John Townsend, a prolific Twin Cities arts writer and rights activist who contributed freelance reviews to the Star Tribune and wrote for Lavender, billed as Minnesota’s GLBT Magazine, has died.
Townsend found out two years ago that he had hypertension. When he didn’t show up for work Oct. 24, authorities did a welfare check.
“We think that he possibly had a stroke or heart attack, or both,” said his mother, Gail Townsend of Charlotte, N.C. “We’re devastated — shocked beyond belief. It’s tragic for a mom to lose a child.”
Townsend, who turned 60 on Oct. 8, was an inveterate lover of the arts, especially theater. He often attended opening weekend performances of shows that ranged from the experimental to touring Broadway shows, even if he didn’t always write about the bigger works.
“He was a dedicated drama critic who brought serious big theater critical chops to bear on the essential small theater scene,” said retired Star Tribune fine arts editor Claude Peck, who shepherded Townsend’s reviews for years. “He wrote with a clear eye and understated humor. And he covered all the elements of a show — from acting to choreography to sound design. By doing so, he favored the reader and the potential ticket buyer more than his own ego.”
There was an outpouring of appreciation for Townsend on social media. Director Amy Rummenie wrote that she is heartbroken.
“He was a constant supporter, friend, and glowing soul,” she said. “The audience is a bit darker without his shine.”
Performer Dane Stauffer, who knew Townsend for decades, said that he had “a curious and probing intellect.
“Whether you were receiving his praise, or a critique, you would always take away something … as he always favored a constructive comment over a catty one.”
Townsend not only wrote about theater, he also directed shows. Theater artist Christopher Kidder-Mostrom knew Townsend as a critic, director and friend.
“I always appreciated his intelligent and insightful reviews,” Kidder-Mostrom said. “As a reviewer, he provided me with some of my best pull quotes. As a director, he gave me feedback that will stick with me forever. As a friend, he gave me encouragement and support.”
A native of Slaton, Texas, Townsend grew up in Albuquerque and Clovis, N.M. He came to the Twin Cities for school, studying English at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a degree in the early 1980s, according to Stephen Rocheford, president and CEO of Lavender, where Townsend wrote a column and covered the arts for decades.
“John had unbridled passion and encyclopedic knowledge of the arts,” Rocheford said. “He had this kind sense and was an everyman, but he also had a sharp eye for nuances and inconsistencies.”
Townsend was active in LGBT causes and was a co-host of KFAI FM’s “Fresh Fruit,” a program that started in 1978 and bills itself as “the longest running weekly Queer radio show in the country.”
In 2010, Townsend got some national attention after he went undercover as a reporter to a support group to out an anti-gay pastor. The article in Lavender raised ethics issues in the journalism field.
Townsend never married. In addition to his mother, survivors include sisters Lou Ann Townsend, also of Charlotte, and Stacey Moser of Point Roberts, Wash. Services will be private.
Townsend’s last review will be published in Lavender next week.
“I have lost a true friend, but the community has lost a champion,” Rocheford said.