Sightlines: Ode to Olympia

Article by Mim Solberg

Mim Solberg continues her history of her work here in the 70s and 80s with an essay on the creation of the Olympia Arts Ensemble, an outgrowth from the MET Theater and the theater with which I began my career in 1978.  Mim is currently living in New York and continues to perform whenever she can. - Mike Wangen

Olympia Arts Ensemble

Olympia Arts Ensemble

We trudged our way up a dark and skewed staircase…unbolted a heavy fire door, pushed our way into a huge dusty loft, mid afternoon light and shadows twisting, turning, kaleidoscope patterns ….piles of lumber, rusty metal, machine parts piled in a corner of the 2,500 sq. ft. floor, years of dust on windows across the front;  brick walls, layered with paint.  The only thing in perfect order and evenly spaced were metal pillars. A bathroom and a small room in the back were next to a freight elevator.  

Peter’s dark eyes were on fire, I hollered, squealed and danced around the open space…”listen to our voices Peter, the sound is alive…feel the energy of this space…the call is out, the answer is YES!” Through the dust we saw actors in masks, processions, crawling, writhing, leaping through the ample space. Plays we’d dreamed of doing emerged from the light and shadow of that portentous afternoon.

Peter and I were talking at the same time…”We can haul out the debris, sandblast the walls, sand and varnish these fucked up hard wood floors,  paint the bathroom, make dressing rooms out of the small room in the back.” We could see the whole space come to life for artists and a theater. It would be the first of its kind in Minneapolis, in a warehouse, unique, we’d design and build the whole thing.  The brick walls in front would be gallery space for our painter friends.  Halleluia! close to downtown Mpls, 2nd floor, formerly a Levis blue jean factory.  

It took us an hour or so to come down from the heights…to “where were we going to get the money ? The answer came…we can get artists to chip in whatever they could.  We had about $200 in the bank and figured others could come up with a comparable amount. We had talent, could do fundraisers. We got most of the money and, remarkably, the engineering company on the first floor rented the space to us.  Neither they nor we had the slightest idea what we collectively were in for.

First we had to renovate in order to open with a fundraiser. We rented sandblasting equipment for a weekend, rallied a few artists, who had never seen such paraphernalia and began the work at about 7:00pm Fri. It was the most disgusting labor we’d ever done .  The core group didn’t emerge from the space until 6 am Mon. layered in paint dust and asbestos, but we had an exposed brick wall (a rather new concept in 1976) for the gallery and lobby. We recovered for a few days and then tackled sanding 2,500 sq, feet of hardwood floor. A new and very poor theater was being born out of factory ashes, lost theaters and “impossible dreams”.

Peter Scangarello and I were partners both at home and in the theater, sharing a common vision for the theater based on Jerzy Grotowski’s “Towards a Poor Theatre” Peter said he wanted to direct; I said I want to help direct a new company and act.  We would continue to call on Grotowski to be our guide.

An unlicensed opening to public fundraisers launched our dreams.  Soon after, we opened the Olympia Arts Ensemble to workshops in the spring of 1976,  from where we would create a space for artists and a theater company; same principle as the MET (Minnesota Ensemble Theater)…no auditions, workshops until we were ready to perform. “Times were a changing”, and so were we, in the mid 70’s …seemed more difficult to challenge and keep actors who were ready for the “poor theater” ideals and regimen. There were warriors who came and stayed, thrived and we grew together; Heidi Arneson (brilliant wild child), Colin Rich, Doug Berry, Tony Thomas, Marlo Thielen, Eleanor Giametti, Molly Olin,  Michael Yonkers… to name a few.  

After a few months, it was time to take a leap with a production: Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s “ Mary Stuart.” Hildesheimer was a German Absurdist playwright .  Our production preceded the 1981 Public Theater production in NY. The play takes place during the night of Mary’s execution and begins with her sitting on the chopping block, praying wildly and in dialogue with her soon to be executioner. Mary’s throne becomes a toilet before her execution.  Mary Stuart remains one of my favorite characters and Hildesheimer, a beloved playwright, though our production wasn’t exactly a box office smash.

Financial struggles mounted even with every production’s minimal costs. Peter and I and a few of the tribe kept going…productions followed one after another. We lost actors, we gained others. We “hosted” after hours musicians when the theater went dark, we opened the door to music,  Bonnie Raitt, the Suicide Commandos, whoever had the bread to promote themselves and support the Olympia Arts Ensemble. This was of course illegal and we were visited often by the vice squad, fined but never busted or put behind bars.  

Olympia Arts Ensemble was about artists of all disciplines. We had our gallery in the front, hung paintings by Sean McLaughlin, Jan Attridge, Heidi Arneson and more.  We hosted poetry readings. Almost all our plays were done with live music, Milo Fine, Michael Shelby, Steve Kimmel….

Our theater life continued to breathe and even thrive with Pirandello’s “Six Character in Search of an Author” a children’s holiday play created by Peter, complete with borrowed live goat and pony (a story in itself).  Then we made a brilliant choice to do Lorca’s “Yerma”with full Flamenco,  dancers Susana (de Palma),Valerie, Eleanor, guitarists Michael and Tony Hauser, flamenco singer Elena Cordebesa and a full cast of 24 young women and 2 men. We made great use of our 2,500 sq. feet and usually filled what was left of the space with a sizable audience.  Yerma was barren, I played her.  I often joked ..,”wonder how many of these 24 beautiful fertile women will become pregnant, in real life?” The production of“Yerma” also delivered a great gift to Olympia, bringing unimaginable light and shadow to every play going forward,lighting designer Michael Wangen. Mike and Peter synchronized their visions,  painted coffee cans black, bought a few spots and gels and Mike built a magic board to light “the way of our plays”.  He arrived in time for “Yerma” in 1978 and stayed with us through Jean Genet’s “The Balcony”, Max Frisch’s “The Firebugs”, Peter’s and Fred Gaine’s “La Ville Sanglante”  and many others.

During rehearsals for “The Balcony”, while playing Mme. Irma, I discovered I was pregnant.  Peter and I were thrilled, even without employment, a beautiful 12 yr old boy, Kristofer, and a theater that took 85% of our time and funds, but somehow we weren’t worried. Our lives took on even more meaning.  Next, Antonin Artaud’s “Cenci”, Mim as Beatrice slithered and wailed down a red carpet, on my belly full with child. Doug Berry masterminded great bird masks as well as played the lead.  We delved into taboo shadows of exposing to light all we knew at that time.

A glorious little girl, called Beret made her entrance in March of 1979. She was welcomed with joy by the company and her infant self was held by Peter as he directed in whispers, or passed her to me or other actors during breaks. Workshops and productions continued. We mounted and closed Hungarian Imre Madach’s “Tragedy of Man”.   Mama Mim and Colin Rich tackled Beckett’s “Happy Days” which drew large audiences and critical acclaim.

Theater and personal debt were mounting, stress was dimming our bliss. We wanted to hold on to Olympia. I felt I had to make a change to help support our now family of four. I auditioned for the Guthrie and after a long process was accepted.  Peter was using some of his many skills as a carpenter to pay the bills and we managed to hold on to the theater through the early 80s. Olympia produced Max Frisch’s “Chinese Wall” and collaborated with Frank Kinniken on George Buchner’s “Lenz”.

The 80’s were upon us, funding and critical support for small arts organizations was almost non existent. It hurt that we might have to give Olympia up. I watched Peter’s silent pain and the darkening shadows cross his dream. I felt like my heart was being torn off a frozen window pane.

One day we walked out the heavy metal door and the Olympia Ensemble was no more. So many dreams came to life during that time. Peter you claimed your voice and vision and passed them on to your company, Mike, me, Beret and Kristofer.  Peter, Marlo, Paul Smith, Elena, Jane Berry, Colin,  all of you who have crossed to the other side…you are remembered, we are grateful for the work and love that made those days possible. Love to all who still carry the torch to create, Heidi, Mike, Yonkers, Tony and Michael Hauser,  Susana, Larry Becker, Alan Gardiner Atkinson...

Why do we want to tell these stories, beyond nostalgia?  It is because we want theaters and arts ensembles to continue to rally, to fight, to realize all you can be as artists with unique visions and voices.  Your financial struggles may be as crazy as ours, but hang and love your work.  Remember, there are a few wild elders wishing you the best.  The length of shadows is constantly changing as the earth rotates and those of us that remain, go on to tell the story.  When does the story end? When the tellers feel it’s enough to tell.