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Minneapolis native Ike Holter wins the country's most lucrative award for playwriting

Minneapolis native Ike Holter has won the highest monetary award for an English-language playwright. Yale University announced Wednesday that he is one of two dramatists who will be honored with the 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize in September, a designation that comes with a $165,000 no-strings-attached grant.

Holter, 31, grew up in Seward, graduated from South High and went on to the attended the prestigious Theatre School at DePaul University. Unfortunately for the Twin Cities, he has never returned as a full-time theatermaker, although he has workshopped scripts at the Playwrights Center. Instead, he quickly rose through the ranks of Windy City playwrights and was named the Tribune’s “Chicogoan of the Year” for theater in 2014.

Many of Holter’s plays are set in the same fictional Chicago neighborhood, but in his review praising a play about a failing urban school, critic Tribune Chris Jones wrote that, “Holter has plenty of say about the long legacy of racism and unequal resources in the way we educate our children in big American cities. … But this never feels like one of those arty plays, common today, that fuse shocking theme (race, sex, history, whatever) with the new-fangled dramaturgy they like to teach in posh graduate schools.”

Both “Exit Strategy” and “Hit the Wall,” Holter’s drama about Stonewall, have enjoyed successful off-Broadway runs. He has a show opening later this month at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, and is at work on commissions from both the Goodman and Writers Theater. But critical and popular success for a playwright—especially for one who’s not writing for cable TV on the side—rarely translates into financial security.

“I’m not going on a fashion spree or anything,” Holter said, while on a rehearsal break Tuesday. “I’m one of many millions of other Americans who are in debt. I’m still wrapping my head around this.”

The Windham-Campbell Prizes were established in 2011 at the request of Tennessee Williams’ collaborator and confidante Donald Windham, a novelist who died in 2010. A Yale library administers the awards, which are somewhat mysteriously determined by global nominators, juries and selection committees. This year, two awards each went to practitioners of poetry, fiction, prose and playwriting.

Thus far in their young history, the Windham-Campbell Prizes have gone to writers who are more than emerging but not quite mid-career. Irish dramatist Marina Carr took home the second 2017 theater award, while Jackie Sibblies Drury, whose play, “We are Proud to Present…” is currently running at the Guthrie, won the prize last year.

Holter credits his own early trips to the Guthrie with hooking him on theater, particularly a 1999 performance of the musical “Sweeney Todd.”

“That show changed my life,” he said. “I saw it one night in the summer when all the power had gone out during the second number. They said we could leave and get a refund, or stay and watch it with work lights.”

He stayed, obviously.

“It was amazing, seeing such a raw show,” he said. “It was a really great night of theater.”

Winning the Windham-Campbell hasn’t made him too nostalgic, however.

“I am making it my business to keep working,” Holter said. “As awesome as this is, I’ve got a bunch of deadlines to meet.” 

A new director takes the helm at the Minnesota Fringe Festival

The Minnesota Fringe Festival has named a new executive director.

Dawn Bentley, whose latest leadership role was running the Art Shanty Projects on Medicine Lake, will take the reins of the organization April 3.

 “I am honored and humbled to be given this opportunity,” Bentley said in a prepared statement. She vowed to be “an effective leader and passionate advocate for the Fringe."

A body-builder and marathon runner, Bentley has experience in non-profit management. She was director of business development for the Northern Spark festival and has been an adjunct faculty member at several institutions, including McNally Smith College of Music and the University of Minnesota.

Bentley assumes leadership of one of the state’s largest performing arts festivals at a time of change and challenge.

The fringe was sued last year by Sean Neely, a controversial Arizona-based performer. Neely's pedophilia-themed show, “Having Sex with Children in My Brain,” won a slot in the festival’s lottery, but then was later rejected. That lawsuit is remains active.

Bentley succeeds Jeff Larson, a longtime fringe employee who resigned last fall, followed by his deputy, Ann B. Erickson.

The fringe has grown exponentially since its founding in 1994. It has an annual budget of $740,000 and three fulltime employees — a number that balloons to about 70 for its two-week festival.

About 48,000 tickets were sold to 168 fringe show in 2016, a year when the festival paid out over $230,000 to artists, according to fringe officials.

The 2017 fringe festival runs August 3 - 13, 2017.

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