Bain Boehlke to retire as Jungle Theater's artistic director

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2014 - 9:20 PM

Jungle Theater’s influential founder and artistic director for 25 years is retiring in 2015.

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Bain Boehlke, a fixture in the Twin Cities theater scene for more than 50 years, will retire as artistic director of the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis next June. Although he is stepping down, Boehlke will remain active in the Jungle by directing one or two shows a year as emeritus artistic director.

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Saying “all things are possible for the young at heart,” Bain Boehlke, 75, announced Monday that he will retire next year from the Jungle Theater.

Boehlke founded and has led the Minneapolis theater for 25 years. Including his years at Children’s Theatre Company, he’s been a fixture in the Twin Cities theater scene for more than half a century.

Although he will retire as artistic director next June, he is not heading for his rocking chair.

“It feels perfect, like I’m riding a surfboard onto the beach and now I’m going out to catch the next wave,” said Boehlke, whom many still remember for his decades-ago role as the stepmother in “Cinderella” at Children’s Theatre.

He hinted at several possible futures and did not shut out the possibility of starting yet another theater company.

Boehlke will become emeritus artistic director at the Jungle and direct one or two shows a year.

His departure from the day-to-day operation of the Jungle (managing director Margo Gisselman will stay on) marks an important milestone. Boehlke founded the theater in a south Minneapolis storefront in 1991. In 2000, the Jungle constructed a 150-seat jewel box theater at the same intersection of Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue S. The theater found success, financially and critically. It also triggered a neighborhood renaissance.

“The Jungle’s contributions have long supported healthy community development along Lake Street,” said McKnight Foundation President Kate Wofford when the organization honored Boehlke as its distinguished artist in 2009.

The Jungle is frequently mentioned in national assessments of the Twin Cities scene, and the company has received many Ivey Awards for excellence. Boehlke received the Ivey Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, recognizing a career that reaches back to 1960. Boehlke, Wendy Lehr, John Clark Donahue and other artists launched Children’s Theatre Company to national prominence in the 1960s and ’70s.

The Jungle mixes theater classics with contemporary work — a good example being recent productions of the edgy 2010 comic drama “Detroit” and the 1948 parlor drama “The Heiress.”

Boehlke, eccentric and voluble, is a true theatrical auteur — creating his own set designs and implementing comprehensive visions for his productions. His modern-day “Hamlet” used video technology and iPads. “Shirley Valentine” featured a set reminiscent of cartoon drawings. In “Speed-the-Plow” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Boehlke drew full, rich performances from actors — even if his rehearsals could be frustrating.

“Everybody had said, ‘He’ll drive you crazy,’ ” said Michelle Barber, who played Martha in “Virginia Woolf” several years ago. “And then on my first line of the play, he had me say it about 15 times over and I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ ” But Barber came to respect the results and worked again with Boehlke in “Hamlet.”

As an actor at the Jungle, Boehlke has played the lead in “The House of Blue Leaves” at least twice, and he and Lehr acted in “The Gin Game” in 2008.

“I’m on top of my game, and I feel really good leaving when the theater is so successful,” Boehlke said. “We always talk about the whole notion of succession, and we felt the 25-year mark was a good time to move on.

“The neighborhood is thriving; we just renewed the lobby, put in new seats, and we’ll put up a new marquee by the end of summer. We need a bigger parking lot, but that will be someone else’s job.”

In addition to stage work, Boehlke produced the 1982 documentary “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Memories and Perspectives,” and in 1996 he played a small, memorable role in the movie “Fargo.” He has directed for youth theaters in Louisville, Ky., and Honolulu, and at the Arizona Theatre Company.

This November, Boehlke will star with Lehr, his collaborator of more than 50 years, in the Jungle’s production of “On Golden Pond.” Age hasn’t hampered his ability to memorize a substantial amount of text, he said.

“I’ve never been good at that,” he said. “Memory is not my long suit. But as you age, you have so much more experience to bring to a performance.”

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