Jack Reuler is a white, middle-aged man (and he admits “middle-aged” is generous). He loves to fish and golf. As a bowler, he’s good — even has his own ball. On a summer Saturday night, he would love to take you for a ride on his boat and then catch the dirt-track races in Alexandria. Yes, he owns a boat — and three cars. And he’s wrench-savvy enough to keep them running.
Reuler is the man to call when Twins tickets fall into your lap on a weekday and you need someone to sneak out with you. He’s also the guy who invites his pals over to watch Vikings-Packers games and serves frozen pizza, chips and salsa.
Typical guy? Keep reading.
Jack Reuler is artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre, which has programmed a 2014-15 season full of LGBT themes, African and Muslim plays, a festival of new Arab writing, plays about immigration and people with disabilities. It is the most pluralistic theater season in memory.
He practices “radical hospitality,” which not only allows free admission to Mixed Blood shows but actively seeks audiences that would not normally come to the theater. For 37 years, Reuler and Mixed Blood have been driven by the principles of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“There’s the fact that he’s not a type, that he just presents himself as ‘Hi, I’m Jack, I work here,’ ” said Aditi Kapil, a playwright/actor/director whose career Reuler has encouraged. “Considering the change he has brought to American theater, you would assume something more formidable — people assume a person of color.”
He’s a rebel, a maverick, the kid in the corner who believes that whatever landed him in trouble was worth it.
Playwright Kristoffer Diaz, speaking to the Theatre Communications Group’s annual conference in Los Angeles last summer, called out Reuler for his dedication and vision.
“Their season is remarkable, particularly on the diversity/inclusion front,” Diaz said. “It’s a success because Jack Reuler is, to use my favorite term for him, ‘gangster as [expletive].’ ”
So who are you, Jack Reuler? You’re so … so complicated.
Talking about himself
This complicated man has bits of rice stuck to his right forearm as he leans on the lunch table of a favorite Asian buffet. He isn’t thrilled to hear that this article is about him.
“I thought you wanted to talk about the season,” he said.
Well, yes. But how does one talk about Mixed Blood and not make it about Jack Reuler?
“Having Jack Reuler as its artistic director is Mixed Blood’s cross to bear,” he said. “To de-brand Mixed Blood from me is a good thing. The programming needs to speak for the organization.”
It’s brave talk — mostly honest — but in his heart Reuler knows that it was his vision, sweat and chutzpah that formed Mixed Blood in the mid-1970s. His theater has evolved constantly in programming and endured rocky times that have left other companies wobbling or dead.
“I never like things to be about me,” he wrote in an e-mail after lunch. “I am most excited about this upcoming season at Mixed Blood. I like how the plays talk to each other and to populations with whom we as an organization would like to connect.”
Reuler is part of a fifth-generation Twin Cities family and the youngest of three children. His father was a middle manager with Lane Bryant, and his mother ran the household. A photo on the wall of Reuler’s house proves he is his father’s son.
At age 8, he wrote an essay that he shares proudly. Titled “What Age I Would to be, [sic],” it says he’d like to be 16 so he could drive and in two years be able to drop out of school and smoke. He would get a job and “buy a Corvette and stick rockets on the back.” He could go out for sports and go to striptease shows in New York.
Reuler studied zoology at Pomona College before transferring to Macalester in St. Paul. (Interesting aside: In 1998 he applied to be director of the Minnesota Zoo, based partly on studies he had written in his early 20s about the three-toed sloth and the effects of captivity on breeding in primates.)
He turned a summer social-justice project into Mixed Blood Theatre in the old West Bank firehouse station.
“Then and now, my model is audiences coming together to fight racism,” he said.
Mixed Blood grew large in the Twin Cities theater community because of Reuler’s approach to using actors of diverse backgrounds, and because the company did fun, imaginative and good work.
By 2000, Mixed Blood was taking lumps — the result of bad luck and Reuler’s casual (disheveled?) organization. A harsh assessment I wrote for the Star Tribune stung him.
“I have for 14 years had an ache that the last thing my mother read about me was a 2000 profile you had written that was, for me, hard to read and sad to ponder as her final impression,” Reuler wrote in a recent e-mail. “It’s why I like the work to speak for itself and for me to stay in the shadows.”
Proving everyone wrong
Reuler and Mixed Blood have reversed the perceptions raised in that 2000 profile. He hired what he called a “dream team” of PR consultant Kathy Graves, fundraiser Erika Eklund and marketing specialist Robin Gillette.
“Jack has oppositional defiance disorder,” Graves said. “If people tell him ‘That won’t work,’ he’ll make it work.”
They coaxed out Reuler’s dreams for the theater and brought a welcome refinement to the old firehouse, which is as rumpled as a college dorm. A 1972 Twins calendar has hung on his office wall since 1982.
“They used to throw pizza parties on opening nights, and we would go to Costco and buy strawberries and chocolate,” said Graves. “We bought gourds to decorate the lobby, and Jack looked at them and said, ‘I would never have thought of the gourds.’ ”
Mixed Blood focused on building audiences. He looked around at the Somali population on the West Bank. He expanded to include different abilities, gender orientation, cultural and religious stories. And then he exploded the nonprofit arts model with Radical Hospitality.
“It’s not just free admission,” he said. “It’s looking at the programming and asking, ‘What are the barriers to participation?’ It was about who we were trying to talk to.”
Earned income has dipped to 27.5 percent of revenue from 40 percent, but increased fundraising has balanced a $1.1 million annual budget.
The dream team has departed, but in 2009, Reuler hired a managing director for the first time. He has established two beachheads that get him away from Mixed Blood. He teaches and directs shows at Arizona State University, Pomona and UC-San Diego in the winter. In the summer, he helps run Theatre L’Homme Dieu in Alexandria.
“Jack has been a godsend for L’Homme Dieu,” said Fred Bursch, whose family name is on the theater. “There is no way we would be where we are today without his leadership.”
He has no intention of leaving Mixed Blood, though. On his 60th birthday, he flew to Aitutaki, an eyedrop of land in the Pacific Ocean. He stayed in a thatched hut with no radio, TV or Internet — only books, a bicycle and the beach. It was heaven for a week. Too bad he was booked for three weeks.
“I could not wait to get back to Minnesota in January,” he said. “I learned I have an addiction to stress.”
A constant presence
“I love being part of the theater community,” Reuler said, digging into the chocolate/vanilla ice cream that caps every visit to this lunch buffet.
After ticking off professional accomplishments — participating in the National New Play Network, recognition for Radical Hospitality, his leadership role and the respect he is shown in the local theater community — Reuler contrasts that with the “failure of my personal life.”
We both laugh at what is an open secret: For all his guy pals, he has never made a long-term relationship work with a woman. The closest he came was with Heather Janz, the longtime chef (Sri Lanka Curry House, the House of Curry) and mother of Taj Ruler.
Failure would not be the word to describe Jack’s relationship with Taj, a carbon copy of her dad who has followed him into theater. Growing up around actors influenced her, Ruler said, “but I did my theater at South High.” She pursues her love of comedy as a member of the Brave New Workshop troupe.
Reuler is in the audience nearly every opening night to see his daughter, and also as a sign of his respect for BNW founder Dudley Riggs. His focus is outward, on others. At L’Homme Dieu this summer, he beached his boat on a gloriously sunny day to go inside for two hours and watch a show because the cast had asked him.
His productions are not polished, but that is less important to him than the audience. Graves recalled her experience at “Neighbors,” in the first year of Radical Hospitality.
“I could not get over that audience,” she said. “We [white, middle-aged women] were the anomaly, and it was thrilling. It was everybody — old, young, fat, skinny, short, tall, black, white. That’s Jack at his best.”
It is hard to believe, but a white guy who wears tube socks, gym shorts and T-shirts is the boldest innovator in theatrical diversity, fixing his focus for nearly 40 years on what he believes theater should be: a place where everyone is welcome.