lecoq. The theater, resettled in Minneapolis, has established a national and international reputation (its "Three Musketeers" is currently playing in Philadelphia to rave reviews).

In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre brings cultural and ecological issues to young and grown alike, using puppets of all styles. The productions revolve around movement, rather than text.

Local philanthropists and political figures understand the importance of the arts - and its economic health - to the character of the Twin Cities.

The spirit of cooperation among the various arts organizations stokes the creative fires. The Walker Arts Center, for example, attracts international theater companies and performing artists, who sometimes give master classes.

All these theater companies, large and small, professional equity houses and nonequity, are not-for-profit concerns.

"One of the reasons not-for-profit theaters exist is to safeguard our heritage and offer it to the people," says Jungle Theater's Behlke. "And also to explore new work that commercial theater eschews."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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