ARTICLE BY WENDY KNOX
I have known and worked with Wendy Knox for many years now, and words can not adequately describe the contribution she has made to the theater community here. For 30 years she has worked as an independent producer/director with her company, Frank Theatre. Her work has been consistently fearless, imaginative, and thought provoking. In her explorations, she found her way to working in site specific and “found” spaces, something which is becoming more and more common these days. In this article she details how that came about and what some of the pitfalls of working in that way are. I am proud to call her a friend and fellow artist. -Mike Wangen
Every so often, the phone will ring or an email will come in that says “Hey, I saw your production of (fill in the blank) at that really cool space, and we’d kind of like to do that, so I was wondering if you knew of any buildings that were available?”
I wish it were that easy. I mean, I ask that same question of many people—usually my board, or real estate folks, or developers, or city planners, or the real estate division of Amtrak—but creating a work in a non-traditional space is rarely as easy and having someone say, “Yeah, there’s an empty warehouse on the corner.” And as development in the Twin Cities grows at the rapid pace that it has been, that search will likely not get easier.
Frank has been traipsing around dusty old places since 2001. Our first foray was when David Means allowed us to invade his experimental music studio in a building on the Metro State campus, a former munitions factory. We had a gang of enthusiastically adventurous artists, and we made the most of the experience with our production of THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI. “Does that garage door open?” Does that manhole cover come off? Can a person fit down there?” The building was scheduled for demolition, so that meant we could paint on the floor, the walls, wherever. It was a thrill. In 2003, the City of Minneapolis gave us the keys to the former Sears building on Lake Street, now the site of the Midtown Global Market. With that project, the three key questions became clear: Is there heat? Are there toilets? Is there power? If we had those three things, we could make a show happen. After wandering through the whole building, trying to find an appropriate site for the staging, that had sufficient height to hang lights, and access to power and toilets, we sprawled out work over a whole floor. We designated a rehearsal area, the dressing room area, the stage area, and there was even room for our ASM’s kids to rollerblade around the space.
Soon after that, we were introduced to the Pillsbury A Mill Machine Shop, a building I totally fell in love with, despite the dirt, the grime, the dust, and the tale of tragedy that lurked in the building. We asked the basic questions, and were able to check off yes for all of them, but eventually the yeses became qualified: yes, there was power (but we had to tap into it for our light board, a process that I chose to turn my head away from); yes, there were toilets (although most of them weren’t working, even after we pulled the decomposing rat from one of them), and yes, there was heat (unfortunately, halfway into the rehearsal process we discovered that the heat—which was tied to 4-5 vacant warehouses along the river—was only turned on when there was danger of the pipes freezing. That caveat provoked a lesson in temporary heat systems that ended up costing more than it would have to rent a theatre. (The Frank board was understandably less enthused about our adventures after that episode.) But the A Mill, with its steel I-beams, the boom crane that was operable (and indeed used in THE WOMEN OF TROY), the second level that could be incorporated into the staging, the 70’ ceilings, totally stole my heart, despite the years of oil and grease from its previous use as a repair shop for the heavy machinery used in the mill next door, the wood shavings from the wood worker whose studio had been housed there, the funk that would not disappear despite the massive cleanup attempts we made. It provided an incomparable site for our 2006 production of MOTHER COURAGE, one of Frank’s best. We couldn’t have made that show anywhere else, nor could we repeat that production anywhere else.
We also invaded a former scene painting studio in the Traffic Zone building in the warehouse district, the city of Minneapolis Public Works building on 26th and Hiawatha, and most recently, a former Rainbow Foods store on Lake Street, where we utilized the entire 70,000 SF, thanks to a brilliant installation by our props goddess Kellie Larson.
The projects are never easy. Never. There are permitting issues to resolve. You become familiar with the fire marshal. You have to have the flexibility to deal with the owner/developer’s timeline, as well as the ability to adjust your own timeline to theirs. And sometimes that doesn’t work. I just spent 6 months courting Amtrak (who could use some good publicity about now) for the use of an abandoned station. Even after waiting, hoping, chewing my fingernails, I got a no. The seat of your pants can get pretty thin, and not everyone who is along for the ride can always stomach that. Then, where to put the dressing rooms? The box office? Are the restrooms sufficient? Where’s the Equity cot gonna live? If we plug in the coffee pots in the dressing rooms, do we blow a dimmer? But, in Frank’s history, it’s those challenges that have made the experiences so rich. After a heinously long tech week at the Rainbow site, Joe Stanley, the set designer, turns to me, laughing, and says “I have to say, I am so damn tired, but this has been so much fun.” The thrill of making something impossible possible is an irresistible challenge.
The most thrilling and rewarding aspect of making a piece of theatre in a non-traditional space - of creating art in unexpected places - is the synergy that develops between the site and the community. In particular, when the Sears building sat empty for 8 years, and was described as “blight” in the press, infuriating the community, Frank’s invasion was a breath of fresh air. We slapped up giant posters on the cyclone fence that surrounded the site, and the kids in the neighborhood would hound us with questions: “You guys making a movie?,” “Can I be in the play?” We’d bring them inside and show them what we were doing. They would beg to usher - so we’d send them home to get their parents’ permission, and they would return to hand out programs, and be thrilled at participating. The press coverage of the shows brought in people who purchased their first air conditioner at that Sears, and they wanted to come back for nostalgic reasons. One late fall afternoon at the A Mill, we left the garage door open and we were rehearsing at the other end of the space. I noticed the silhouette of a man standing in the opening, just watching. We continued to rehearse, and he remained. Finally, on a break, I strolled over to him and asked if I could help. He was in his 90s, and he explained that he had worked in the building “before the war.” He showed me where his station had been, and asked if he could go upstairs. He wasn’t strong enough to make it up the stairs, but as he looked around the space, his eyes filled with tears. These exchanges point out how much a community values its buildings and the purpose they served, even if they no longer fulfill that purpose. Buildings that were once gathering places, or spark plugs of community energy, remain in the community consciousness. When a reuse, or a revitalization of the building happens—especially when it’s an unexpected use—the community is inspired. And the ability to reuse a building to stage a piece of a theatre is also inspiring, offering multitudes of possibilities. (You’re not going to find a manhole in the floor of a newly constructed theatre, most likely.) The energy that is brought into the building by using it in a non-traditional way is reflected back by the gratitude of those who live near the building and hope for it to have a continued life.
So, keep an eye on those buildings. Let me know when you find one. I’m game.