Sightlines - Children's Theatre Company: A Continuing Legacy Remembered

Article by C. Andrew Mayer, Sound Designer

At the time that I first embarked on my theatre career, you couldn’t swing an oversize elephant costume in this town without hitting three people who’d either worn it or dressed someone in it. The Children’s Theatre Company and School had been active for 20 years or so, and had served as a training ground for an entire generation of young theatre artists and technicians; rarely did I encounter anyone in the professional community who hadn’t spent some time there. With half a century behind it now, and alumni working in every corner of the national performing arts community, CTC has made an unparalleled contribution to the collective level of excellence.

The arc of CTC’s initial success must have seemed nothing short of astonishing to those who witnessed it. Growing out of a West Bank theatre company called the Moppet Players, in 1965 the theatre implanted itself in the small auditorium at the Minneapolis Art Institute; by 1974 it had opened a brand new building next door, designed by the internationally renowned architect Kenzo Tange. The work on offer was apparently so impressive, and the times so heady, that spending millions of dollars on a state-of-the-art facility for a theatre company no older than a third-grader made perfect sense.

And it made the work even more impressive, judging by the attention and esteemed visitors the theatre received. Dr. Seuss came, and so did Astrid Lindgren, creator of Pippi Longstocking, among many others. The Smithsonian magazine, a prominent organ in its day, came and did a long feature article, and put the theatre’s production of Alice in Wonderland smack on the front cover. Uber-famous documentarian D.A. Pennebaker came and made a film.

In our modern era of sophisticated family entertainment, in which shows like The Lion King and Wicked can regularly set Broadway box-office records, it may be difficult to imagine just how artistically radical a place like CTC was at the time; creating work at the highest professional level for children and their parents to enjoy in equal measure was a rare thing indeed. The Theatre accomplished it by not condescending or “dumbing down”, not pandering to a perceived lack of sophistication in its audience – and then, it silenced all doubters by pioneering incredibly sophisticated new uses of integrated technology. “The Conspiracy of Elements”, as founding Artistic Director John Clark Donahue phrased it, was harnessed to elevate theatre magic to a breathtaking level. And, since magic requires magicians, it also brought skilled technicians to a whole new level of importance!

Thus was created the need for a school, to train people to do the work. CTC/S had an ongoing after-school performing arts training program, which eventually evolved into a full-blown conservatory. At its peak, the fully-accredited school had 120 fourth through twelfth graders, 20 of whom were in the technical program, and every student 15 or older was required to crew at least one mainstage show per school year: backstage as crew or stage management assistants, in the sound or light booths, or as wardrobe crew. In addition there were the after-school programs and many years of a Summer Theatre Institute which brought in more hordes. Over the years, that meant a massive infusion of new skills into an entire generation of young people, many of whom then went elsewhere in the local community to ply their trade.

Hence, that elephant costume! People with elevated technical chops, both those seeking professional work and those who preferred acting (but whose souls were clearly much improved by their experience in the techie trenches), populated the local landscape like a plague of charming and geeky locusts. In my early career days I quickly stopped feeling surprised to discover that seemingly every random person I met had gone through CTC training at some point!

And even after the school closed, and crew began to get paid to perform the work the students had previously done for free, it still offered a lot of excellent entry-level positions. Recent college grads and MCAD students frequently comprised the backstage and changeover crews, and young guns like me, in the right place at the right time, could stroll right into a reasonable career as an electrician, board operator, or stage technician. In addition, world-class scenery, properties, and costume shops hired young artisans and carpenters and gave them real-world immersion in their crafts.

Eventually, a funny thing happened: the jobs just got too good! The implementation of agreements with the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, including a “bargaining unit” clause which meant that all hourly technical staff were represented by the union, contributed mightily to an increase in wages which lifted these positions to the point of actually providing a solid, middle-class living. Making decent money, and working in a place with extremely high artistic standards and which both appreciated and put to good use one’s skills, seduced people into sticking around. These days, with an impressive and sustained paucity of turnover, the building is full of people with astonishingly long tenures, and no reason to be in a hurry to move on.

So, although it doesn’t support quite the kind of free-wheeling, revolving door, high-energy entry-level culture it once had, the legacy of the Children’s Theatre Company and School lives on in stage managers, designers, directors and craftspeople scattered all over the local and national theatre industry. Not to mention performing artists, including star national actors like Chris Mulkey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Justin Kirk, Vincent Kartheiser, and Laura Osnes, among many others; and theatre companies, including The Jungle, founded by Bain Boehlke, and Ballet of the Dolls, founded by Myron Johnson. Wendy Lehr, certainly one of the most respected artists around these parts, now has a theatre named after her in downtown St. Paul. And the Loring Pasta Bar in Dinkytown even has deep roots in founder Jason McLean’s time as a CTC company member.

The list could go on and on. The Children’s Theatre Company and School has a long and unique history of seeding the ground all across the theatrical artistic and geographic spectra. Among the many successes and triumphs of the Theatre’s fifty-year history, its expansive record of imbuing young people with the highest of professional skills must stand as one of the greatest.