With more than 80 professional troupes, does the Twin Cities really need another theater company?
“That’s a question that really pisses me off,” said noted director and designer Joel Sass, who first made a splash on the scene — literally, in a blood-spattered “Titus Andronicus” — with his Mary Worth Theatre Company 15 years ago.
“For young people coming out of school, or people who don’t see what they want in the [existing theater scene], forming a company gives them agency to create their dreams in the world. And as artists, we get to leverage our own autonomy without having to wait for someone else’s permission.”
Sass has reason to be protectively peeved — but also to celebrate. The Twin Cities is experiencing one of its periodic bursts of new theater companies. What distinguishes this latest flowering is the caliber of the artists involved.
Trademark Theater, a young troupe founded by musical theater phenom Tyler Michaels, makes its debut this week at the Ritz in northeast Minneapolis with “The Boy and Robin Hood,” a new, darker take on an old story that’s been two years in the making.
Full Circle Theater, established by such pillars of the local scene as actor/director James A. Williams and Mu Performing Arts co-founder Rick Shiomi, is putting on its first big show this week — a “remix” of Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ “365 Days/365 Plays” at Penumbra — after testing the waters for a couple of years.
And Prime Productions, aimed at providing roles for women “of a certain age,” recently bowed with “Little Wars,” a play built around a number of iconic female characters (think Gertrude Stein, Lillian Hellman, Agatha Christie) that wraps up its run Sunday at Mixed Blood Theatre.
Much like the craft beer movement, theaters are springing up to address particular tastes and audiences, fostered by Minnesota’s hospitable arts environment.
The fact that these companies are being launched into a crowded marketplace is a blessing, not a curse, said Michaels. It helped him clarify the mission of Trademark.
“We are solely devoted to new musical theater works, which combines my passion for what I feel the community could use with a desire for growth in the community,” he said.
Study, plan, build
Theater companies often grow out of particular projects. Artists get together, like musicians in a band, put on a play and then decide to continue. That’s how Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre started.
Michaels, however, took it slow. Before making any moves, he did research and sought out advice from industry professionals, including Guthrie Theater associate artistic director Jeff Meanza, Theater Latté Da’s founding artistic director Peter Rothstein and Jeremy Cohen, producing artistic director at the Playwrights’ Center.
Michaels wanted to learn about pitfalls and failures, and to figure out the type of structure the organization should follow.
“People often lead with the art, and we want to do great art,” Michaels said. “But we have to have a clear idea of the business structure as we chip into a big piece of marble and hope for an awesome-looking statue.”
For Prime Productions, their market was readily apparent. Women have complained for generations about the limited opportunities available to female actors in their 40s and beyond.
The company was founded by three veteran actors — New Yorker Alison Edwards, Californian Shelli Place and Minnesotan Elena Giannetti — who went out for cocktails after an acting class at the Guthrie and decided, in Giannetti’s words, “to stop bitching and do something about it.”
“There’s great theater already here, but what’s missing is the opportunity for a deep pool for mature female talent to participate in it,” she said. “There are a handful of women of a certain age who work constantly, and bully for them. But playing the decrepit old person, the crone or the mutterer in the wheelchair is not all there should be for actresses in their prime. We want to change [the scene] so that we are not invisible.”
The company is already creating buzz. Its plans include a festival to stimulate new works featuring dynamic older female characters.
Full Circle Theater, by contrast, is a bit tougher to define. Shiomi sees its mission as creating “a multi-diverse world that’s related to but not the same as other theaters in the [Twin Cities] — Mixed Blood, Penumbra, Pillsbury House or Mu. We didn’t want to compete with any of the theaters where we’ve had long attachments. And we wanted to create something that we don’t see often, which is a truly diverse, equitable, multicultural company.”
Now 69, Shiomi is on his second company. He successfully built Mu over two decades into one of the nation’s premier Asian-American companies (Randy Reyes succeeded him as artistic director in 2012). There are benefits to all his experience, Shiomi said.
“When you start as mature artists, you have a certain established aesthetic and sensibility, which means that you’ve already fought half the battle about what you’re going to look like,” he said. “Blending these multiple experiences and aesthetics makes us bigger and stronger.”
There are also drawbacks.
“When you start from scratch, you have to do everything yourself,” he said. “But I’m a lifelong learner and I’m still having fun.”
Theater of urgency
If these are the most high profile of the new lot, it’s partly because these actors are proven quantities. But there are other companies being formed around urgency and inspiration.
Actor Kory LaQuess Pullam founded Underdog Theatre with college mate Lamar Jefferson in summer 2014, a year after both graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. Last fall, Underdog staged Pullam’s much-buzzed-about play “Baltimore Is Burning,” which looked at the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. The play explored themes around police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Pullam, whose show “Odd Man Out” will be a part of this year’s Fringe Festival, said that while he greatly appreciates the “wonderfully diverse work” done by companies like Penumbra, Pillsbury House and Mixed Blood Theatre, he strives for “on-the-pulse, up-to-the-minute theater to attract young people.
“We’re trying to present urgent stories that are underrepresented and under-heard,” Pullam said. “We’re trying to fill the gaps and commenting on the craziness around us today.”
As refreshing as youthful energy can be, it also is prone to stumble at times — as happened a couple of weeks ago when the acclaimed young company New Epic Theater was forced to cancel its production of “Medea” at the last minute. The director had envisioned a pool of water onstage, alongside a lighting fixture. A veteran in the cast, distinguished Twin Cities actor Mark Benninghofen, immediately saw it as a safety hazard, and blew the whistle.
“We believe in the vision of young theater companies — they are vital to the health of our community,” Benninghofen said. “But when it comes to safety, small companies have a responsibility to behave like big companies and not put people in jeopardy, even unintentionally.”
Consider it a hard-earned lesson. As director Sass notes, “Young people have to fail sometimes in order to grow, and what better place to learn than in a small company?”
Sass sees these troupes as a barometer of the theater scene.
“Theater does not have to mean brick-and-mortar,” he said. “It’s about different aesthetics. And these companies at the grass roots are essential to the health of the whole ecosystem. Whether the theaters end up as successful flowers or as compost doesn’t matter. It’s all part of a dynamic ecology.”