Sightlines: Warren Bowles Retrospective

Article by Warren Bowles

Warren Bowles is a well known veteran actor/director who has worked at most area theaters over the years, although he is most closely associated with Mixed Blood.  He brings us a fascinating article about his roots in the theater community here, and what drew him to it in the 60s and 70s.  His story left me hanging at the end and I’m hoping to persuade him to continue it with his observations about the 80s here. - Mike Wangen

I’ve been asked to make a few comments about the history of theater locally. First let me say that I am neither a designer nor a theater technician. I have worked as both a sound and lighting board op but I remember working on a “state-of-the-art” manual, two-scene lighting board that took up almost all of the booth. I am not old enough to have performed under gaslight but I have worked in more than a few theaters that still had the Bunsen burner-like gas jets on the wall. Secondly, my view of history is my own. My observations and hypotheses are my own and the “facts” are only as I remember them.

I came to Minnesota from southwestern Kansas in 1962. I thought I wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest. I didn’t realize that I was seeking a lifelong career in theater. The pre-Vatican Catholic Church had the best show in town, unless you had a black church with a great choir and choir director. Luckily, I was arriving in Minnesota at the same time the Guthrie was being founded. Our senior class came down to Minneapolis from the seminary in Onamia to see The Cherry Orchard. I was fascinated. The whole Guthrie philosophy was to see actors on a bare platform like they would at the Globe or up in Stratford. The costumes and set props were fabulous but the focus was solely on the actor. Watching the actor playing Firs slowly fall asleep in the midst of the ongoing action on stage touched me deeply. Maybe because as a young black man I identified with a character ignored, undervalued, and largely unseen. Maybe because I was amazed at the skill and discipline of the actor.

The Guthrie was great and a real source of civic pride. Although it was a good source of inspiration for a career in theater, it wasn’t often a good source of opportunity for work in theater. The Minnesota Twins can be a source of civic pride. However, unlike the town teams of St. Cloud, Bertha, or Alexandria, the Twins don’t scour local playgrounds, high schools, and colleges looking for talent. So it was with the Guthrie. If you were a McKnight Fellow part of your education was an internship at the Guthrie but otherwise few had any real hope of appearing on that stage.

Still the Twin Cities was an exceptionally good theater community. That was how community leaders were able to lure the Guthrie here. The University of Minnesota produced a children’s play every spring and the Minneapolis school district would bus in thousands of students to see the performance. Theater in the Round was a nationally known and respected community theater but there were a number of other community theaters in the area. The University of Minnesota had a premier MFA program but there were a number of other college programs in the area. There were opportunities to work at a semiprofessional level. I worked two seasons with Shakespeare in the Streets - no pay for rehearsals; $10 a performance; building sets and costumes; and, a minimal per diem when on the road. And periodically Jimmy Heggs would go through the ritual of opening the curtains on the shrine to local theaters in his downtown bar. There were about 100 theaters represented. But if you wanted a career as an actor you had to head to New York.

I left Minnesota for a while and returned in 1976 and the landscape had totally changed. It was nice that the regional theaters were decentralizing professional theater but they were not often involved in or speaking to the community in which they resided. In fact, they seem to be speaking down to the audience with their repertoire of classical plays. Now was a period of numerous mission driven theater companies. I think this movement was inspired by agitprop and political and social companies across the nation. Now theatre companies rose up as part of and speaking to the local community. El Theatro Campesino. Free Southern Theater. Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Firehouse Theatre (nationally known but founded in what is today known as Patrick’s Cabaret’s firehouse). These companies and others made strong social and political statements, challenged the very nature of theater, and defended and spoke to marginalized communities.

I remember: the Playwrights’ Center (Playwriting Lab) founded by Barbara Nosanow Field, Eric Brogger, Charles Nolte, Tom Dunn, John Olive, and others; Bill Livingston’s Theatre of Involvement with its spiritual and Christian inspiration; Out and About, exploring GLBT issues; The Shoestring Playhouse, run by Bob Samples and focusing on racial harmony; At the Foot of the Mountain, with Martha and Paul Boesing and concerned with feminism and women’s issues; Alive and Trucking Theatre, with concerns of marginalized communities and social issues; and, once the Federal Government started delivering anti-poverty funds to communities through the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA), Mixed Blood Theater Company and Penumbra Theatre; In the Heart of the Beast, with its exploration of puppetry and its commitment to community involvement; Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park; Walker Church a great venue for community-based theater and where I first saw an ASL interpreter; and who knows how many others. These companies focused on their mission theme, their audience, and their actors. The fact that they were low-budget was more of a source of pride than a feeling of inadequacy. One of their bona fides was that they neither had nor needed much tech.

Most important for me was the fact that there were more opportunities than ever for black actors. The majority of the aforementioned companies were racially diverse. It was all based on a foundation laid in the early 70s. The Guthrie continued its tradition of racially diverse casts and occasional black authored plays, a tradition started under Michael Langham. The University of Minnesota strengthened its African-American studies department (with Dr. Geneva Southall and later Dr. John Wright). The theater department offered Horace Bond a tenure-track position and his students included Lou Bellamy, John Wright, Tisch Jones, me, and others. And Ernie Hudson and Claude Purdy moved The Great White Hope from TRP to a professional setting and made it easier for black actors to demand pay for our services.

That was the 70s and suddenly actors were making the choice of seeking a career in theater without moving to New York. At least, I did.