Talking Minnesota theater


I thought maybe I should check in with how my research project about theater in Minnesota in the 1960s and 70s is going. Well, I’m trudging along, feeling slightly overwhelmed about the whole thing. It turns out there is A LOT of information, which is awesome, but slightly daunting when my task is to find out “what we know” and “what we do not know.”

My favorite part of the project so far is just talking to people. I had a great interview with Ben Kreilkamp, who told me all about the wild days of the 1970s, when there were “boogies” almost every night of the week on the West Bank, when people were working on “mind expansion” and experimenting with non-hierarchical structures, and people just hung out at the New Riverside Café all day drinking coffee and having intellectual conversations, and of course had fantastic parties.

I also had a great conversation with Sheila Livingston, who is a kind of historian herself. She told me all about how she got involved in the Guthrie during the early days, first as a volunteer and later as a paid staff member working on educational programming. This week, I get to interview John Cowles, who was extremely influential in bringing Tyrone Guthrie here to Minneapolis, as well as Sandy Spieler from In the Heart of the Beast, where I’m also doing a site visit and checking out their archives.

Meanwhile, I’ve made a couple trips to the Performing Arts archives at the University of Minnesota. There’s a huge amount of information there, almost more than I know what to do with. Part of the problem is that it’s hard to weave through what’s exactly in the archives, because it’s all organized boxes. For example, there might be a box that’s all “administrative” files from the Guthrie in 1962, but you don’t know what the administrative files contain until you open it and start going through it. There’s a lot of really boring stuff like budgets, and thank you letters for luncheons, and things like that. But there’s also cool random stuff like letters between Tyrone Guthrie and Alec Guinness, and letters filled with the excitement of bringing such a prominent artist such as Guthrie to the fair city of Minneapolis.

I hope that as I plod through it all, I’ll pick up the pace, and be able to garner what I need faster. Part of the problem is that I get so interested in the little stories that I find, as I realize that each of them could be a whole subject of research. For example, Stage Hands was a volunteer group made up entirely of women who were working during the first years of the Guthrie Theater. They were an independent organization, and clashed with the Guthrie in the early 1970s when the theater decided that the volunteers needed to have oversight.

Sheila Livingston told me all about it, and it reminded me of a book I was reading called The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, by Ruth Rosen. It was one of the books suggested to me to give context to my research by my old Macalester professor, Peter Rachleff, who has been offering his guidance in my project. The book talks about how, in post-World War II America, the ideals of the “middle class” dictated that women not work, but at the same time encouraged women to take on enormous amounts of “charity” work.

So it’s on to the grindstone for me. I’ll check in later as my research progresses. Meanwhile, it’s one step at a time, gathering information that makes up a whole.