A weeknight in February is not when you most want to be standing on the side of a road, in the dark, alone, in Minneapolis. Local temperatures were less than a respectable grade point average and nearing a blood alcohol count. For the first time, I opened the compass on my phone and used it for its intended purpose. It might seem strange, but for a playwright, I was in the best place I could possibly be: on my way to the Theatre Pro Rata play reading series. How does a cheesefake-eatin’, “yeah-yeah” sayin’, angry young Philly Playwright end up waddling like a penguin through the hip-high snow canals of Minnesota?
Theatre Pro Rata is the company which produced Traveling Light back in 2010, in Layman’s Cemetery, as noted by American Theatre Magazine. To this day, in Minneapolis, it’s known as “that play in the cemetery.” So, yeah, they know me there. Artistic director Carin Bratlie and I met through an online craft community. We bonded over a shared love of knitting. I stalked her because she was working on a production of Quills, and I was fascinated with her process of building a distressed corset. Over time, she saw what and how I write, drafts were exchanged, and the rest is full-cemetery history.
That 2010 trip whetted my appetite for the Twin Cities. Vince and I fell in love with the mild July weather. The mosquitoes they complained about didn’t seem like much. The food, architecture, and intelligent small businesses in Uptown were all enough to make the city great on its own, but the people were what really lured us in.
One evening we were standing in front of a public map looking for the nearest bus stop. A woman in a floral print dress walked past us, stopped, came back and asked, “Did you need any help finding something?” My jaw practically hit the ground. I blubbered, “Wh-wh-wh-whaaat?” I did notice that around her neck was a silver St. Christopher’s medal, so maybe she had a particular need to assist travelers. Maybe I’m jaded and need to look into a softer suit of armor. But, in general, the kindness and politeness of Minnesotans is humbling.
Theatre Pro Rata has a history of creating thought-provoking theater with a high standard of excellence. They are what I think most people would call a small-budget theater company, but they pack tremendous impact onto the stage. Their mission indicates that they create plays which cause you to think about and discuss them long afterwards. I loved working with them so much that I keep trying to crack the code of “what is a Pro Rata play,” because the work they do is the kind of things I want to write.
The commonalities are that the conflict is specific and immediate, with resonance in the present, even if the play takes place long ago and far away. The plays they choose seem to be ones that show the best and worst about the human condition, and how these two are often interchangeable.
For example, in their most recent show, Elephant’s Graveyard by George Brant, the joy and dazzle of a circus is contrasted with the simplicity and pragmatism of small-town life. However, the hunger for artifice and desire for spectacle, inextricable from the human condition, fuels but ultimately undoes anything beautiful about either side. Director Amber Bjork placed Brant’s script in a minimalist arena, where the characters, conflict and language are the entire show. Two musicians played tunes created by music director Theo Langason on a platform, echoing the heat and pulse of Tennessee in the summer. One string of lights showed the glitz of the circus tent. Julia Carlis’ subtle and powerful lighting design caused many people to think, at times, that they saw the actual elephant (never onstage, but certainly felt). Every other element of this heartbreak was brought in by the performances of the excellent cast and the flawless costumes by Mandi Johnson. By the end of the play I felt like I’d been punched in the sternum, had the breath sucked out of my lungs, and then had taken the front seat of the roller coaster straight down hill; like I’d just fallen in love. This is exactly how theater should make you feel.
Amber took me to the Minnesota Fringe Lottery, which was a huge affirmation of how theater can be done and something FringeArts could stand to learn. In exchange for an application fee of $25, you and your production company receive a lottery number. At an event in a theater space, ping-pong balls containing numbers are drawn, charted, and the entire festival, for all size venues, is selected.
If your number is selected, you pay a production fee, and get “venue rent for five performances, technical and box office staff, a listing in the printed program, a customizable show page on our website, lots of producing training and at least 65 percent of the box office receipts.” Essentially, they do the hard stuff. You do the fun things that are the real reason you went into making theater in the first place.**
That’s it. The playing field is level. It’s easier for audiences to find shows and plan their Fringe-watching schedule. The selection process occurred in a party atmosphere (Brave New Workshop Student Union, with a bar and a popcorn machine), and most companies tentatively titled their shows, “TBA.” That atmosphere of “let’s all get together and make a big experiment” seems to last through the summer into August; supportive and deliberately collaborative. Companies don’t have to compete for audiences, space, or reviewers’ time. It is true that in some ways it’s more restrictive; your show can not run longer than 60 minutes, your venue and performance times are assigned. But, if you want to do a site-specific Coriolanus in your local laundromat at dawn, they have an application process for that too. It honors the camaraderie and experimental nature of theater and provides structure to foster growth, while making it easier for audiences to experience.
The reading of Fox Haven was extremely helpful for me. Since its reading in last spring’s MFA Playfest, I’ve revised the end and beginning. While the reading last time was a complete success, in this case I was able to hear it with actors closer in age to the characters. The feedback they gave me was specific and clear, and, as always, working with them was not only productive but also a joy.
As a cultural haven, Minneapolis is just so seductive. The city manages snow and cold as well as Las Vegas manages heat. Indoor spaces are well-insulated, streets are efficiently cleared, and there’s a strong sense of hygge, the idea of getting together with others and enjoying social time to stave off adversity. This probably contributes to the strength of their cultural scene; they don’t hibernate at home, but go out to see shows, experience museums, conservatories and architecture. Their Uptown district has theaters in similar density to how most cities have Starbucks. Not only is there audience demand for the arts, but also there’s government and corporate funding.
The mind-blower for me was The Interact Centre. It’s an arts organization which includes a licensed day program so that people like my brother Ted can attend five days a week and work with artists on the art they need to create most. I know of no other program like this. It would be perfect not only for Ted, but for so many artists to work in. We know that arts and education make cities a destination and promote economic growth by leaps and bounds. Why this isn’t happening like this in more cities, I don’t know.
Getting back to the Shackleton experience. Needless to say, between, Siri, my compass, and my sketchy sense of direction*, I quickly found Theater Nimbus, the location which Theatre Pro Rata was using for their production of Elephant’s Graveyard, and joyfully stumbled into the welcoming warmth they provide. On the whole, the entire experience was an intellectual and emotional health spa. Prior to this trip, my seasonal affective disorder was turning me into a slug, but now I don’t feel so cold. My purpose is definitely renewed.
Now if I can do something about the seven pounds I gained from their terrific restaurants, everything will be fine.
*All right, I’ll admit it. My secret teenaged mutant ninja x-men power is getting lost. If Magneto ever captures me and demands to know where Professor Xavier is, I will hold up under torture as long as possible, and then gasp, “Fine… you win… I’ll take you to him…. we wanna get on the turnpike.” Thus providing a distraction long enough for the others to get through makeup and so on.
**I am wrong. I know some people really did go into making theater because they love sweeping aisles between bolted-down theater seats, running sales reports, applying for insurance, or calling cues. Those people should be saluted, honored, and the rest of us should get out of their way.