Sightlines: Ron Peluso - Witness to 40 Years in the Twin Cities' Theater Community

Article by Ron Peluso
Artistic Director, History Theatre

My first full-time job that paid a living wage was at History Theater (then The Great American History Theater), working for Ron Peluso. The staff often observed that the quiet Ron had an incredible knack for finding meaningful, interesting stories. An important skill for any theatre artist, but especially for an Artistic Director. But many of us who’ve worked for Ron over the years don’t know his story - and so we asked him.

I came to the Twin Cities in stages.  First in 1975-76 for graduate school at the U of M.  I remember vividly a production of the Snow Queen at CTC – curtain up on a witch – long blonde hair barely covering a bare-breasted actor: female.  John Clarke Donahue, directing – the show was stunning.   It was my first impression of the theater scene in Minnesota.

That same year, I would visit The Guthrie and the experience was over-whelming. My time in professional theater was yet to come – I had never before seen great classics on a thrust performed by nationally renowned actors and directors, let alone done on such a grand scale.   Before I returned to Pennsylvania in 1976 to continue my teaching career at the high school level, I remember seeing a banner on The Old Firehouse on the West Bank. It read: INDIANS by Arthur Kopit.  It was the first season and the beginnings of Mixed Blood Theatre founded by Jack Reuler.  The late seventies brought Penumbra, The Illusion, Park Square, History Theatre, The Playwrights’ Center, along with the mainstays of The Old Log Theater and Chanhassen Dinner Theatres as well as the already established and important community theaters of Theatre in the Round and Chimera.  Later, The Jungle, Ten Thousand Things, Frank Theatre, Theater Latte Da, Torch Theater and many others would become part of the landscape.

I would return to the Twin Cities in the early 80’s to complete my MFA in Directing and begin working my way into the theater scene. First at Mixed Blood as a stage manager, then shortly thereafter I convinced Jack to let me direct Gary Trudeau and Liz Swados' satirical Reagan musical RAP MASTER RONNIE. Working with H. Wesley Balk and Ben Krywosz on new musical theater projects with Minnesota Opera and with Wesley's Opera Institute, I would soon find a niche in the opera/musical theater world, and then with other theaters. A few years later in 1988, I assumed the Artistic Directorship of the Minnesota Festival Theatre (AEA summer stock founded by Michael Brindisi) in Albert Lea and eventually, after 8 seasons, I landed at the History Theatre as the Artistic Director and have had the honor to commission and/or direct 73 new works with 87 playwrights and composers over the past 21 years.

In the early 1980’s, I vividly recall the Theatre de la Jeune Lune production of THE KITCHEN  – a brilliant young company that would make its mark here and nationally for nearly 3 decades.  In St. Paul, The Actors’ Theatre of St. Paul sprouted wings as a collection of young actors, designers, playwrights, stage managers and directors built an AEA company that included Sally Wingert, Jim Cada, Barbara Kingsley, Nayna Ramey, Janet Hall and others who still make an impact on the Twin Cities scene.

All this is to say, that the mid-size theaters founded in the late 1970’s, 80's and early 90’s still play a major role in the creation of new work, reinventing the classics, and serving as a springboard for new up-start companies that continue to pop-up and grow, inspiring all of us to “do good work.” Moreover, this is a great theater community where audiences are willing to see a new work, go to Broadway touring shows and be daring enough to support the works of upcoming young artists who are building their own unique vision for the theater in the Twin Cities.

Above all, I believe that this theater community is welcoming to new artists. I learned an important lesson from my friend Jack Reuler at Mixed Blood, and that is, “be open to new faces, provide them with an opportunity, and see where it takes you.”  I was one of those "new faces" that Jack took a chance on – and to this day, when Jack has someone that he thinks I should meet, a new actor or designer has come to town, he’ll send them my way – I’m always willing to find time to meet with them and let them introduce themselves.  In return, I send newcomers back to Jack for an introductory visit.

Over the last 40 years, I’ve witnessed the changes at The Guthrie as they moved from the Liviu Ciulei to Garland Wright to Joe Dowling and now to the new reign of Joe Haj.  One of Joe's first items on his agenda was to meet with as many local Artistic Directors and artists on a one on one basis as he could, and that speaks volumes for his understanding of what our talented community is all about. "Welcome, Joe."

This is a unique theater community - and an incredibly intelligent and innovative one at that!  I'm honored and fortunate to be a part of it!