What put theater in Minnesota on the map?


Well, one exciting thing about the new year is that I’m going to be working on a research project about theater in Minnesota in the 1960s and 70s. The funding is coming from a legacy grant by the Minnesota Historical Society, and will culminate in the research project being made accessible online here at TC Daily Planet.

The idea came from a conversation that I had over the summer with a friend of mine, May Mahala, who is a playwright and historian herself and has written a book about the history of Penumbra Theatre. We were talking about the institutions that came out of the sixties and seventies, many of which are still around. What was it that made these institutions survive? What were the political and social forces that created the perfect storm for all that to happen?

The timeline that I’m looking at begins, of course, with the Guthrie Theater. The Guthrie transformed not only Minnesota theater but the national scene. Tyrone Guthrie, along with his colleagues Oliver Rea and Peter Zeisler, began a series of conversations starting in 1959 about creating a classical repertory company that was based, not in New York, but in the heart of the Midwest, according to the Guthrie’s website. The theater, which opened its first production in 1963, spurred a whole movement of regional theater centers that are still thriving today.

The research project also will take a look at other prominent theaters in Minnesota, some that are still around and some that aren’t. The Children’s Theatre, Theatre L’Homme Dieu in Alexandria and the Firehouse Theater in Minneapolis all started in the 1960s. Then in the seventies, there were the Cricket Theatre, In the Heart of the Beast, At the Foot of the Mountain — a women’s theater, Illusion Theater, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and the History Theatre. There were also the theaters that supported the voices of communities of color, such as the Penumbra and Mixed Blood.

The timeline concludes with the Southern Theater, which opened in 1981 after it ceased being used by the Guthrie as an alternative space and was nearly closed by the city. I wanted to include the Southern in the research project because, in some ways, it was working on an article about that institution that got me thinking about how important it was to make sure we have all the history.

As I was working on that article, it was amazing to me how much of the Southern’s history was just “common knowledge” to older folks in the theater and dance community. They remember everything that happened, whereas we younger folks weren’t there. One of the reasons that I think it’s important now to look at this seminal period of the 1960s and 1970s in Minnesota Theater History, because many of the people are still around, and I think it’s important to hear their stories before it’s too late (not to be morbid about it). And not just to hear their stories, but to find out from them what is missing from the histories that have been written so far. What are the pieces that are still untold? What archival materials do they still have stored in their basements, or in the back of some storage space?

I chatted with Bain Boehlke the other day about my project and this is what he said to me: “The histories that have been told so far have been by academics. I think it would be cool to find out what it was really like.”

Well, I’m not an academic. When I was talking to the folks at the Minnesota Historical Society, I realized that what I originally thought my project would entail wouldn’t quite work. When I was originally thinking about it, I thought the research project could culminate in a series of articles, but what I found out was that they really were more interested in just the information, rather than a paper or documentary, which is a less pure form of history. So what I’m going to be doing is just gathering information through interviews, gathering materials, and finding out where information exists, and what is missing.

I do plan on writing about the process here on the column. Eventually, after this first research stage is finished, I can embark on further stages that may end up in a longer written piece. In the meantime, I will be publishing the research — interviews, scans of materials, etc. — here on the Daily Planet.

So it should be interesting. If YOU are a person that was doing theater back then, I’d like to hear from you. My email is Sheila@tcdailyplanet, if you are interested in participating.