The Twin Cities
How Are Theater Artists Living in the Livable Twin Cities?
Our City Series on HowlRound continues. This entire week we will be featuring posts and podcasts that highlight the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul theater scene.
The Twin Cities’ theater scene is a confounding community to be a part of.
On the one hand, there are many unbelievably positive things about living as an artist in Minneapolis and St. Paul. You can buy a house, have kids, and not lose your mind hustling to make it all work—it’s still a hustle, of course, but maybe just a wee bit easier? Or if you’re an artist without a house, or kid, or both, you can string together a few part-time jobs, a number of paying gigs, and you have enough to live on and still have the time to write, act, or direct.
The Twin Cities are, as everyone says, very “livable” cities.
There’s a lot of money for artists and their work (a lot more compared to other cities)—the Jerome Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Minnesota Regional Arts Council, and the Minnesota State Arts Board have money to give. The audiences are great—they’re smart, they love the arts, and want to engage with artists and their work, and for the most part, they’re adventurous and open to experiencing new things.
So, you might be forgiven for thinking that a “livable” city with a large philanthropic community, which has a smart and occasionally adventurous audience, would also have a thriving scene for new theatrical work. What I mean by “new,” in this context, is a project where the major collaborators create the piece, or play, together in a room. I don’t mean exclusively “world premieres,” but if it’s a play that was done in New York a few years back and the playwright will not be in attendance, to me, that’s not “new.” To be fair, there is new work that happens here, but considering the support available, the large community of artists, and the cheap standard of living, there should be a hell of a lot more.
Since relocating to the Twin Cities I’ve been blessed in that I’ve only rarely had to do that dreadful thing all artists loathe—work a full-time, forty hour a week day job. Instead, I’ve been able to teach in my field (a lot) and get a number of small checks from a number of different projects, but many of those projects are not “playwriting” gigs. They are often gigs that require me to be a collaborator—a writer, actor, co-creator, or devisor. I still identify myself primarily as a playwright, but I’ve become a lot more than just that to make it work.
I’m not the only one. There are a lot of hybrid artists in the Twin Cities—directors who act, actors who direct, playwrights who act, directors who design, designers who direct the shows they design, etc. A big part of the reason there are so many hybrid artists is because it is very difficult to stay local and create local and be a “Minnesota artist” and only do a single thing.
Our cities have a very strong scene for collaboratively created work produced by ensembles. Many of the original members of Jeune Lune and the actors who worked with that company —Dominique Serrand, Steven Epp, Nathan Keepers, and Christina Baldwin—have formed The Moving Company. They do highly physical and visual work and are one of the more intriguing and exciting new companies here in the Cities. There are many other great companies creating ensemble-generated work. I always want to see what Jon Ferguson Theater (now called Theater Forever), Four Humors Theater, Open Eye Figure Theater, Live Action Set, Sandbox Theatre, Theatre Novi Most, and Savage Umbrella are up to.
There’s also a thriving dance scene here, which often results in hybrid collaborations between theater artists and dancers and choreographers.
But what about new plays, works written by a single author and directed by a single director? Here is where the picture of the Twin Cities scene for new work actually does begin to look, um, quite Minnesotan—by that I don’t mean, “nice,” but instead not unlike our winters—cold and desolate.
There really isn’t more than one company (The Workhaus Collective) dedicated solely to producing entirely new plays (full disclosure: I am a member of that company). We are a band of playwrights who formed in 2005, based on the 13P model, solely because of the lack of new plays being produced here. [Dominic Orlando wrote about being a member of The Workhaus Collective for HowlRound here.]
Why is it that if you are a playwright you have very few (hardly any) places to submit your work? There are so many playwrights that live here in the Twin Cities, partially due to the Playwrights’ Center, which gives an enormous amount of money to playwrights every year, many of whom relocate here for fellowships funded by the Jerome Foundation. Some stick around for more grant money and for the home base the Playwrights’ Center provides through workshops and administrative support. But those who stay, either have to self-produce, or do what many of us have done, which is to create a collective of playwrights like the Workhaus Collective.
There are other companies that do new plays (at most, a premiere or two a year)—Pillsbury House and Mixed Blood come to mind, both of which have great taste and often do very good productions—but both have very specific aesthetics and missions, so what do you do if you don’t fit into those missions? For instance, what if you are a writer who writes very polished, realistic plays with straight-ahead plot turns and three-dimensional characters? Say, if you are a playwright whose work might get done at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City, where would your plays get done here in the Twin Cities? The answer is nowhere, which is bizarre that even a conventional, well written, not “risky” play doesn’t have a chance.
Part of the problem is that there is a serious lack of freelance directors in the Twin Cities. The best and most prominent directors are often the artistic directors of their own companies and there’s hardly anyone else. A freelance director cannot make a living in the Twin Cities because there aren’t enough theaters to sustain them. In other cities, it seems, you can direct at a regional theater, get other paychecks from a number of small companies and maybe even draw a salary as a resident artist, or artistic associate.
But what about new plays, works written by a single author and directed by a single director? Here is where the picture of the Twin Cities scene for new work actually does begin to look, um, quite Minnesotan—by that I don’t mean, “nice,” but instead not unlike our winters—cold and desolate.
Most directors simply cannot do that here and so of course new work suffers because one of the main proponents of new plays, the directors who read, get excited by, and envision productions of new plays, don’t exist. Playwrights aren’t usually the ones who get into a room to recommend their own work (and they aren’t always their best advocate). It’s a director who pitches a play to an artistic director. It’s a director who often brings a new play to the point of a production.
But there aren’t enough directors because there aren’t enough theater companies for them to work at and that’s the bottom line. Without a rising population of small companies here that produce new plays and create new work, there won’t be a sustainable number of directors, and thus, there won’t be many new plays getting done.
It wasn’t always like this. Less than ten years ago, there were companies like Hidden Theatre, Eye of the Storm, Emigrant Theater, and 3-Legged Race all doing new plays. All of those companies have since folded. Why did they all fold? And also, why aren’t there other companies stepping up to fill the gap?
One of the most obvious barriers to this is that our theater scene is lopsided towards two very big institutions—the Guthrie and the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
The Guthrie does the occasional new adaptation of a novel like Master Butcher’s Singing Club, but they rarely put their resources behind a world premiere. (Tony Kushner was a notable exception.) But when the Guthrie built its new building it included a studio space specifically for new work and more adventurous programming. The space is underused. The Guthrie does its presentation series, providing their studio space to many local companies, but the Guthrie rarely actually produces anything of their own in that space.
In the last several years, I believe they have produced three or four plays in their studio space that were not presentations. So, the largest institution here rarely employs (actually pays) a living, local playwright, and they seem to rarely hire an emerging local director, which is understandable—you’re not going to give a main stage, high profile gig to an up and coming director, are you? But if you did new plays in your studio space, wouldn’t that be a perfect place to cultivate the next generation of directors?
Frankly, the Guthrie needs to give more back to its community by cultivating a space where artists can do work. Sure, actors do well at the Guthrie, designers too, but local directors and playwrights don’t. The Guthrie built this huge, beautiful new building on the river that must have taken a lot of resources from the funding sources in our community. Now that it has all of those resources, it needs to do more to create a welcoming space for Twin Cities’ artists.
Then there’s the Minnesota Fringe Festival. A lot of great new work gets created there each year, but it has its drawbacks. Because of the short amount of tech time, and the limited load-in, Fringe shows tend to have no sets, don’t have much in the way of design, or attention to detail when it comes to production values. They have to clock in at under an hour, which lends itself to sketch, or short humorous works, and only occasionally do you see a truly well crafted play. But still, the Fringe produces the handful of shows that have the most buzz and the biggest audiences each and every year.
It’s a trade-off. As a theater community, we put a lot of our resources and talent into the Fringe and a lot of our annual audience goes there to see what’s new, but that means that many of those artists depend on the Fringe instead of starting their own companies. They aren’t creating full seasons, or doing shows longer than an hour, and they aren’t concerned with theatrical design, and so the work isn’t rigorous. To be fair, there are Fringe shows every year that are simply, beautifully and elegantly crafted, and work perfectly within the Fringe’s constraints. But not every show, every play, and every idea is right for the Fringe Festival. So then where do these plays, shows, and ideas get done?
They should be getting done at the small theater companies started by bands of young artists who have bonded together to produce their own vision of what theater should be. And that vision needs to include new plays. Why? Because what is new brings the whole field of theater forward, and if the Twin Cities is creating what is new, we are a part of that national conversation, but if we cling to what is old and tested, we are part of the status quo. And isn’t it just a lot more exciting to do something new? Creating and producing new work is infectious and it infuses a theater scene with an excitement that is often lacking here.
Artists in the Twin Cities need to take more risks and put up new plays. Artists here should take initiative, start their own companies, make new work, self-produce their own plays, cultivate freelance directors and relationships between directors, playwrights, and designers. We desperately need more theater companies who are willing to be the actual fringe to the Fringe Festival and the Guthrie.
How does this get accomplished?
One idea is that funding organizations like the Jerome and the McKnight create a new category for start-up companies that create new work and new plays. Currently, you have to be quite well along (as a theater company) to get money from the Jerome or McKnight. It seems this money goes to the same companies that have been doing the same programs for many years. Those programs are more than valid, but what about a funding category for companies still in their first five years that create new work? Maybe the money doesn’t stay forever, it just helps good companies and artists get their companies off the ground.
And then, those of you considering starting a theater company in the Twin Cities, do it. Now is the time. There are only a handful of awesome small companies right now—it’s a gap that needs to be filled. There’s a wide open market for brand new work, so why not step in and do something?
Perhaps when all of these new theater companies get started, the directors will come. The next generation of artistic directors and freelance directors will come up out of the new, small theater scene.
But how could this ever happen if all of the larger institutions don’t create a space for these artists to work? The mid-size and larger theaters here have to create a path for the next generation of playwrights, directors, designers, and theater artists. In a healthy theater ecology, there has to be a conversation happening between the small companies and the big institutions. If any director or playwright is going to make a go at being a freelance working artist in our Cities the bigger institutions have to (even occasionally) hire and pay them.
Perhaps we need an organization (or a group of like-minded theater artists) to lead a public discussion about how to create this healthier ecology and then invite the bigger institutions into the conversation? Would the bigger institutions like the Guthrie, the Jungle, and Mixed Blood be willing to mentor the next generation of theater companies through a mentoring program?
But if the big institutions don’t want to be a part of the conversation, maybe the small companies need to bond together and create their own “big institution.” Joanna Harmon (Executive Director of Minneapolis’ Live Action Set) recently wrote an article about artist collectives bonding together to form a larger umbrella institution.
Maybe an idea like this could bring new work and new plays forward? If the smaller companies bond together, they might be able to demand a seat at the table from the large institutions.
Like I said, the Twin Cities’ are very “livable” cities.
But that’s only in one sense of the word. It’s still very difficult for artists dedicated to new work to make ends meet and to actually live.
The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here
A plug for anyone serious about self producing...we are taking offers on the Old Gem Theater, a charming 200 seat Art Deco theater in New Richmond, WI...just 60 minutes from Minneapolis. Www.oldgemtheater.com
Thanks for this article. My thoughts: Ditto to everything John Heimbuch pointed out about the Fringe Festival. I don't believe it's the Fringe Festival's place to produce new work. They provide a venues for companies, large and small, to showcase their work at an affordable rate to potentially more diverse audiences. Ditto to Miriam's comment as well. The sense I get from some playwrights (and I literally mean some, and not some passive-aggressive way of saying "Cory") is that it's not just enough to get produced but one must be validated by a larger company like, say, the Guthrie. From the world-view I exist in, I think the Twin Cities is incredibly supportive of new work. Otherwise, I wouldn't have a career. Here's a list of companies who commissed me to write new plays or helped to develop ones that were in-progress: Mu Performing Arts (commissioned and world-premiered), Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (commissioned, produced, toured, Illusion Theater Lights Up Program (develop), Playwright Center Many Voices Program (develop). There's also the Naked Stages Program (funded through Jerome, now at Pillsbury House Theater). It's a performance art program but still, they provide resources to create original new work and pay the artists involved, including the director. Pangea World Theater also often develops new work, Intermedia Arts will collaborate with artists to showcase new work via their Catalyst Series. Sure, people can say, "Well, May, those companies have specific mission statements that I might not fit." And my answer is, "Duh." Just as Playwright A might not be able to get a commission at, say, Theater Mu, I wouldn't be able to get a commission at Park Square Theater or The Walker. It's a two-way street. That said, I'd love to be in more conversations about this with theater makers about some of the questions Cory raised regarding starting up smaller theater companies, getting mentorship from larger ones, and so forth. I do believe there are quite a few small companies that exist. Part of the conversation might be how to build their capacity so they can actually look at work by playwrights not currently connected with their own networks.
I need to print this out and read it with great care - the different nuances and perspectives on working as an artist in the Twin Cities has me nodding my head - even at conflicting views. I am a playwright who specializes in youth theatre and more often than not - plays utilizing teen performers. Offers to do my work in the Twin Cities (and now we are talking smaller community theatres) almost always come with the agreement that I direct it - which I no longer wish to do (the hybrid thing had me wearing too many hats and not focusing on the play). The overwhelming majority of my work is produced outside of the Twin Cities. Sometimes I think it is just harder to get work in your hometown! After 20 years of writing - I have yet to emerge here. Or I am the slowest emerging artist known to mankind. I see excellent work being done in youth theatre - but as it happens (said with no bitterness) I don't see an open submission policy for the youth theatres - I have better developed relationships elsewhere. I am thinking that if moved to Elsewhere, who knows? Maybe I would get produced in the Cities! I am bringing a show to the Fringe for the first time - hoping to engage with other artists. I'm not a producer and am frankly terrified of this undertaking but I am hoping it is a way to put my new work on the line and and mix-it-up. I have mourned the loss of quite a few companies over the years and programs that featured new plays. This is a discussion that is going on nationally. Before a theatre takes a chance on a new play - they must be in a position to fill seats. Arts in the schools seems to take a back place to everything else. So exposure is more limited than ever, Community theatre tickets are now $20 and up, professional theatre is cost-prohibitive for me - so people will go see a movie. I wish I knew ... could answer ... could state that if "A". happened in the Twin Cities - then "B" would follow. I do know I would love to rent a hall and have this conversation with all of you face-to-face. Maybe then "A" could be stated and it would be possible to work in the direction of "B."
I love this comment from Aaron! Yes I completely agree...a community grows from its ability to have 'on-going' dialogue...to hash it out, get heated, cool down, and hopefully pull out some useful gems. Wow. Its been a long time since I got so invested in a conversation like this. Hats off to Cory! Clearly we love this city, and she has undoubtedly been good to us. Still we must keep figuring out what it means to grow and sustain the art as the paradigm shifts (whatever our definition of livability is) because the next generation will inherit what we leave behind / and hopefully its not the same conversation. Ah. Just found another reason to love her. She listens.
As a native Minneapolitan, living in NY (and other spots, depending) since 1987, it's really great to read this thread. I'm glad Cory kicked it off the way he did, and glad people chimed in so vibrantly. A few things I want to reflect from reading through these posts:
1. Cory's initial article is important because it speaks to something I think is current in many cities - there is a gap between fringe-level productions and LORT-level productions. Meaning, it's entirely possible to get a few pieces made by the seat of your pants, for very little money a ton of goodwill, and a donated sewing machine. And if you are lucky enough to be a playwright of national scope produced somewhere like the the Guthrie or Mixed Blood, then most likely you will have most of the resources you need. But where do playwrights and other makers go for the really important mid-level work? How can a city support sterling, top-notch, $200,000 productions of highly formalist plays that move the form forward but never recoup on ticket sales? Because, while small scale productions are awesome, they are also limiting once you've made a few of them. At a certain point you need to be able to really spend a year in the room with people, making the work; you need designers and sets and video. And that costs money. One of the dangers of the lack of a middle-ground for local artists is that too many of us get used to shoestrings and too many audiences get used to being disappointed by a lack of clarity or what appears to be deficient rigor. So I think Cory's questions are well-pointed.
2. It's a lot easier to fund buildings than people. This is nowhere more true than the Twin Cities. I'd love to see fewer endowed seats and more endowed actors or playwrights. Can you imagine if the Guthrie had, say, cut out a couple million dollars' worth of snack bars and turreted overlooks, and maybe put that money into a regular, yearly slot for a local playwright to have a full production in their studio space? Can you imagine if they went to their donors and said, "no you won't get your name on this wall, you'll get your name all over this community?"
3. The conversations that are starting here, and the impulses to meet in person and discuss the work, the processes, the finances - this is the most promising thing that could come out of this article. One of the main reasons I still choose to live in NY, despite its lack of 'livability' (although we do okay - for me livability is not needing to own a house, drive a car or spend money on daycare, since there is always a playgroup or soccer match forming in the park) is that the conversation about theater is ongoing, vibrant and contributes every day to my growth as an artist. I find that meeting the people whose work I admire, and even whose work I dislike, and hashing it out together, makes me a better artist. If you guys can do that, you'll be growing the community even more righteously than you already have.
Thanks everyone for this terrific conversation, as a lover of the Twin Cities theater scene I'm reminded of why I fell in love as I follow these exchanges--the Twin Cities is a vibrant community of intelligent and talented theater artists. Also, thanks Alan for jumping in with an important contribution, a real effort to track the truth of the story about local playwrights. It might be interesting to collect that data. Sometimes we have a story we tell ourselves about a community--like "the Twin Cities doesn't produce enough local playwrights." That's a story I would have told from my experience there. But it might be more nuanced, it might be that mostly small theaters are doing it so it's about sustainability locally, or that we aren't tracking all the work that's actually being done. From our end at HowlRound, we would be interested in finding a way to support this information gathering, so if there's a way Alan that we can collaborate in to support the efforts of Minnesota Playlist in covering more of this story or aggregating data from your site, please let us know. The Twin Cities has modeled perfectly what we had hoped would come from the City Series, a lively and honest conversation that generates ways to create the best possible theater community for living artists. Thanks to all of you!
Every Monday for the last couple months, MInnesotaPlaylist.com has been posting a round-up of mostly Minnesotan theater news. As a result of this fascinating thread, we're going to add a quick spotlight in each week in Monday article on where in Minnesota local playwrights are being done. Seemed, from my reading of this thread that, in part, people were less aware of all the opportunities than they wanted to be. (That's not all I got from this thread but it's something productive we can do.) Hopefully, this additional exposure helps. So remember, when you post your shows to the calendar listing on the site, to emphasize if the play was created locally (by playwright or ensemble, we'll highlight all comers).
FOR people outside the Twin Cities, MInnesotaPlaylist.com is an online trade publication with most of the TC theater's audition and job listings as well as a talent database, performance calendar (with aggregated critic reviews, etc.), and occasional magazine. Because it was founded and run by working artists and arts administrators, however, we simply don't have time to cover the new work scene in the kind of depth it deserves. Thankfully, there are other websites like this one that attack the conversation in this provocative way. STILL, hopefully, adding this new feature to our article section helps people see the wealth, or lack, of local playwrighting productions.
Christine, long ago, about 20 years ago, there was a young playwrights program that ran through the PWC, a summer camp, held at St. Thomas. Professional playwrights worked with teens to develop their plays. And we went on field trips to see local theater. I interned on it. A few years ago, I talked in the Waring Jones to a PWC staff member about bringing it back. She said it wasn't a top priority for their funding at the time. I wish newer people to our community could know more about the history here.
Hi Elissa, Thanks for engaging in this discussion. To echo what Christina has already said - I think it's definitely a balance of local and non-local. From my perspective, I want to know what other playwrights/theatre makers are doing in this country and the rest of the world. Christina references the Out There Series and this year I was really inspired by the design, storytelling and the entire concept of "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal" by Mariano Pensotti. I couldn't have seen that if the Walker wasn't committed to bringing in works from all over the world. That said, wouldn't it be nice to have more theatre artists from the Twin Cities in the Out There series? That right there is the sort of raising of the level of profile and production values for Twin Cities writers that I'm talking about. Years ago, I remember seeing Lisa D'Amour's Nita and Zita in the Out There Series. I would love to see more of that. You mentioned Pillsbury House - I am really inspired by their current season. I know with certainty that 2/3 of the writers they are producing this season, the playwright will be here in residence in the Cities. Also, those two writers, Tracey Scott Wilson and Daniel Alexander Jones have connections to the TC and have lived here in the past. But I don't think that should be a pre-requisite for working here. I do think that there is a huge difference (and a much larger commitment to new plays) when the play is either a world premiere, or a 2nd or 3rd run where the playwright is brought to the Twin Cities to collaborate with artists here. It keeps the TC engaged in the national conversation of playwriting and just makes our new play ecology here more interesting/exciting/current/relevant. To respond quickly to what Jeremy, Aditi, and Lisa have already said -- I think any live, face-to-face discussions that can come out of this thread would be fantastic and I look forward to being involved. I hope we can start a playwright/director’s forum, get those conversations going. I think Aditi is right that the thing that sticks out the most is the issue of communication. Let’s find a way to connect small companies, artistic directors, and directors to playwrights and theatre makers and let’s get a rising population of producers for new plays who are actually in conversation. Also, it might be worth considering (PWC or MN Theater Alliance?) a “New Play Forum.” One evening, everyone who is interested in this thread, should we come together and talk about these issues no matter what our discipline, or how we label ourselves? This seems like an issue/conversation that many people are interested in having. Thanks for the fascinating, lively week, Twin Cities artists!
Speaking of names that got their traction in the Minnesota Fringe...
I accidentally inherited another producer's slot in the Fringe a couple of years ago -- The Peanut Butter Factory -- and have since tried to work it into an administrative company that helps independent artists self-produce their own work. While it may not directly solve the problem of making a "living" at this, the company does seek to have work get seen and begin/maintain a relationship with Minnesota audiences (half the battle right there).
I encourage any and all of you to buzz by www.thepeanutbutterfactory.com and read about the company; what it's done so far and where it looks to go in the future. It's all still very experimental (administratively-speaking), but I'd welcome your feedback.
Good morning, Amazing Twin Cities Artists! I'm here in my office at Children's Theatre Company, and I am simultaneously a.) following this lively discussion on HowlRound b.) reading the most recent draft of Buccaneers!--a new musical we commissioned from playwright Liz Duffy Adams and composer Ellen Maddow that will open the season next year at CTC, c.) checking in on the rehearsals for Cheryl West's new play, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (also a CTC commission) that is happening in the room just outside my office and d.) planning my next few weeks of Twin Cities theatre-going, which, as always, revolve around an attempt to keep up with all of the new work being done in town. As a lover and supporter of new work, this means it's a very good morning. As a contributor to the discussion about the Twin Cities as an eco-system for new plays, what does my morning signify? First of all, as the other large, regional theatre in the Twin Cities along with the Guthrie, it signifies that CTC is a Twin Cities venue where new work is constantly being commissioned, developed and...wait for it....produced at a level that, as I think Victoria Stewart can attest--having just had a play of hers mounted as part of this season,--can actually help playwrights pay their bills and, I hope, allow them a bit of financial stability to start work on their next new play. As the person tasked with seeking out writers to commission at CTC, I have been deeply blessed over the years by living in a community where so many writers either live or have lasting ties to. Of the 30 new plays I've commissioned over the last 13 years, almost 75% of them are by playwrights who reside or resided in the Twin Cities (Tory, Jeff Hatcher, Ruth MacKenzie, Kevin Kling, Carlyle Brown, Rosanna Staffa, Lisa D'Amour, Melissa James Gibson). Peter Brosius came to CTC with a burning desire to broaden the scope of writers making work for young audiences and, due in large part to the richness of this playwriting community, we've been able to do that. But, as my morning reveals, we also commission new plays from writers who are NOT local to the Twin Cities and my question to all of you is: What role do/could/should those writers and those new plays have in our creative eco-system? Is there a way that they feed the eco-system or are they invasive species who sap resources, space and opportunities from the native plants? From where I sit, I love that Tracy Scott Wilson is in town working at Pillsbury House (on a play the Guthrie co-commissioned with Pillsbury) and that Daniel Alexander Jones will bring Radiate there in June (because I couldn't afford to fly out to see it when it was in New York.) I'm proud of having brought Nilo Cruz and Kia Corthron and Cheryl West's work to this community, BUT, I do realize that every one of those projects represents an opportunity for production that did not go to a local writer. What do you guys make of this? Does new work by non-local writers make it a better community for you or not? For those of us who are commissioning that work, are there kinds of encounters/interactions with those writers that would make their presence here more meaningful or just downright helpful? CTC has at various times worked with The Playwrights' Center to make it easier (and hopefully fun!) for writers to come see the work here, but it's been pretty haphazard on our part. Is it worth trying to do it better? Would having access to the writers or to the process in the rehearsal room on a new play or even just making sure people know these folks are in town and available for drinks be good? Or does none of that matter much in the face of being a Twin Cities playwright trying to make a living? 'Cause I would totally understand that, too....
Thanks to everyone who has shared in this discussion about the Twin Cities. I have to put Madness on my list of things to make sure I see.....despite sometimes feeling stressed that I can't keep up with everything I want to and should see in town, I'm also pretty damn grateful to live someplace where that's even a problem....
@Elissa Adams - Thanks for your thoughtful posting. You might be hard pressed to find a local playwright (including myself) who wouldn’t tell you that “Yes, you should definitely be commissioning more of us who live in your backyard.” Especially since some of us are having our work done at small, mid-size, and regional theaters around the country, but find production opportunities locally more lacking. I can honestly say that my first production opportunity I ever received came from SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul where they commissioned me to do a play during my Jerome Fellowship. It has led to a lucrative creative relationship with them where I’m now working on my fourth commission for them that will have it’s world premiere next year. These commissions have allowed me to have a sustainable life as an artist here in the Twin Cities and cultivated a relationship with the local audiences here regarding my work. Richard Hitchler could’ve easily decided to bring in a writer from out-of-state to write any number of the projects I’ve done for them, but he’s instead had a vested interest in the local talent that the Twin Cities has to offer by keeping all writers, directors, designers, and acting talent local. With that said I could honestly say that I look forward to being able to see the work in the Out There Festival at the Walker because I know that I wouldn’t be able to necessarily fly to New York to see Young Jean Lee or Bill T. Jones or travel to Beirut to see Rabih Mroué. So, I guess my answer to your question Elissa raises another question: it’s not necessarily about the playwrights that are coming in from out of town to do work at your theater, but how much do you outsource work to directors, designers, actors, composers, musicians, etc. that don’t live here? And, how does all of this outsourcing take away from the cultural eco system that you speak of here in the Twin Cities? Since the playwright is only one person I wouldn’t necessarily say that commissioning a non-local writer is “sapping resources” here. But, multiply that by outsourcing several elements of your production team and you might have a very different picture. I think ways that you can aid with community engagement with visiting playwrights might be to have these writers lead a young playwrights boot camp for a day. Also, conducting a salon with the visiting playwright and director would be interesting as well. If your director is brought in from London it would be nice to have him lead a director’s workshop for kids and also in his salon discuss what the similarities and differences are in the theater scene in London versus the United States. If your musician(s) or composers are from out of town as well a fun workshop with kids and music could take place. I think sometimes it might be difficult for writers to feel comfortable enough to open up the rehearsal space, but I think it would be terrific for kids to be able to see the rehearsal room process with the writers (both local and non-local). Maybe that’s just something you prep the writers for before they have their work done there is that you tell them you open up the rehearsal process. Not the whole time, but for a couple of hours or something. Having a local theater listserv might be a good way to spread the word when theaters have certain artists in town or events happening where you can post something quickly like “CTC is having drinks with Carlyle Brown at Jasmine Deli at 6:00 p.m. Stop by if you’d like to hang with us.” I know that in the past we at the Playwrights’ Center really appreciated being invited over to see shows and to meet with you and Peter. It would be great to see that continue in addition to other local engagements that can happen with other local theaters that have been mentioned in this thread. I think that new work that’s accessible to all makes the Twin Cities a better community. If the ticket prices are cost prohibitive for several groups by only allowing new work to be accessible for an elite few then no…we are not a better community. If people who live a stone’s throw from our theaters can’t afford to step foot in them then we’ve failed. Period. And, yes Elissa. All of this is worth trying to do better. Thanks for asking. The next Madness event is on February 28th from 6:30 – 9:00 p.m. Hope to see you there.
Just want to say how amazing it is to read here many thoughts I've been having on my own or in conversations with other directors and playwrights in town. I am a director and am half of Theatre Novi Most. I am preaching that this town could use a Directors Center (to steal the Playwrights Center name) and have been thinking about starting to organize one for about a year. A place for directors -- not necessarily Artistic Directors -- to train, get support from other directors and connect with playwrights, designers and producers around projects. Also a place to pool resources and funding ideas toward full productions of new work (both plays and generative work by directors in collaboration with others). A place to push the artistry of what a director DOES, bravely forward. A place that recognizes that directing is an artform and one that requires training and practice. A place from which new work can percolate. I think we could use a Directors Center (needs a better name, I know) to make a vibrant theatre scene even more vibrant. With the loss of the MFA in Directing at the U (and I am on that faculty and even I do not know when or if it will come back), directors do not have a Home Base here. I'm happy to see Red Eye is doing a Directors Lab! Perhaps there are others I don't know about? I agree with Jeremy that many of the companies in town are insular in that our artistic directors direct the bulk of the work. Theatre Novi Most is run by two directors and we direct everything we present at this point. But, we'd like to think about more cross pollination and make room for free lance directors at our table. I welcome feedback on the Directors Center idea from all. As a relative newcomer (four years in town) I know there are many amazing people we have not met. If this is of interest or you have ideas, please let me know. www.theatrenovimost.org
I love it when a community can get in the 'cut' and start talking about things it cares about -which is what is happenin here. Thanks Cory for cookin up the stew that we're all chewing so thoughtfully on. The Twin Cities is on Fire and the next few years will birth forth work and artists that is a result of this beautiful bubbling energy!!!
Gotta say, I feel like what's coming at me the loudest from this thread is that in spite of all the amazing work happening all over our Cities, we suffer from a fractured isolation and an absence of communication between the vibrant groups that make up our ecology, to the point where we don't even seem to know exactly what other pockets of artists are up to, what they're after, how they're getting there... it's fascinating to see all that colliding in this series of responses. HowlRound is about new plays, but this conversation is about our larger theater community and its values, and I'd love to see some follow-up in the form of a larger attendance at Jack's Artistic Director brunches, or a cool new way to hang out created by Jeremy and Leah, or maybe we can keep the dissent going on MN Playlist or something, form new alliances and artistic partnerships, get mad about new stuff (I always view that as progress), grow as a community.
Gonna go respond in some fashion to the Joe's, Sha's, Jack's and Jessica's contributions now, so I'm not neglecting their awesomeness.
Who knew MN-nice bred such agitators, was Mat Smart still here when he stirred it up on HowlRound last year?
Keep it going, MSP. In case you've not yet seen these contributions, over on the Blog there are now posts from Jack Reuler, Sha Cage, and Jessica Huang. http://www.howlround.com/blog/
So much great discussion happening in response to Cory, Joe, Sha & Jessica’s pieces about the incredibly vibrant Twin Cities community! I think Tory & Christina & David D put it best when they articulate a simultaneous appreciation for what does work here in terms of both playwright support and new play production…and a desire to face some of our challenges anew. Some of the most important responses (here and on other blogs) have been from folks in other regional cities/communities echoing similar concerns…sharing successes and looking for new models. One of my great hopes for this Journal is to look at a series of “problems” in the field -- placing them squarely in front of us with intentional conversation -- and using the wealth of our colleagues’ knowledge around the country to begin to work towards solutions. (Why I love reading these conversations over the past year!) So it’s been intriguing (as a relative newcomer to this community) to see such a strong, emotionally adverse response to the notion that there’s anything that could be strengthened here.
It’s a brilliantly sustainable artistic community in many ways, as Cory and others point-out, and yes…for certain artistic constituencies (ie. playwrights – which is what this journal is about), there is a specific kind of challenge to be faced. For actors, with such a vibrant non-AEA community here, there are myriad opportunities to work with the smaller and mid-sized companies of great excellence here -- from Pangea to Workhaus, from Sandbox to Walking Shadow, from Theatre Novi Most to Theatre Latte Da to Teatro del Pueblo to Intermedia Arts…an incredible surge of opportunity. A similar path for Directors, although many of theatre companies mentioned in this thread have the majority of their work helmed by their Artistic Directors – which allows less room for Directors to put-together a full freelance life. As many have articulated though, there are still successes in the Twin Cities to that end. Which brings me back to Cory’s two salient points: 1) we can still be working towards a more sustainable artistic economy here for freelance Playwrights, especially when we (rightly) pride ourselves on how livable it is in the Twin Cities, and 2) that for a Playwright who does write solo and send their work out into the world in hopes of production (vs. self-producing), this community does provide some challenge.
I want to take-up the mantle already on one of the ideas that has been suggested here: the launch of a Writers/Directors’ Forum. On Tory’s suggestion of it, I’ve already started looking at how to easily & quickly create a model for such a conversation to take place, and again would like to offer the Center as a place to host it an ongoing dialogue of this kind. These roles in our field can be crucial partners and advocates for another, and I believe it could be quite useful to gather for connection & discussion.
A few points of clarification: our relationships with both Workhaus Collective and the Unit Collective are ones we’re quite proud of in how we seek to connect local playwrights to the next step of opportunity beyond the development that the Playwrights’ Center offers. (It should be noted that both companies are comprised of writers who have come through our programs, and also writers who haven’t.) With Unit Collective, we provide the company space at the Center once a month for their very exciting Madness events – where emerging playwrights come together in one night to share short new pieces & fuel conversation. This company is partially comprised of our previous/current Many Voices fellows, and, to that end, we seek to add more opportunity for emerging writers of color towards writing growth and work sharing. As Tory just spoke to the Workhaus relationship, I’ll keep it brief: a number of years ago when Workhaus formed as a collective of playwrights who self-produce (along similar lines as the fantastic 13P in New York), Polly and the Center stepped-forward to provide various forms of in-kind support so that the company could more easily and affordably take plays from development to production. And to Ms. Storm’s point, yes, by providing subsidized rent to Workhaus, we affirm our intention to support the growth of a stronger new play production community here in the Twin Cities. But we also do so through our myriad efforts with our Members, Cores & Fellows, so that all 1150 playwrights associated with the Center, desiring to move their plays towards production, can continue to do just that. We value our role in the local theatre ecology in this way, and continue to act on this intention.
Lest we only claim "give" with no "get", the Center also benefits by hosting new play productions so that our (now tripled!) audiences can continue to embed the connection between a workshop that they may see during PlayLabs Festival or the Ruth Easton Series…and play productions. Just last week at a Reading an audience member said to me: “I’ve come to the past few Ruth Easton readings and now relish the idea that I can see these amazing new plays being built right in front of me! I was inspired to come back to the Center and see an actual new play production, and caught Carson Kreitzer’s FLESH IN THE DESERT. Which then inspired me to go see more new work, so I bought a ticket to Josh Tobiessen’s CRASHING THE PARTY (at Mixed Blood) – what should I go see next?” For me, that is a huge measure of success: that someone who, two months ago didn’t have an articulation for seeking out new theatrical work, now is asking me how she can get more. So, like Tory, I would strongly disagree with the notion that Twin Cities’ audiences don’t have an appetite for new work, or that the market is somehow so oversaturated here as to disallow for that kind of work to thrive. So to that end: how can we (as the creators & supporters of this work) strive to do better at connecting audiences to the myriad companies in town that are working to build audiences seeking new work. Young Jean Lee at the Walker, Live Action Set, Ray Pamatmat’s EDITH CAN SHOOT THINGS AND HIT THEM at Mu next month (a must see!!!!), 1968 at The History Theatre, etc.
As to the post about PlayLabs: yes, there was 1 hiatus year, but we’ve been back strong for the past two years – with eight new plays being developed during that time. However, I would absolutely contest that these workshops would ever be considered productions. With four days of rehearsal, and copious amounts of rewriting, very little blocking, etc – these are expanded workshops…nothing more. It’s a priority for us to connect our writers to the local and national community so that production can happen…but producing outright is not the game for the PWC. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a playwright anywhere to say that a 4-day rehearsal process with actors at music stands would be defined as such.
What this discussion elicits for me is that: for FREE, we could be working to communicate better with each other. Some of that exchange (as mentioned in an above post) happens at a monthly Artistic Director roundtable, but there is room for so much more. If there are indeed so many new play production opportunities for full-length scripts in the Twin Cities, let’s work together towards a greater sense of transparency between the companies yearning to work on new plays, and the vast range of playwrights in the community. Perhaps the brilliant Leah Cooper (MN Theatre Alliance) and I can cook something up – an annual mixer of sorts – where every producing company is invited, along with all local playwrights …to meet, connect, speed-date and engage about possibilities for production. Let’s spark some more ideas towards a greater sense of connection between all the artistic constituencies working towards a stronger and more diverse new play production community.
I look forward to our next steps on that adventure together!
Yes! AND a partnership or consortium of playwrights and producing theaters that would commit to doing X number of readings or studio productions, or fully produced shows per season. Even if a few theaters committed to one each, wouldn't that be progress? My sense is that many theaters are interested and just need a more expedient way to connect with more plays and playwrights.
@ Michelle - I feel like this thread is getting off track if we can't even agree on what a production is. However, I'll answer your questions about Workhaus. We do pay rent to the PWC and we receive a huge amount of support from them, administrative space, fiscal sponsorship, guidance. We would not have been able to accomplish what we have without them. We approached Polly about being company-in-residence after producing our first show and she jumped at the idea because it was a *playwright-driven* model. I'm sorry if we're not inspiring to you. I know that other playwrights have found us inspiring - I've gotten emails from playwrights, locally, nationally and even internationally, who feel more empowered to self-produce. Our "inward" focus is what it is - we're a collective of playwrights putting up quality productions. John Bueche has designed two amazing sets for us and I love and respect Bedlam and what they do -- but I don't think we all need to be doing the same things or serving the same populations. But I think Workhaus (as well as the many other theaters that have been listed on this thread) has proven that there is an audience for new work. We're all just trying to figure out different ways to get it out there. That was the point of Cory's essay and this thread. Here's a link with more information about Workhaus and its collective model.
Christina, this is the first I've heard of your group. Who are Katie Ka Vang and Zandi de Jesus? Thanks.
Those are good points, esp. re: economy. I consider Playlabs a production (yes, with PR, lights, sound, and costumes) and there are new plays there. For some reason, they cut it about 2 years ago completely. I don't know what happened to PlayLabs the following year. But it has been there. Hopefully will come back in greater force. A production is work that is being mounted for the public, supported by money and resources. In that way, I would venture technically even the Roundtable readings could be considered a type of low-budget production. Workhaus is producing plays there, yes, they are independent... but supported and endorsed by the PWC... as I asked before... how does Workhaus work? Do they pay rent, if so, is it the regular rent? To have a house like that is a real advantage over other small theaters (doing new plays) struggling to find space. (I speak from personal experience.) And incidentally, Tori shouldn't have to pay out of pocket for her productions, they could easily get MRAC grants. They are offered every year, up to 10,000 if you put organizational and community together. Workhaus has an opportunity to reach out the community, but I don't see it in the way Bedlam reaches out to the Somali community in their neighborhood. They are a small to mid-size organization supporting new works and affecting their own change by very creatively reaching out. Their new playwrights are the Somali youth in their backyard. I don't understand Workhaus' inward focus and don't personally find it inspirational. I will continue to maintain that we should be grateful for the vast array of resources we have. I applaud any efforts for further change. Now to play the realist... What is the demand for new plays by the average population? Because there's an awful big supply. Look outside the theater community and appreciate that it might just not be a big concern elsewhere. Minnesota has a myriad of competing interests for the tax-payer dollar. How will new plays take precedence over potholes, police, and bridges? How are you going to make what you do important to the average Joe, who is beset with everyday concerns?
I think it might be remiss to not acknowledge how the economy has drastically affected the climate for new play production. I think it’s one of the reasons we keep hearing it’s the same story for several cities all over the country. We all know what we’re doing well here in the Twin Cities. So many people here have already clearly articulated that and mentioned some of the artists and artistic homes that have bragging rights to lay claim that they are actively being part of the solution. Kudos to all of them. But, I didn’t come here to talk about what we’re already doing. I’m here to find out what else can be done. There’s room for improvement. Anywhere.
As a playwright of color and someone who mentors other emerging playwrights of color through the Many Voices Program at the Playwrights’ Center I also think the landscape and issues discussed here become exponential when looking at writers of color and their work and how many are actually produced here not just on our local stages, but also nationally. The picture becomes…well, it leaves a lot to be desired. The Unit Collective which is also fiscally supported by the Playwrights’ Center like the Workhaus Collective (of which I am a member) consists of a powerhouse of writers of color that are doing exciting work to sold out audiences and are doing some incredible artistic outreach to the community through their organization in the process (this month all donations to their company will go to Katie Ka Vang and Zandi de Jesus). Such writers who are members of the Unit Collective are Anton Jones, Eric “Pogi” Sumangil, Jessica Huang, and Joe Luis Cedillo among others. So, I’m just curious that once we’ve mentioned such ethnically-specific theaters like Mu, Teatro del Pueblo, Pangea, and Penumbra where else can emerging (not established) playwrights of colors be produced here? I know that Pillsbury House, Mixed Blood, SteppingStone, History Theater, Red Eye, and Bedlam Theater are all doing plays by playwrights of color in their current season (and happen to do so pretty regularly). But, what about all of these other theaters that have been championed here on this thread? I’ve gone to these web sites and haven’t seen any other works by artists of color for the season. Am I overlooking something? Someone? Who’s doing work by these writers where they’re not one of 15 writers being featured in an evening of 10-minute shorts, but receiving full productions of their full-length plays? As I’m constantly looking for ways to cultivate relationships between my writers and local theaters that may not lead immediately to production, but will hopefully do so down the line, or, equally as important, artistic mentorship that goes across racial lines I’d like to have additional places to send them besides the usual ethnically specific suspects. Just the two ideas that have been mentioned here alone (the new play library and the director / playwright forum) would have a huge impact on getting emerging writers of color exposure to theaters that might not typically encounter their work. Sha Cage’s blog post on this same site does a wonderful job addressing some of the challenges of access and equitability of resources for artists of color.
@Sarah I’d love to know more information about your statement “all of the theatre companies I work for and talk to are ALWAYS looking for plays to produce. but [sic] I never hear about them getting submissions from playwrights.” Would you mind telling us who all of these companies are exactly? What kind of outreach are they doing? Are they just telling their friends and hoping that they get submissions or are they actively posting these opportunities for public consumption and spreading the word to other theaters around town? I know that if they even sent their submission opportunities to the Playwrights’ Center for example which serves over 1150 members and fellows they would get a deluge of submissions. Also, Minnesota Playlist has a huge outreach, Dramatists Guild lists playwriting opportunities and so does the Dramatist Sourcebook. Also, did they get the word out to agencies that represent playwrights and to local artistic listservs here? I can’t imagine if they did one or all of these things that they wouldn’t be up to their necks in submissions.
@Michelle Storm When you say you’ve seen plays produced at the Playwrights’ Center, I’m assuming you’re referring to rental companies who’ve produced in its space, correct? I know the Playwrights’ Center has never been a producing organization since that’s not part of its mission. Also, The Jungle got rid of their new play reading series 5-6 years ago.
Finally, I’m curious to know about the theaters outside of the Twin Cities here in Minnesota that are doing new work since there’s been a claim on this thread that the Twin Cities is already too saturated with new plays and its writers. Besides Commonweal, who are they? And, where are you? What are you up to? I would love to hear what you’d have to say and if you’re looking for playwrights.
Thanks everyone for a great discussion!
yup.... here it is! 1 entry, if you're looking for The Deflowering of Young Father Trimleigh by John Olive gotta love that PWC! lolhttp://www.pwcenter.org/pla...
doesn't the playwright center have something like that on their website already, where you can peruse snippets from playwrights' works and request more? i thought they had that, or do you have to be a member?
"Since this has been posted I’ve heard all sorts of great forward-thinking ideas: a new play library to expose interested theaters to new local writers, a director/playwright forum, new ways the PWC can engage with the community."
Yes please! Who can step up to the plate for something like this? PWC? MN Theater Alliance? Guthrie?
It is a great aspiration. Where will the money come from to pay the writers? There are a lot of writers here.
Of course, I’m blogging later in the week but I just wanted to throw my voice in here a little early. We do of course have an incredibly rich small theater scene. I think the question for everyone is how to make it a richer one especially for playwrights (since this is a new play forum) and perhaps how does the small theater scene enrich the middle and larger theater scene.
I’ve been a little surprised that anyone reads Cory’s essay and sees a negative to the idea of being a hybrid artist. He’s stating a fact that everyone seems to be validating, that we all stitch together our lives out of many jobs. But I think this also leads back to the idea of self-producing. As someone who is incredibly proud of the work I’ve done self-producing, I can also say, it sure cuts into my writing time. Also, instead of getting paid to write (isn't that what we aspire to, as theater professionals?), I don’t get paid either for my writing or my producing as a member of Workhaus. In fact, I often pay for the privilege, shelling out money for props, costumes, sometimes even paying the actors out of my own pocket. Again, there’s no shame in DIY self-producing but don’t we all want to see our stories played out on larger stages to larger audiences?
“No one owes us a living.” We are told this over and over in theater. “We’re lucky to get paid anything!” I think Cory is trying to look past this mind-set and be aspirational. How can we move past self-producing? Since this has been posted I’ve heard all sorts of great forward-thinking ideas: a new play library to expose interested theaters to new local writers, a director/playwright forum, new ways the PWC can engage with the community. Examining and analyzing our amazing scene is essential to new ideas and new thoughts, rather than just treading water. I also think it’s terrific that other cities are chiming in because I think these are issues that confound other smaller-market theater towns, Seattle, Boston, DC, Philadelphia. We all want the same thing - to be able to make a difference in the town we live in.
Thank you so much for this.
I have long been an admirer of the Twin Cities and their vibrant theater scene, so it was a real eye opener for me to hear you articulate the same issues facing new work there that I feel we have here in Philadelphia. We are also blessed by generous institutions and smart audiences, but there is very little opportunity for homegrown directors and very little stage space given to totally new work. I think a possible solution would be for institutional giving to get more flexible. Many theaters don't hire outside directors as a budget savings. Why not encourage them to use new brains on their stages by, say, covering the directors fee? I see that DC has a similar problem. Perhaps we are uncovering a nationwide issue here. Any other cities out there feeling the same way?
"What I mean by “new,” in this context, is a project where the major collaborators create the piece, or play, together in a room." "...But what about new plays, works written by a single author and directed by a single director?" just thought of steppingstone, supporting such wonderful rising writers as rhianna yazzi and nurturing young artists at the same time... speaking of rhiana, there is new native theater and how they engage their community to bring about new work and new voices (regular people, not polished playwrights)... also teatro del pueblo and their political theater festival... that's new work, isn't it? the list can easily go on... i think if mr. hinckle expands his definition of what is a "new play" its process and who the playwright can be and where it can happen, the possibilities here are endless! i am curious, too, how workhaus works... what is the criteria for becoming part of workhaus, what is their relationship with the playwrights center? are you working through a contract with the PWC or do they receive a cut of your ticket sales, do you pay rent? what sort of community connection does workhaus foster? would like to find out more about that model and how it works, thanks. i think the 'firestorm' is coming about because mr. hinckle is suggesting ideas that have already been going on for sometime here...it's a little out of touch. "Artists in the Twin Cities need to take more risks and put up new plays. Artists here should take initiative, start their own companies, make new work, self-produce their own plays, cultivate freelance directors and relationships between directors, playwrights, and designers. We desperately need more theater companies who are willing to be the actual fringe to the Fringe Festival and the Guthrie." There are a multitude of artists and companies of all shapes and sizes doing exactly that already. He only need look around. Mad Munchkin, 20% Theater, Minnesota Jewish Theater, Hardcover Theater, Park Square, Joking Apart, Joking Envelope... we're honestly saturated with new plays. I've had conversations about play ideas with top Artistic Directors here, they are very accessible and I am not even a professional playwright, but a mere dabbler. It's anyone's game. Also, I did once bring a new play to Zach, and he did a marvelous job directing it for us. Because he is so respected here, we had the largest audience ever for our new play production company on that one-act festival of two local playwrights. His hybrid skills were a blessing as he was able to morph into sound designer, it was efficient and cost-effective for us to have him in both roles. The other director, Carin Bratlie, also a hybrid (wow, sounds almost alien, doesn't it?) did double duty, as well. These amazing free-lance powerhouses were crucial to the success of that particular project. My connection with them all started with chatting with Zach after I saw him in a truly beautiful performance one night. Believe me, theater people are connecting here :) I don't understand how it can be suggested otherwise.
I just want to applaud you, Cory Hinkle, for having the cojones to start this passionate, engaged discussion--no doubt knowing the firestorm you'd be stirring in the comments section. I'm a playwright from San Francisco: when it was our turn to consider our own theater scene we mostly spoke in celebration of ourselves, our counter-cultural traditions, our diversity, and our excellent views. We have all those things: but we didn't take the opportunity to raise hard questions about the art we're making. (Myself included!) You raised those hard questions. Kudos, Cory Hinkle!
It's great to see the energy in this discussion, Minneapolis! Thank you, Cory, for taking the challenge of kicking it off. There are many "bright spots" being celebrated in these comments-- some that are new to me and I'll go look them up now! More to come over the week, no doubt. And some innovative approaches to new work that I'd love to hear more about-- who can provide more details on the Garage Tours that Michelle mentions, for instance? "Micro-touring" (touring shows within multiple communities of a single region) is too little understood nationally at this point and, to my mind, holds tremendous untapped potential for the whole infrastructure of new work nationwide. (And, Zach-- if it feels like we're singling out New Work here, we are. Howlround is a journal devoted to advancing the infrastructure for new work... Thank you for engaging.) I'm also glad to see Mu and Pangea named here, Aditi. When I was in the Twin Cities on the Gates of Opportunities research they were great contributors with strong roles in the local ecology. Is Intermedia Arts still working in this sector?
One thing, if I may make a request: could y'all take a moment or two this week to get your data onto the #newplay Map? (http://newplaymap.org) For all the talk about what I know to be a thriving community of writers, and now a community of producers of new work, there's not yet a big showing there for you guys. The map's becoming a really quick visual for the size/activity of a community engaged in new work.
Looking forward to the rest of the conversation.
Four world premieres coming up at In the Heart of the Beast Theater this March as part of PuppetLab:www.hobt.org
"And I’m wondering – where are the companies that share my values, in terms of new work and new plays?" I don't understand. All of these places listed below and many more value new work and new plays. I have seen new plays and new playwrights produced at each and everyone of these theaters: Theater Unbound Chameleon Theater CircleHeart of the Beast PenumbraPanagea History Theater (very accessible to new plays and playwrights)Illusion Playwrights Center White Bear Players The Jungle (they have had new play readings)Commonweal Dreamland Arts Lowry Lab Theater Mixed Blood Freshwater TheaterChildren's Theater CompanyFlower Shop ProjectStages Theater Company
Why don't they produce more? Simple, it costs time and money and readers. On a different note, several years ago, on the steps of the PWC, I heard a well-known playwright transplanted here, recipient of many grants, complaining about Minnesota lifestyle and how much better it is in NYC. True story! Guess what, she's still living here.
all of the theatre companies I work for and talk to are ALWAYS looking for plays to produce. but I never hear about them getting submissions from playwrights. maybe playwrights need to be bolder and submit their work to companies that produce shows with their aesthetic. no one has ever said they weren't looking for new work to produce-- they only ever say they are looking for a play that interests them.
Cory - I see what you're saying there - but I also think your headline and your opening seems pretty misleading. You start with how are theater artists able to make a living, but then focus on how new plays don't get done, which more implies that playwrights can't make a living here. There are a lot of us (theater artists) who do just fine. No, not every one does (or can), but I've managed to do it for over eight years now without a "real" job. The truth is, it can be done, but some people don't like that pointed out.
Certainly a lively discussion. Sarah - feel free to list the theatres you referenced. As a budding playwright I'd love to check them out. Michelle, thanks for your list. From the various comments here I wrote down 27 theatres. I've never been to Minneapolis [from Michigan and have lived in NY for 30 years] but from this list I certainly am impressed. As a very new writer [little over two years], and not a Spring Chicken [age 60 . . . never too late to start] all I can say is investigating the options - meaning theatres - where I might get someone to read a submission and do a staged reading, or better yet mount it - is where my head is at present [plus writing of course] and it's daunting and time consuming to say the least. I am old school I suppose in that I write my plays solo. Collaboration sounds interesting on a script/project but that's not happening and I'm not really seeking it out. All I know about Minneapolis is from a theatre friend who lived there [this is 30 years ago] and even then he loved the theatre scene. There is a lot of theatre in New York of course, and companies, and while I've seen some and not many others [theatre tickets do cost money] I am sometimes rather surprised and even shocked at the quality of the script, or direction, or acting, or production values [or any combination]. I also write with an eye and ear for production. After a few drafts I can get a reading together myself, maybe even a staged reading to see how people respond to the work, where it's cluncky, too wordy etc. Then after working on a 3rd or 4th draft I'm ready to send it out, and I don't mean sending it out to be workshoped but produced. Of cousre that is apparently rarely done these days with a new writer. I don't quite get the amount of workshops for a new piece. In some instances of course the work is not even written, perhaps sketched out a bit, and the workshop does allow time to experiement and develop. But as a solo writer I work with an idea and vision of completion even before I do a first reading. For me by a third or fourth draft you should be able to tell if something is sufficiently well crafted and if it will work or not on stage. But I've heard some writers do up to 20 drafts or more. I can't fathom it, but I'm also pretty green. I will say one thing . . . I sure do appreciate HowlRound for providing a space to engage with others in this field. All the best to you Minneapolis!
Is there a local resource for a freelance director, like myself, to peruse new scripts or abstracts? I occasionally receive unsolicited manuscripts from writers but I rarely have time to consider them when they show up in my in box.
Hi @ John Heimbuch, thanks for your respectful disagreement and response.
I don’t think I’m grossly mischaracterizing the Fringe. I was trying to point out that in Minneapolis, a lot of theatre companies do work only at the Fringe, or they lean on the Fringe to sustain themselves, instead of venturing out and becoming their own entity. Does that mean that there are fewer small theatre companies that do new plays? I think so. That was my point, I wasn’t saying that theatre companies don’t do new work there, or are not sustained there. Maybe it’s also just a matter of taste, in terms of what new work rises to the top. I think the low-production values, DIY aesthetic of the Fringe is both a blessing and a curse because it becomes the culture of new work here, as opposed to more theatre companies like Walking Shadow and the ones you mentioned that invest in fully produced seasons. I think that is why there aren’t a lot of theatres like the Jungle – companies that have grown to a mid-size. You don’t have to grow in that way if you have the Fringe to sustain you. That is just my personal reading of the scene for new work, new plays and the way companies operate here.
@ Zach Curtis -- The hybrid-ness of the people that do direct here is what is interesting and unique and a necessity about the Twin Cities and I didn’t mean to criticize those currently working as directors. I think I am just curious about why there isn’t a network wherein established theatre companies produce new plays. My point was that part of that chain is the freelance director and that chain is not as strong in the Twin Cities – my criticism was focused more on the AD’s, not on the freelance directors. And as far as the theatre companies you work for – why aren’t they producing more new plays? Maybe, in the end, it comes down to a different set of values? Because I’m a playwright and a person who collaborates on solely new work that is my set of values. Other good companies here (the Jungle, for instance) don’t value new plays, or new work as highly, that’s their prerogative. But I personally would like to see that change. And I’m wondering – where are the companies that share my values, in terms of new work and new plays? It doesn’t mean every reader/person/theatre artist has to agree with that.
Cory, I see what you're saying - and yes a lot of people/companies lean on the Fringe as a source of convenient production support. Producing outside of a festival context exponentially increases the production costs and difficulty gaining an audience. And yes, at some point a company that wants to grow needs to step away from the limited producing environment of the Fringe - but that's incredibly difficult to do and many companies aren't really interested in taking that leap. Should they be? I don't know. To say that the Fringe discourages it, or reduces instances of it still doesn't seem like an accurate statement to me. If anything the Fringe is a theatrical environment that actually REWARDS risk, and should be seriously fostered for that. Especially since it means that many companies have a comfortable fall-back option that allows them to keep producing rather than go belly-up for taking risks outside of it.
The bigger challenge, as I see it, is giving companies who produce OUTSIDE the Fringe all the resources they can get in order to succeed. Fortunately we have donors, audience, and state-support aplenty here. It's just a question of knowing what resources are available and how to attain them.
I'm a freelance director in the Twin Cities, and I also am an Equity actor (one of those "hybrid" performers you speak of, which I guess I will remain being as long as people keep hiring me for both.) I am directing six different shows for five companies this year. No, none of them are world premieres. Why? Because that's not what I was hired to do.The companies I work for all do new shows at times, but I am not the person brought on for those productions.
Yes, a freelance director can bring new shows to an artistic director. But that's not how every theater works. In many cases, the artistic director seeks out talent to direct shows that have already been chosen.
I take umbrage at your insinuation that not only are there not enough directors, but that some how the ones who are working are partially to blame for not introducing more new work. Just like you, sir - I'm trying to get myself work, first and foremost.
I'm just curious ... Those of you who are directors, how do you get work? Do you ever get work directing for a company without already having a relationship with someone in that theater? I'm interested in the dynamic at work in Twin Cities theaters. Great discussion. Thanks for opening a door, and maybe a few windows, too, Cory.
Please understand the market. Minneapolis is theater rich, to the point of saturation. A good problem! If you understand that Minneapolis is one point (with St. Paul) and the suburbs the wide spread satellites, you might start to see an answer. Out here in the suburbs, I would venture to say people do not generally know the identity of even someone like Jeffrey Hatcher. They are more concerned with how they're going to get dinner and homework in before they carpool to soccer. That is not a judgement, just a way of life and where people sometimes put their time, values, and resources. (I’m a soccer mom myself, but also a theater lover.) You have to understand both worlds, and maybe a few other worlds, as well. I think the successful artists are those that live in other realities, as well, not just the world of Minneapolis theater under the shadow of the Guthrie. It’s not the end all, be all! Look at Open Eye, Heart of the Beast, and Off-Leash, bringing their work to the suburbs through their Garage Tours. Entertaining and enlightening and successful theaters. HOTB has had its fair share of financial struggles, but they have been creative, going to volunteer power to bring their beautiful messages and new works to life. These theaters do good work, connecting with wider audiences, and think beyond. Commonweal takes it a step further, bringing professional theater to the farmland in southeastern Minnesota. With Minneapolis such a market saturated with theaters of all shapes and sizes, I think you have to be really innovative in your approach and study the markets. There are grants untouched to do theater in places other than Minneapolis. And please don't fault people for not getting out to see theater, new or otherwise. People in this economy are working two or more jobs to make ends meet and have families to care for. Would love to see theater everyday of the week, but reality calls. Which brings me to another reality… Part of me certainly appreciates and understands Corey's dilemma about making ends meet as an artist… However, who ever said it would be easy? Along with that grant for small theaters to do new work, can you also request a grant for hungry children in the city schools with urine smelling clothes and sores on their arms to get some help? I see them every day. Let’s put this in perspective.
Just wanted to throw in Theater Mu which does a great deal of Asian-American new work, and worth noting that playwright Allison Moore has a fruitful relationship with Illusion Theatre, and Carlyle Brown has a relationship with Park Square Theatre, both of which have resulted in productions this season. And my perspective is clearly informed by my relationship with Mixed Blood, where I do get to push the envelope as an artist. You bring up a really interesting question, though, about why there's not more of a locovore appetite for new work given the ridiculous number of really excellent playwrights living here (as a result of the also excellent Playwrights' Center) and working here and flying out of here to premieres and productions elsewhere. Though I suspect this is not a condition unique to the Twin Cities, I feel like that's a story you hear in a lot of regional markets.
And Pangea World Theatre. Sorry, someone reminded me, and I know others are missing from the list of new play producers, we're clearly not going to name them all.
Quite a thread going here, can't wait to see the next Twin Cities installment...
I'll throw into the hat that Chicago is also a similar scene. (As a lot of commenters are saying here, it's kind of a similar scene everywhere - it's just a question of degree.) One model that I love for fostering dialogue between established and emerging theater companies is Steppenwolf's Garage Rep series, where Steppenwolf invites young, up-and-coming Chicago companies without their own regular performance venue to produce in the Steppenwolf black box space. I found that there is a ton of dialogue between theater companies of all sizes in Chicago, actually - I loved that about the city's theater ecology. A lot of vertical as well as horizontal movement that seems to me to be encouraged by the fact that many of today's known-and-established Chicago companies (Lookingglass, Steppenwolf) remain very connected to their roots as small ensembles/collectives of collaborative, generative artists. They remember what it was like to be an emerging company and they are happy to have the chance to extend a helping hand.
Most of the things you list as drawbacks to producing at the MN Fringe are the main reasons I think the Fringe is so popular: short tech, simplified sets/design, low production value. Even if you paid all your artists in modest stipends, producing a fully-realized show the way you're talking would cost at least three times as much as something that was done at the Fringe. Unfortunately, most artists (in any city) don't have that kind of money to throw at a new play that may or may not break even.
As a former student of yours, Gustavus '08, I recall you mentioning the difficulty in actually producing original work in today's world. Writing a play to completion is a multi-year process that requires workshopping it to death and steadfast dedication and commitment to your ideas so that your original vision doesn't get compromised in the process.
With increasing the options available to playwrights, does the process need to change as well? I've recently started a production company called Danger Boat Productions and our main show, The Theater of Public Policy was able to happen because we decided to go out and do it. I don't know that it would have worked in another region, because people in Minnesota are wonderfully connective and supportive. My co-founder reached out to someone in Maine for advice and they accused him of trying to steal their business model. We haven't encountered that, yet, here.
Hello Cory,I am co-artistic director of Freshwater Theatre. While our mission is not solely about new plays - we do feel that the lack of second productions for deserving plays is equally a problem - we at Freshwater Theatre are committed to the production of new, local work. We have produced two non-local scripts, but as we get more submissions, we want those kinds of productions to taper off while we increase, and eventually, solely, produce new, local first or second run work. We are always open for submissions, and we are listed with the PWC.
We have also formed our own publishing imprint so that we can publish the new works that we produce, as we want to get fellow artist's work into as many hands as possible. Our "Festival of Awkward Moments" and "Dirty Girls Come Clean" productions have been published with permission of the playwrights and with contact information for the playwrights so that interested parties can contact them to inquire about rights for future production; the playwrights retain all royalties and copyrights- there's nothing exclusive about our publishing arrangement.
Of course we cannot yet pay anyone a living wage. As much as we wish it were different, very few playwrights make a living wage as a playwright. We respectfully submit that getting your work produced on the coasts is not easier, nor are you assured there of remuneration that befits your effort.
I also can think of several small companies in the Twin Cities: Walking Shadow, 20% Theatre, Nimbus Theatre, the Red Eye, Theatre Unbound, who have produced new work in the last few years. While they may not solely produce new work, they have produced several new pieces, which adds to the tapestry of new work being done in the Twin Cities.
The Red Eye came to my mind while reading that as well. Glad the acknowledgement's been made!
"It is very difficult to stay local and create local and be a 'Minnesota artist and only do a single thing." This is so true, and I think it's fantastic. It's not only in the theater world, but everywhere. The economy and its 'no jobs' have forced lots of us to get create and to employ the multiplicity of skillsets that we have into, like you said, creative hybrids. I think more and more theater artists are/have begun catching on to this. And I think it's a very positive thing! It has certainly been the case with a lot of web developers, designers, and video production pros that I work with. It's inspiring to see folks put the pieces together to make it work, and to make it "livable." There are many challenges, like being grant-dependent, that make it difficult to have a sustainable or livable career here. There are challenges, but that doesn't mean that it isn't impossible.
Anyway, thanks for all the thoughts, it's nice to hear this conversation outside my head sometimes. And well argued and articulated!
You could have written a similar version of this blog post about DC... and, in fact, I did just that this very morning:
(first in a series...)
I think some of the issues you've raised here are endemic to the national theatrical ecosystem. We have forgotten that the true measure of vitality in our culture is the quantity and quality of new work we create, both locally and nationally. Time for that to change.
Hey Cory, I'm going to respectfully disagree. There are a few misnomers here, and it looks like you're not really giving the local theatre ecology it's fair due. A few things I'd like to point out:
1. The Minnesota Fringe Festival is how most small companies get their start; it isn't stopping them, it's encouraging them and to suggest anything else is a gross mischaracterization. Yes, it encourages self-production - but self-production is intrinsic to the Twin Cities. It's a DIY scene. Here are some companies that got their start at the Fringe or who regularly participate as producers: Walking Shadow Theatre Company, New Theatre Group, Four Humors, Comedy Suitcase, Joking Envelope, Nautilus Music Theatre, Urban Samurai, Youth Performance Company, Unit Collective, and Bedlam Theatre -- most of whom use the Fringe to showcase new work that does NOT qualify as improv, ensemble-based, or sketch comedy. Several plays originally staged at the Fringe have had subsequent productions or been published (such as Trista Baldwin's "American Sexy", Joe Scrimshaw's "Adventures in Mating", or my own "William Shakespeare's Land of the Dead"). New plays can and do succeed there, and it is how most new companies in town begin.
2. It is easy enough to run one's own company in the Twin Cities. This means that any freelance director who wants to do so probably can. And probably should, given the fact that so many other companies are run by artists who have their own producing agendas. It's true, there aren't many freelance directors who only direct. Maybe they don't want to just direct. Maybe they also want to write, build sets, act, etc. The scene here is flexible enough to allow that - and neither you (actor/writer) nor I (actor/writer/director) are in a position to criticize them for that.
3. Eye of the Storm and Hidden Theatre both only did occasional world premieres. Most of their plays were regional premieres or re-envisioned classics.
4. Most small local companies lack the infrastructure to dedicate themselves to entirely new work. Many of them already have playwrights on staff to whom they are dedicated (such as Walking Shadow or Workhaus Collective) and don't have the ability to take open submissions from unfamiliar writers. Many companies are guided by aesthetic principles rather than producing mantras, and new work isn't an ideal fit for them. Even so, many small companies still do an occasional world premiere.
5. There already IS an open dialogue between small and large companies. Join us at the monthly Artistic Director's breakfast at Maria's Cafe. Jack Reuler at Mixed Blood facilitates the invite list. I know Christina Ham from Workhaus is regularly there, but if you feel Workhaus needs more representation, please come by.
Theater is a dog eat dog world... which is why you should check out www.doginthedoortheater.com! Lively stage fun for children!
Miriam, thanks for posting. that was absolutely an oversight on my part. Just for the record - Red Eye Theatre does a lot of new work - especially, in their aptly named "New Works Series" every summer! which supports a lot of new theatre, dance and hybrid collaborations. My apologies!
And when the artists who benefit from the programs that are dedicated to those who make new work neglect to mention the one Twin Cities theater that has made those programs central to its mission for more than a quarter century - yes, it does make for a difficult scene and propagates the myth that only production at larger institutions is worthy.
Hey, Miriam-- you have the floor, the spotlight is pointed your direction. But is that all the contribution you have to make here? You don't actually even mention your own theater by name! I get a clear sense of your annoyance.Can you tell us something of what you are up to, what you are experiencing in doing it, what you hope to see happen and how others can help?