Art in Trial Size: Sample Night Live

Get the skinny on the spunky new monthly theater series, Sample Night Live, which aims to introduce emerging performers to new audiences through monthly vaudeville-esque line-ups of wildly diverse acts--from gospel singers to strippers.

Sample Night Live
Minnesota Shakespeare Project:
Elaine Peacock
Magician David Harris
Roger Johnson and the Harts
Ballet Minnesota
Zealots and Mystics Theatre Company

THE STRANGEST THING HAPPENED RECENTLY AT SAMPLE NIGHT Live: After bite-sized performances from the likes of Ballet Minnesota, the MacPhail Suzuki Guitar Ensemble, and the Minnesota Shakespeare Project, a South Dakotan country singer named Elaine Peacock emerged with a medley of countrified patriotic and gospel songs. Prancing to and fro on the Bryant-Lake Bowl stage, all the while wearing a perma-grin worthy of the Great White Way, Peacock sang in earnest about the Golden Rule, the fortifying power of God’s love, and the virtues of U.S. citizenship.

Tensions in the audience skyrocketed. The two couples sitting next to me—South Minneapolitans, probably—had been well behaved up until now, but all of a sudden were about to burst. There was the gentle wheezing and heavy breathing we know to be suppressed laughter. The man sitting adjacent to me started to fidget violently. But Peacock, to her credit, handled the situation with grace. She shimmied in the direction of this snickering foursome, singing her redemptive songs all the more loudly—and directly to them. To end her set, she pulled an enthusiastic four-year-old from the audience and brought her onstage to help sing “Pray for Peace” (a song not to be sneezed at).

Peacock’s act rounded out Act I. Audience members weary of the wholesome, god-fearing fare had only to wait twenty minutes to watch a burlesque dancer (from Stilettos and Straps Cabaret) strip down to her skivvies. Such diversity is exemplary of the founding spirit of , a monthly showcase of performing arts snippets. Think of it like speed dating. Eager arts patrons buy a $15 ticket, engage with a dozen performance samples, and decide which ones they like. At the end of the evening, if a theatergoer is so inclined, she can opt to have herself added to any one of these organizations’ mailing lists.

The impetus for such a series is, of course, the uphill battle artists face in their efforts to put butts in seats. One problem is that our local performing arts community seems to be grappling with an old-fashioned supply surplus. As the sheer number of small performing arts happenings has mushroomed in recent years, the audience for each has shrunk in accordance. An additional hurdle is the problem of identifying and grabbing potential audience members. Many artists are under- or un-exposed. Other performers are mystified by this whole business of having to market oneself in the first place.

Sample Night Live’s founding producer, Barbe Marshall, who is also the successful development director at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre and a freelance director to boot, can relate with this struggle. She describes her plays as “edgy, fast-paced, rock and roll musicals and re-intentions of classics” which, frankly, don’t come with a built-in audience. “Just trying to be seen in this community—to find out who’s open to that strong aesthetic—is really difficult,” she says.

Her search for answers inspired the creation of Sample Night Live, something to help emerging artist and audience to fall in love. Created in the image of vaudeville, these monthly showcases are designed to feature five- to ten-minute acts from a diverse range of performing artists. “I always thought if there was a way for people to come out and sample a dozen things, then they’d go to see more than just the big guys who have lots of money,” says Marshall.

The series is in its pilot year, with only three shows under its belt since the series’ January debut. Right now, the all-volunteer staff has a commitment to stage a new showcase on the first Wednesday of every month for the rest of 2008. The year-end, December lineup will likely be the strongest since it will feature each month’s Best In Show, as elected by audiences. In the meanwhile, if SNL manages to remain financially solvent (it is, in some sense, just another show in search of an audience), Marshall will seek a somewhat bigger venue for 2009.

SNL showcases are split into halves. ACT I is always G-Rated, with classical music acts, puppeteers, vocalists, dance, and child acts. (As for the MacPhail Suzuki Guitar Ensemble, there is nothing more adorable than a dozen guitar-wielding kids plucking away at “Eleanor Rigby.”) So far, SNL has succeeded in luring families to this half of the show. ACT II, on the other hand, is unrated—but that’s not to say pornographic. In addition to burlesque, the mix includes stand-up comedy and improv, indie film, poetry slam, performance art, and local bands. In other words, there’s an occasional curse word and fleeting glimpse of pale flesh.

The most recent March 5 installment featured a disjointed assortment of acts: David Harris, a sweaty, PG-rated, self-loathing magician and comedian; an adorable juggler and unicyclist named Katrina Zahradka; an excerpt from King Lear; a set of performance art shorts by Zealots & Mystics; a short film called Love: A Documentary; and an Americana band called Roger Johnson & The Harts. Most of these acts felt rather unpolished and unprepared for the spotlight. In fact, the only act to hit home that evening was a spoken word performance by Michael Mlekoday of SlamMN! He read a giddy ode to the Lego toys of his youth, which he used to construct entire parallel universes, followed by a mystical, but quite honest, rap about his spiritual journey (it was pure butter!).

So far, during her short tenure as SNL producer, Marshall has been similarly seduced by the poets. “I’m becoming a poetry-slam fanatic,” she said, going on to mention, in particular, the young poetess Ruth Kohtz, who was featured at a previous SNL showcase. This gets to the heart of the series: Arts-lovers are teased with bites of performance genres they wouldn’t seek out if left to their own devices. Says Marshall of her newfound passion: “I didn’t even know I liked [poetry slam] so much until we started featuring these artists.” And she’s betting that, given the opportunity to see a monthly cavalcade of emerging performers, audiences will feel the same.

About the writer: Christy DeSmith is a former editor at The Rake. She is also a freelance theater critic and was recently named an affiliated writer for 2007-08 by the Theatre Communications Group and American Theatre magazine.

What: Sample Night Live
Where: Bryant Lake Bowl, Minneapolis, MN
When: The First Wednesday of each month. April’s SNL showcase is April 2 and begins at 7:00 pm.
Tickets: $15 (for one or both Acts)