ARTICLE BY CHRIS FISHER
Chris Fisher is a retired drama teacher and educator in Minneapolis where he taught beginning in 1985, but his experience and range in the theater world is much greater than that. He was involved in many experimental dance and theater groups in the 1970s and 80s and brought that experience to his teaching. He continues to be active in the theater community as a supporter and mentor and is a strong advocate for the arts in our world. - Mike Wangen
Memories of Twin Cities Theater Work and Its Influence on My Teaching
I arrived as a 'new theater type' in Minneapolis in the fall of 1975, and by the spring of 1986, although I was still a little bit in the Biz, I was substitute teaching at Southwest High School. I had, as a substitute at Southwest, helped direct a couple of school plays, but my theater past was as far as I was concerned best left in my past. But as fate would have it Sara Falls, Gillian Euker, Beth Grady, Jane Hall and Esther Robinson amongst other students saw through my attempt to be anonymous and asked me if I would be an advisor to a drama club they wanted to organize. Although I wanted to avoid becoming a high school theater teacher, I liked the students and answered their request in the affirmative. I told them I would advise their club if they produced their own work. I’m not sure what I meant by 'produce your own work' except that I didn’t want to become the director of their plays, I didn’t want to become ‘that guy’ - whatever that means. However, the student request and my ‘Yes’ led me onto the course of teaching and mentoring theater students which continues to this day. I became ‘that guy’ and teaching the tricks of the biz, as I knew them, turned out to be exactly what my theatre career had been preparing me for all along. Fate is funny that way.
Arrival in the Cities and Attempts to Establish Myself …
In the fall of 1975, I had a freshly minted 1974 BA in Speech and Theatre from Yankton College in Yankton, South Dakota. I was following earlier YC grads, Joe Walsh, who had been a central figure at the Minnesota Ensemble Theater (MET), Henry “Hank” Jordan, a Bush Fellow who was a really solid performer and singer, and Linda Bruning, who would introduce me to the Playwrights Center, then known as the Playwrights Lab, and later tour with me for four years with the Commedia Theater troupe. I came to the Cities hoping to learn if I could be a theater person.
I auditioned for Bill Semens and Lou Solerni at the Cricket. I interviewed with George Muschamp at CTC, I performed at Pillsbury Waite Theater in the old church on 26th and Chicago, I hung out at Jimmy Heggs on Friday nights, and I went to the early Arts Alliance meetings where I met amongst others Tom Dunn and Ted Crawford. Tom got me into a Lab play called Mad Jennifer, performed in the auditorium at the Walker, which led to a Tom Dunn script, The T.V. Artist with Nancy Gormley, and then a Nelson King play, Group 239, which introduced many of us to the talents of Bob Rosen and Sally Wingert. Phil Billy and I built a stage at the Walker Church for the soon to be known Playwrights Center. John Neville cast me in a play about three men on a raft for a Theater of Involvement Tour about hunger, and then he recommended me for a job as a grip with a small production company Maag and Knudson on Film. I worked change over crews for Mike Vargo at Chanhassen. Avner Eisenberg and I lit a performance of the great Japanese mime, Mamako, in the student union auditorium at the University of Minnesota. I hustled around town as best I could loving every minute hoping to become known and respected.
The Grand Temporary Re-Opening of the State Theater 1976
The Nancy Hauser Dance company tech director Lance, I have forgotten his last name, hired me to be chief rigger for the Walker Art Gallery’s Sue Weil curated Grand Temporary Re-Opening of the State Theater 1976 featuring The Nancy Hauser Company, Keith Jarrett, and Twyla Tharpe’s Company. I right away called class of 74 Yankton pals Bob Frazier and Tom Anderson. Bob had toured as a rigger with a one ring circus, and Tom was a certified electrician who would soon end up as a manager in the CTC scene shop. I think we had a month to re-rig the State’s five line sandbag system and divide the theater’s 440 volt service into a four 110v legs. Lance was the project tech director, and he saw to it that everything came together perfectly - which it did. At that time the State was a shambles, an abandoned vaudeville house forgotten and at risk for the wrecking ball. We lowered every pipe, ran all new ropes, bought new sandbags from a supply house in Ohio, flew the show’s drops, divided the electricity into 110 volt legs, hung and rough focused every light that could be found and plugged together six or eight little portable light boards which were put on tables in the stage left wing operated by six or eight of us. Each of us was responsible for six or eight dimmers and only responsible for cues that those dimmers affected. Lance called the show from wherever it was he eventually set up. It was a blast, quite great, really.
The Commedia Theater Company, etc.
At some point Tom Dunn told me about a little theater company called Commedia 75. It was attempting to fill a perceived void left by the demise of Shakespeare in the Streets, and Tom thought I might find it interesting. The directors of Commedia 75 were Richard Broderick and Jason McClean. Mark Frey, who would become the master carpenter at CTC, was an actor in that company. Broderick, who subsequently launched himself into his writing career, had just resigned his position and I was invited to and accepted the offer to fill his spot and become an actor in the company.
Once I signed on with Commedia 76, I was part of the Twin Cities street theater scene. The Commedia Theater Company toured the upper midwest, Winnipeg, and Toronto, Canada during the summers and early fall. It performed in parks, museum rooftops, old church theaters, factories; wherever the road took us, we performed there. In Minneapolis, we played Loring Park on Tuesdays and the south shore of Lake Bde Maka Ska on Sundays. We improvised off of known Renaissance comedies as well as new plays written by Nelsen King.
Commedia and The Illusion Theater teamed up to host master classes taught by Bill Irwin and later Carlo Clemente Mazone, founder of California’s Del Arte School. I met and became close friends with Avner Eisenberg, aka ‘Avner the Eccentric’. Avner taught the company comic technique and directed us in Moliere’s Physician in Spite of Himself. We experienced many of the mad and dysfunctional things common to young ensembles which try to invent themselves while on tour. I learned to juggle somewhat, ride a unicycle, walk on stilts and drive a large, old Flexible bus. I orbited around the outside of the Flying Karamazov Brother, Penn and Teller crowd of Ren Fair performers. And somewhere in all of the comings and goings, Commedia welcomed the Theatre de la Jeune Lune to the Cities. One could see that they were destined to be a big deal, to say the least, and they were … and with the Moving Company now established, still are. In 1980, I left Commedia to sober up, get my life together, and figure out what was next.
In 1983 I was cast as Ageon in a Goodman Theater production of Comedy of Errors featuring The Flying Karamazovs and Avner the Eccentric. The ensemble was a graduate school of all star circus performer new vaudevillians from across the country. At the end of the Chicago run, I returned to the Cities.
Once home, I studied movement with Jim Stowel and Jessica Zuehlke during the last days of the Palace Theater. The Olympia and The Palace are companies I saw from a distance. I wish the wind had blown me in their direction - they produced really great work. None-the-less, I used Jim and Jessica’s movement techniques the entire 27 years I taught at Southwest. I performed in a Martha Boesing Foot of the Mountain script about her relationship with her once upon a time husband Paul. Pop Wagner and I produced, performed, and toured The New Age Vaudeville Show which notably included Laurie Van Wieren and her pick up group the B-Specifics. Our New Age Show left me close to broke, and so I left the Biz in an attempt become a civilian.
Becoming a Public School Teacher
By 1985 I was substitute teaching was at Southwest and by 1986 had agreed to advise the after school theater club. Eventually I became a full time member of the Southwest faculty and the school’s stage manager. All of my previous experiences in the theater community of the Cities informed my ‘teaching’. John Fenn started teaching at Southwest in 1986 or 87. We teamed up to offer a theater class, The Theater Essentials Workshop, with about 50 students a term. John and I found that the best way to actually teach the class was to ‘not teach it’. Students followed their own pathways towards their own sense of theater. The Workshop and the after school club became mirrors of each other; in both cases, the creative weight rested on the students. Our prompt to the students was, “What is your question and how do you answer that question through production of theater?” We didn’t define theater; we didn’t teach theory, acting techniques, history, the parts of the stage, or any of the normal academic theater course of study. The evolving Southwest aesthetic belonged to the students, not us. We merely described to them what we saw when we watched their work. We constantly asked questions of them. The dialogues which followed were the paths upon which scenes and plays were produced. The process was as simple as we could make it. John and I saw the students as authentic theater artists who used theater as a way of figuring out for themselves what was going on. It was and remains that simple. Students who went on to study after high school could and did learn the art and craft of theater as taught by their schools. Our goal for high school students was to offer an authentic and relevant experience in which the students would produce as much as they wanted and could manage in order to get production time under their belts before going out into the world. Eventually the students formed a company, Unhinged Theater, and by 2012 were producing eight full productions a season. The variety of their work was as varied as the students themselves. I invited relevant Minneapolis artists to work with the students and provide a foundation of knowledge to their productions. Kim Hines, Brian Grandison, Richard Thompson, and Mahmoud El-Kati worked with students during a multi-year series on racism. Lori Van Wieren choreographed movement when refugee students and faculty from Vietnam wrote and produced the memoire play, For Freedom We Left Peace Behind.
Southwest theater studies evolved. The Workshop remained the foundation of the study, but as the work became well known, its scope grew. The school itself began producing three musicals a year and offering an IB Theater Arts course. A substantial partnership was formed with Pangea World Theater. Mina Natarajan, Dipanker Mukerjee, and top artists they invited worked with and taught world aesthetics to the Southwest IB students. Pangea hosted Southwest writer/performers in the Diverse Stages series, coached and facilitated by Richard Thompson.
In 2012 I left Southwest and accepted a position as an instructor and arts integration lead at North Community High School Academy of Arts and Communications. I was joined in that work by Richard Thompson. Our teaching process at North remained the same as it had been at Southwest. The students showed us what and how they wanted to perform their stories, and we helped them do it. I continued to find artists and organizations willing and able to make student work visible and clear. Every major Twin Cities arts organization and many individual artists have stepped forward to help North artistically renew itself. My technique has pretty much remained the same: I stay out of the way and let the work of theater and performance in general speak for itself, which like water always finds its way to the seas of artistic truth. At the end of 43 years of work, I am deeply grateful for having been able to live the theater journey I have received from the Cities. I believe there is more coming, I just don’t know what it is yet.