He may be at the top of his field, but he has a chip on his shoulder.
Never-satisfied visionary Peter Brosius has taken Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) to new heights in his 20 years as artistic director. It reigns as North America’s flagship stage for young audiences, whether measured by audience (275,000 annually), budget ($12.5 million) or such intangibles as ambition (“Corduroy,” the 52nd world premiere under his watch, opened this weekend).
The Minneapolis troupe has won the Tony Award as the nation’s outstanding regional company. But Brosius still gets riled up when he hears naysayers suggest his field is a stepchild of the theater world.
“Occasionally you run into funders who say they don’t support work for young people,” he said. “Really? That there’s any of that left is a challenge.”
It’s a battle this 66-year-old Pied Piper is always eager to join. Boyish and passionate, Brosius has devoted his life to empowering young people through art.
“This is not just about doing a show to be liked,” he said. “Theater is a springboard that leads to self-reflection, critical thinking and global citizenship.”
But Brosius also has a playful side. After a recent photo shoot, some CTC students did what children are wont to do. They started bouncing and somersaulting around the theater lobby.
Smiling and almost twitchy, the ebullient Brosius jumped into the middle of the action, holding a 5-year-old by the feet and wheelbarrowing him across the carpet.
“He’s like a kid with this wonderful spirit of joy,” said longtime mentor Jack Zipes.
In the rehearsal room, Brosius’ idea-a-minute energy is like “a blender on high speed,” one actor said. But while young people are an obvious source of delight to Brosius, he takes them — and his mission — very seriously.
“No matter who you are, he listens to you,” said Keegan Robinson, one of the actors he’s directing in “Corduroy,” and a senior at Minneapolis Southwest High School. “It’s fun to work in this kind of open, exploratory environment.”
Theater kid himself
For Brosius, his job is partly a way of giving back.
“I was always in a show as a kid, acting in plays nonstop until I was 13 or 14,” he said, ticking off shows such as “The Music Man.”
That was in Riverside, Calif., east of L.A. His father, an Air Force officer, died in a training accident when Brosius was 2. His mom worked as a secretary and did community theater at night, often enlisting Brosius and his three siblings.
“It’s a great thing as a kid to be part of a theater production — to be around adults and treated like an equal,” he said. “I was expected to deliver.”
Big-hearted and empathetic, he thought he’d become a lawyer working to help immigrants and others in need. But working in Legal Aid offices in the Bay Area made him realize “that wasn’t the path for me.” Instead, he pursued performing arts at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.
A college production of Chekhov’s “The Bear” gave him a sign that acting might not be the best role for him.
“Before my big monologue, I put down a bouquet of flowers near a candelabra,” he said. “I started my monologue and the audience leaned forward, eyes and mouths wide open. I thought, ‘I’m a great actor — Laurence Olivier.’ Then I looked to the side and there was someone with a fire extinguisher. The bouquet was in flames.”
A fateful trip to Berlin
At Hampshire he encountered a visiting teacher who would change his life.
Zipes, a renowned expert on fairy tales, heard about this brilliant student with an insatiable appetite to learn. He suggested that Brosius visit Berlin, then the epicenter of youth theater in Europe.
Brosius was floored by what he saw there.
“There were cabaret-like companies for young people,” he said. “There was immersive theater. It was a gorgeous time in the field of theater for young people, all of this work socially engaged and never talking down. … There were teenagers lined up around the block to see work about their lives.”
Zipes became a guiding star for Brosius. “He helped me see what it meant to take the side of young people, not to moralize to them, or to think that you know more,” Brosius said. “You’re their ally. How can we all learn together?”
Zipes wound up his career at the University of Minnesota, where he and Brosius worked on a program called Neighborhood Bridges that sends artists into schools to build literacy and critical thinking.
“Peter’s sort of like an octopus — he’s got 20 arms working on projects,” Zipes said. “Wherever he sniffs something great, he wants to grab hold of it.”
That multi-tasking energy carried Brosius through 12 years at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and two at the Honolulu Theatre for Youth before he was poached by CTC.
New ambitions for CTC
He arrived in Minneapolis in 1997 as the theater’s third artistic director. Founder John Clark Donahue had pleaded guilty in 1984 to molesting three boys and was sentenced to 10 months jail in a child sex-abuse scandal.
Brosius’ predecessor, Jon Cranney, stabilized the company. Known for adaptations of fairy tales and children’s classics, CTC also had playwrights in residence, a nice idea but one that limited the range of voices at the theater.
Brosius changed all that. He began commissioning playwrights, some of whom had never written for children.
“Peter revolutionized the theater,” said Teresa Eyring, who was CTC’s managing director from 1999 to 2007 and now leads the New York-based Theatre Communications Group. “There were a couple of years where people were skeptical of him. That’s where his vision and willingness to take risks and stay the course became really important. So many of us, when we are questioned about our choices and decisions, back down or try to move into a safer zone. That’s not Peter.”
San Diego-based playwright Naomi Iizuka was known for experimental, nonlinear work when Brosius asked her to adapt Homer’s “Odyssey” for children. “Anon(ymous)” has become one of her most produced works.
“Writing for young people requires you to tell a very good story very well,” Iizuka said. “You know immediately if the audience has lost interest.”
She said Brosius has a national reputation as “not only a visionary and a leader in American theater but a great citizen of the field. In the work that he chooses, cultivates and produces, he’s speaking to the big questions that are facing the nation and grappling with them in evocative, theatrical ways.”
CTC’s premieres include 2017’s “The Abominables,” a musical about the excesses of youth sports; 2009’s “Iqbal,” about child workers in a Pakistani carpet factory; and 2012’s “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy,” about cross-cultural friendship in a time of discrimination.
But he also has staged big crowd-pleasers, including “A Year With Frog and Toad,” which transferred to Broadway and was nominated for three Tony Awards, and “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” a 2016 collaboration with Fox Stage Productions that also may be Broadway-bound.
“We had scenes and songs being rewritten up to the last minute,” said Fox Senior Vice President Isaac Robert Hurwitz. “I loved that Peter was never satisfied. He always saw what could be done better. We’re eager to work with him again.”
Serving kids here and now
In 2005, CTC added a second, smaller stage to broaden its programming for teens and preschoolers. That expansion came just before the 2008 financial crisis, however, which forced the theater to cut programming and staff.
Brosius and his team led the way out of that fiscal crisis with such box-office winners as “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Cinderella.”
Community leaders often nod to CTC when they talk about the dynamism of the Twin Cities arts ecology. “Peter has made it a beacon for new, innovative approaches to art,” said Bill Johnson, former creative director of the ad agency Campbell Mithun (now McCann Minneapolis).
Brosius, like so many others in business, is wrestling with how to cope in a world disrupted by Facebook, Snapchat and a zillion gadgets.
“What the theater asks of you is focus, silence, time,” he said. He believes people are starting to crave such respites. “A painting in an art gallery or museum is not moving — you stand there and look at color, play, brush stroke and texture. That type of experience is not going to go away. In fact, it is becoming more needed the more complicated the world gets.”
Brosius said he believes in the power of theater to transform people and, by extension, the community and the nation.
“We have a sacred responsibility to our audience,” he said. “This is a very sophisticated group that makes moral decisions all the time,” he said, pointing to the activism by the young survivors of the recent Florida school shooting.
Brosius has put his ethos into practice at the Edina home he shares with his wife, Italian playwright Rosanna Staffa. Their daughter, Daria, is a first-year law student at Fordham University, while son Gabriel is a sophomore at Wesleyan University who has gotten the theater bug.
Last weekend the family gathered in Connecticut for Gabe’s first stab at directing — Lauren Gunderson’s “I and You,” about two very different high school students who find much in common.
Brosius came back pleased as punch.
“The next generation is so much smarter, so much better than us,” he said.