Sightlines: Theater Is Celebration

An Essay by Bainbridge Boelhke

with introduction by Wu Chen Khoo

“Theater isn’t an intellectual activity,” Bain said to me, “It’s all about the human connection; our collective lives.”

Bainbridge Boelhke, founder and outgoing Artistic Director of the Jungle Theater, is a titan of Twin Cities theatre. With a career spanning 5 decades, cataloguing what Bain has seen and done is mammoth task that is quite beyond the scope of my experience.

We all stand on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us, even if we don’t realize or acknowledge it. I’ve certainly stood on Bain’s shoulders, and I count myself lucky to have spent time with him at the Jungle. Bain’s stories are legendary – and rightfully so – and I wanted to make sure that those who haven’t had the pleasure get a chance to hear at least one.

Sit back, and really listen. I promise you’ll learn something.

Photo by Michal Daniel

Photo by Michal Daniel

I was born in Warroad, Minnesota in 1939 and came to Minneapolis as a student at the University of Minnesota after graduating from high school in 1957.  There were but a few theaters of any significance in the twin cities at that time, which included The Old Log, Theater In-the-Round, The Edith Bush Theater (in St. Paul).  The University of Minnesota Theater was really the epicenter of serious theater production here at that time, producing seasons comprised of the classics (King Lear, Othello) mixed with titles drawn from the contemporary repertory (The Glass Menagerie, The Matchmaker) as well as an occasional new play.  The actors and technicians were all students and the directors and designers, the U of M teaching staff.

When the ‘60’s rolled around, suddenly a new something imbued the air; we didn’t know what it was but “somethin’ ‘s comin’” (West Side Story thrilled – a harbinger of revolutionary change).  You could smell the inspirational advent of a new day!

And then, by the mid-sixties, the country had literally exploded with the profound energies of radical social change: the civil rights movement, Stonewall, the women’s movement, the peace marches against the war in Vietnam  The unheard of had happened; an unimagined freedom was suddenly upon us!   And those of us who embraced this new, emerging, political voice in the American theater were on fire.  The revolution was CULTURAL/POLITICAL and artists all over the country were infused with a new, powerful, creative energy, singing the new song of an authentic, happening LIBERTY.  Theaters began popping up everywhere. Not necessarily agitprop political theaters (although there were those) but theaters that embraced and manifested a new inclusive spiritual energy - a theater whose energies rose from the grassroots, a theater of, for and by the PEOPLE. Theater On-the-Road (Wendy Lehr, myself, composer Roberta Carlson and others now forgotten), The Foot of the Mountain (a theater that celebrated the emerging woman’s movement headed by Martha Boesing), The radical Firehouse Theater led by Sydney Shubert Walters and Marlow Hotchkiss, John Clark Donahue’s legendary Minneapolis Children’s Theater Company, Jim Stowell’s The Palace Theater, Joey Walsh’s Minneapolis Ensemble Theater, Loyce Houlton’s Minnesota Dance Theater to name a few.

During this decade the American theater deconstructed and explored new forms seeking a flexibility that was capable of embracing a changing social paradigm.  When Tennessee Williams wrote THE GLASS MENAGERIE in the ‘40’s he began to experiment, prophetically, with an already emerging plastique approach to theater; writing for a stage inspired by an emerging, albeit nascent, technology which itself was anticipated centuries ago by Shakespeare (“O, for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention”) and already inherent in the magic of film.  Shakespeare (universal, “ahead of his time”) presented a non-Aristotelian approach to storytelling for the stage – an approach not bound by the limitations of scenery and costume and therefore able to travel back and forth through time as well as across sea and land, from bedroom to battle field within the twinkling of an eye.  And, of course, Cinema (that “brightest heaven of invention”) could travel hither and yon, now and then, with the snip of an editor’s scissors.  This inspiring, new-found freedom (the flight of imagination, the miracle of transformation) smashed a time ordered unity of form and suddenly a new theater was borne; a theater capable of containing the emergence of a new cultural paradigm -  a theater that allowed complex ideas to be expressed in form as well as idea.

With the winds of cultural transformation suddenly filling its sails, the magic sailing vessels that rode the waters of a new American theater were everywhere.  Within a few short years, the harbour of the twin cities’ theater scene was vibrantly alive and crowded with perhaps one hundred brand new theaters (sailing vessels?) where, a few years before, only a handful had existed.  These were the heady days of a nation’s cultural renaissance, an America potently, suddenly, alive with dance, theater and music as the performing arts radiantly showered the country with new energy, with a rainbow of creative manifestation.   Especially (and potently) here in the twin cities; a city isolated from both the east and west coasts, the captains of industry and their wives gave generously to encourage the poetic imaginations of those artists who called Minneapolis/St. Paul home.

By the early ‘90’s the fervor had subsided, many of these companies closed, funding for the arts dried up; however, the seeds of this cultural explosion had taken root.  And now, a new wave of theater activity was on the horizon. In this decade we saw the emergence of many new companies that arrived with a surprisingly inherent maturity: Wendy Knox’s Frank Theater, The Jeune Lune (Dominique Serrand, Barbara Berlowitz, Steven Epp and others), The Jungle Theater (founded by Bain Boehlke and George Sutton), Theater Latte Da (Peter Rothstein), 10,000 Things Theater (Michelle Hensley); theaters that now, by 2015, have had years of vibrant history.  

One of the most wonderful aspects of twin cities theater life is the quality and experience of its audience.  This local citizenry has seen it all from great children’s theater, to challenging political theater, to the great classics enlivened by the spirit of contemporary life; women’s theater, gay theater, extraordinary theater from the African American community, theater of the avant-garde. In fact, a veritable rainbow of everything that theater holds and promises.  This midwestern audience is well versed in the rich panoply of the experience and passion that authentic theater offers.  After all theater IS that moment when audience meets player; THAT particular dialogue is what we call THEATER.   Theater is at its best -  when the excellence of the player meets the excellence of a spirited, informed and experienced audience.   Twin Cities Theater exemplifies this rare combination.  This community, where theater IS celebration.