The bearded dude wants to bring the Old Log Theatre into the 21st century, appealing to millennials even as his 80-year-old company retains its blue-haired patrons.
It’s a delicate balancing act for Eric Morris, 32, the jack-of-all-theater-trades who in 2018 took over artistic leadership of the suburban company long viewed as a silver-fox magnet.
Old Log has cut back on, if not entirely phased out, the har-har British farces on which that reputation was built, programming other types of theatrical comfort food — namely American comedies and musicals, including “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which recently closed a successful run, and “Dixie Swim Club,” a nostalgic comedy about five old college friends that opens Thursday.
The theater is seeing results.
“The average age of our ticket buyers went down probably 10 years for ‘Gentlemen’s Guide,’ especially on weekend nights,” Morris said. “We hope that ‘Swim Club’ will bring in a lot of new people, too.”
There’s a lot riding on his vision. Like Twin Cities companies Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and the Brave New Workshop, the Old Log is a commercial playhouse that’s entirely dependent on ticket sales.
Morris, who succeeded longtime artistic director Kent Knutson, is tasked with reinvigorating the theater at a time when Twin Citians have more entertainment options than ever.
He has a strong vote of confidence from Old Log owner Greg Frankenfield, a Broadway investor and businessman who founded the software firm Magenic Technologies.
“Eric’s a gifted performer who didn’t have a ton of theater management experience or directing experience when I hired him,” said Frankenfield, who bought the theater from the family of founder Don Stolz in 2013. “But he’s a quick study and has knowledge that complements mine.
“I saw in him a potential future leader of the theater and I kind of pursued him once I had the opportunity.”
Swinging for theater
That he is leading a theater in Minnesota is as much a surprise to Morris as it is to everyone else. “It’s not something I ever foresaw,” he said.
The only child of two sports buffs, Mike and Shelly Morris, a convenience store manager and a physical education teacher, the Hamilton, Ohio, native grew up attending touring Broadway musicals in nearby Cincinnati with his grandmother.
In 10th grade, he had an agonizing career choice: play baseball with the school team or play characters on stage in the school musical. Morris swung for the stage, and was cast as the romantic lead in a racially nonconforming version of “Once on This Island,” the Haiti-set musical that recently played the Ordway.
He has never looked back. Nor does he see his two passions — sports and theater — as being at odds.
“I’ve still got a vibe for sports and am in three fantasy baseball leagues,” Morris said. “But for the baseball thing, I probably would have ended up in the broadcast booth.”
After studying theater at Ithaca College in upstate New York, he impressed watchers of an audition showcase enough to snag a New York agent. Wide-eyed and full of zest, he moved to the Big Apple and got into the same spin cycle that wears out so many actors — lots of auditions, little stage work.
But his fortunes changed in 2012, when one of his college professors, director David Lefkowich, invited him to Minneapolis for a part in “Pagliacci,” the debut production of Mill City Summer Opera. “I’m a musical theater guy, so I felt like a fake opera singer, but David made it work,” Morris said.
He was smitten with the Twin Cities — the breadth and depth of its theater community; its greenness and walkability; its capacity to foster self-invention while accommodating very specific interests. (For Morris that includes coffee, a taste he indulges with a monthly subscription to unique blends: “I’m a coffee connoisseur the way some people are wine connoisseurs.”)
He returned to New York, packed his Pontiac Grand Am and drove the 18 hours back to the Twin Cities for auditions. He got no roles that first try, but repeated that trip several more times until Chanhassen Dinner Theatres put him in as a replacement in “Hello, Dolly!” in 2014.
Morris never left. He has worked in the ensembles of Theatre Latte Da (“Assassins”) and the Guthrie (“Guys and Dolls”). He played the leading romantic hero in “The Bridges of Madison County” at Artistry opposite Twin Cities stalwart Jennifer Baldwin Peden.
At the Old Log, he has acted in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “The Wedding Singer,” and “Million Dollar Quartet” (he played Jerry Lee Lewis), and directed “Ghost the Musical,” “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical,” and “Gentleman’s Guide.”
At home, he plays husband to Twin Cities actor Laura Rudolph, whom he met in “Hello, Dolly!”
While Morris replaced former Old Log artistic director Knutson, he does not use that title. Morris is listed as the theater’s director of production, a title that owner Frankenfield said best reflects the role’s expansive responsibilities.
“I wanted him involved in more than just the artistic side,” Frankenfield said. “We’re a small operation, a business, and we have to have someone who can do a lot of things and is not shy about that.”
The Old Log has annual gross receipts of about $1.2 million and draws about 60,000 people to its playhouse on the shore of Lake Minnetonka, according to theater officials. Both figures are high-water marks under Frankenfield’s ownership, they said, but there’s plenty of room to grow.
It programs about three shows a year. Morris would like to see four. Significantly, the Old Log is drawing bigger talents for its auditions. Ivey winner Max Wojtanowicz made his Old Log debut starring in “Gentlemen’s Guide.” “Swim Club” features an acting quintet that includes Jen Maren, Bonni Allen and Sara Marsh.
“When I moved to Minneapolis, I thought I would come and dabble a little, but I never imagined that I would stay or have work all the time or that I would meet such great friends,” Morris said. “I was open to exploring different regions with good theater, like D.C., Philly or Seattle. But I met my wife here. I have been embraced. And I’ve got great work. I’m good.”
That kind of confidence might not start a revolution, but it could breathe new life into the Old Log.