Sightlines: Reflections of an Actor - Part 1

Article by Mim Solberg

Mim Solberg will not be known to many readers of this journal as she moved to New York in the late 80s and no longer performs.  In the Twin Cities theater scene of the late 60s, 70s, and 80s, however, she was practically a force of nature, a brilliant, fierce and uncompromising actress who threw herself wholeheartedly into her work.  

She and her partner, Peter Scangarello, were my friends, teachers, and mentors and laid the foundation for my entire life as a theater artist.  I am honored that she has written these words. -Mike Wangen

I begin with the following question which may have many answers or none at all:

“What happens to a body of work created by a theater company (a poor theater) that is no more, after directors, actors, designers are gone?”

The theater I knew still inhabits my heart, mind, and soul…two theaters that took hours, years of labor and birthing, seemed to just vanish into a thin stream of smoke dispersed in clouds… of what?  A few of us who worked together during that time are scattered, in some kind of touch with one another. Others who have passed, live on in our memories, still alive in grief and dreams. There are no production videos, few photos, posters, programs or reviews.

It was 1969, I had had a few years of classical theater training and experience in several “traditional” theaters, even musical theater.  Something was missing;  my hunt for a “new” theater was on, I was hungry and ready to find my voice in theater that reflected this time, 1969. Vietnam, cities burning, assassinations, riots raging, alienation, love from bed to bed, shared bread, brown rice, wine, and weed. Where was the theater telling these stories? The venerated Firehouse Theater, source of theater innovation and inspiration, had moved from Mpls. to San Francisco leaving behind a few actors and a void.  Minneapolis was a grooving place; Dinky Town, The Scholar where you could hear Snaker Ray, Spider John, even Dylan sometimes, the Podium and McCosh’ Book Store.

And there was the WestBank, Triangle Bar, Palmer’s Bar, Noah’s Leather Shop…angry anti war graffiti on brick walls, Electric Fetus Record and Headshop blasting Hendrix, Joplin, Iron Butterfly’s In a Gadda Da Vita, folks eating and tripping on benches, sidewalks, air pungent with herb of all kinds.  Wedged between Palmer’s and the Electric Fetus was The Guild of Performing Arts, a place for serious artists to practice, grow and perform…Nancy Hauser at the helm, brilliant modern dancer, choreographer whose work was forever growing, finding authentic  voice. There were practice rooms for classical and flamenco guitar, great teachers and performers…Michael Hauser, Jeffrey Van..The Guild was alive night and day with concerts, galleries, dance and theater rehearsals.  I stumbled into some scruffy actors and a director, at the Guild, who wanted to start a theater. They were renting the Guild Theater, performing Beckett’s “Endgame”. I asked what was next and could I audition. “No auditions, workshops…Dania Hall Cedar Ave.”( Dania Hall was built in 1886 , hall for meetings and entertainment for Scandinavian immigrants, it was destroyed in a fire in the mid 90s). If interested in the burgeoning theater, I had to attend three 4 hour workshops a week, for as long as it took to determine my endurance and ability to meet the physical and creative demands to become part of the Minneapolis Ensemble Theater. The workshop was bootcamp.  Workshops began with Yoga or Tai Chi, Peking Opera exercises. We were told to read and know Grotowski’s “Towards a Poor Theater”. I absorbed the book, slept with it under my pillow.  We practiced Grotowski movement and vocal exercises. As actors we were to do things with our bodies and voices that others weren’t able to do. Barefoot, sweating and thrilling through“Sound and Movements”, Endowments and Trust exercises. We practiced juggling and acrobatics till we collapsed onto those aged and scarred floors, which even now I see vividly.  We took treks in the woods exploring our animal natures, hunting and being hunted. The budding ensemble members didn’t become friends or lovers; I  don’t remember greetings or chatting, we only knew each other through the work, finding our individual strengths. We were about the business of stripping off our social masks  and opening ourselves to the furthest reach of imagination. The purpose was to forge an ensemble.

Experiencing “Belly or Total breathing” was one of the deepest spiritual experiences I’d ever had ; to discover  the most essential breathing (babies and animals do always).  The first time I gave myself over to breath, let escape a free unencumbered sound on my breath. It came, followed by silent tears. I think I was beginning the journey of a “holy” actor. I remember opening my eyes to the horseshoe balcony above of the decaying elegance of Dania Hall and knowing I’d come to the place I needed to be at this time of life… in 1969.

A few months later, I was asked to do a role in Genet’s ”The Maids”, the MET’s 2nd production; alter ego of Claire, to be performed at the Guild of Performing Arts. Intensive rehearsals began, workshops continued; near total immersion. One might ask if we had to work in day jobs as well. Some of us taught kids, clerked or bartended part time, had kids of our own and mostly lived cheaply, sharing resources with other artists. How did we pay for productions? We were minimalist, we borrowed and thieved, audiences gave to the cause, sometimes in homemade bread, rice and vegetables and hash brownies for the company. We put our own money into productions whenever we could.

We grew and produced more plays, had more company workshops and thrived.  Early productions were Michael McClure’s “The Beard” (Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid…my first nearly nude acting, on to “Alice in Wonderland: Related to Drug Experience”, acrobatic skills honed, vocal stretches, total use of Guild,  actors took audience members to the basement in an old elevator.

Plays birthed, ran for weeks to small and bigger audiences, closed, died…were no more. Plays escalated from rage to outrageous, wild plays which we thought told the truth, we hoped shocked Minneapolis audiences and maybe sometimes did. We thought we had a lot to say; defectors in our homes and city, and felt a part of a world revolution that I was beginning to understand.

The Guild of Performing Arts had outgrown us, it was time to move on, some actors left, others joined and we managed to get a space mostly our own…the old Walker Church on 31st, (no more, due to recent fire). We became the Minnesota Ensemble Theater, still in intensive search to discover our voices, insanity, anger at injustice and our ecstasy. Our connections to each other were strong and we were amassing a following of skeptics, fans, critics, curiosity seekers, and perverts.

The move to Walker Church was a quantum leap for the MET. We changed our name to Minnesota Ensemble Theater. The company had more space for workshops and productions. The space had balconies to swing from, levels to construct minimal sets. Actors and directors emerged out of workshops and the Minneapolis theater community. We expanded our vision to include Shakespeare (Macbeth), T.S. Elliot (Murder in the Cathedral, where an actor hung from church ceiling over audience through entire first act, Chekhov (Seagull) Williams (Glass Menagerie). Our objectives were  for authenticity, probing, asking deep questions while maintaining our physical and vocal vigor and imagination.  The move to Walker Church meant higher stakes, rent and costs; the company needed to produce not only larger audiences but going after funding,  marketing our skills to schools and community arts organizations.  We continued to produce at least five main shows a year. We explored and composed a play based on R.D. Laing (Knots). Jim Stowell created  and directed Fresh Meat, Used Meat and Sailor George which demanded even more awareness, physical, vocal endurance and ensemble trust.  We were at the top of our game, even increased audience, volunteers and the “faithful”.   Being a single mom, my son often came to the theater, participated in a play or two, and fell asleep in the pews. I was doing a lot of the major roles , my greatest teachers in successes and weaknesses.  There was a shadow creeping into the MET, whose advent into the company, was not felt or acknowledged by some of us.  Menacing secrets lurked within the hierarchy, the center being the Artistic Director’s private life and demons which began to contaminate  the life of the theater, but we went forward with David Ball’s adaptation of “Everyman”. It was based on a circus theme and became a hit, although storms threatened performances. I played Death and swung from balcony to balcony on a handmade trapeze. Every performance the stunt was a success, until one night, when on the count of three, I took off with  strong momentum. At a designated point over the audience, I let my hands go of the bar and held on tightly with my knees. It was a hard fast flight, expecting to swing back to my perch on takeoff balcony, I realized I wasn’t slowing down…then a thud as I slammed face first into the balcony, screams from audience, I recovered the bar, blood spattered all over me. My dear partner Peter Scangarello scrambled down from his post where he had been hoisted as Everyman, lights came down, I was carried to dressing room and told not to look in the mirror. I survived, the show went on a day or so later, but there was visible darkness in the theater.

The MET continued for a while, struggling for breath. The company was in conflict and divide, eventually splitting. Half of the Met became The Palace Theater. Peter and I became theater hunters again until we KNEW we had our own vision and voice to launch a theater…it became OLYMPIA Arts Ensemble, a story of it’s own that must and will be told.  These stories at least partially answer my question, ”What happens to a body of work created by a theater company that is no more?”