General 11-25-2003

Eye of the Storm Closing

Dean Seal went to the closing party for Eye of the Storm, and his thoughts there turned to how companies can survive the heavy weather ahead. He's got some good ideas.

The party was happy and lively, nestled into the long lobby at Jeune Lune. Casey Stangl, director and vortex of the theater company’s work, was enjoying herself tremendously. So was her espousal unit, John Spokes, the Money Guy, who had managed the finances for all these years. They looked like two people enjoying tremendously their own wake.

Which they were. Eye of the Storm was closing its doors, not because they ran out of money, but because it was just getting harder to raise what it took. Casey has been working all over town, and doesn’t need the company to get her work out. She’s done the Guthrie Lab and some opera, and some NYC and I don’t know what-all. Eye had dabbled in allowing other directors to come in, so
if the support had been there, maybe an Eye of the Storm style of theater may have emerged.

I brought John a piece of chocolate cake, with a layer of something creamy shot through the middle, which had been cajoled out of Harvey at Turtle Bread. I did some name-dropping with him. “I was just talking to Dale Warland last week, and I asked him why he was closing shop instead of allowing a ghost band to go out on the road and play his greatest hits, you know, like the Duke
Ellington road crew. He said, “There is nothing wrong with starting something, and then stopping it.” He was pretty confident in his opinion. How does that sound to you?”

John smiled. “If you look at the landscape, closing seems to be the only thing left to do. The big houses have structural problems. It isn’t any cheaper to make the art this year than it was last year, and some of the people we work with would like to make more than they did last year. We looked around and didn’t see how it would make sense.”

As Mr. Spokes was wheeled off into a new circle of conversation, I
meditated on this little bit of party chat. “Structural problems” to me sound like endowments that took a hit in the stock market dip; budgets that may have been made up by benefactors to cover a loss like that can’t recover, because the benefactors took the same hit.

I remembered a quote from Neil Cuthbert, the smartest guy in Minneapolis art in my experience–though I don’t get out much– when the Fringe Festival set a new record in attendance. “That’s a good thing if it’s bringing in people who weren’t theater-goers,” I think he said. “But it’s not such a good thing if the Fringe is drawing artists because there’s no other support for their work.”

Eye of the Storm’s closure seems to mark a demarcation point. One can keep an independent theater going with stipends and rented space, like Fifty Foot Penguin; one can make the Great Leap Upward if you are the Jungle Theater and can get your mitts on a nice piece of real estate that identifies you; Old Log bailed on the classics and carved out a successful commercial niche in
British bedroom comedy when the Guthrie rolled into town. But with no endowment and no building, a creative spot like Eye rented the Theater Garage for four years without building equity, and finally came up against a dip in the support structure. Raising the annual fund is an annual effort, but if it’s your only source for deficit spending, you are at the mercy of the Dow.

What can a po’ producer/director do? The Fringe is a great place to go to get started, and to maintain visibility with the most open-minded audience. But then what?

Sharing Space is a good approach.

The Loading Dock has become a site for independents like Fifty Foot Pengy, Pig’s Eye and the like. The Loring Playhouse is holding steady with its formula of three theater companies sharing the schedule- Latte-Da, Buffalo Gal and Outward Spiral seem to be maintaining an armed truce with no actual gunfire.

The venerable Bryant-Lake Bowl (BLB) Cabaret Theater is now in its tenth year, rotating theater and music through depending on what they can get their hands on. It’s been a great spot for the Scrimshaw Brother’s itinerant monthly variety show “Look Ma No Pants!” (LMNoP), which has found a perfect nesting
area there after long stints at the Loring, the Acadia, and the Phoenix. Now the beer is for sale, the room is tight, the tech is good, and they have the chance to expand (see their Christmas show The Worst Christmas Pagent Ever featuring David Mann) when opportunities strike.

Martini and Olive left the Christmas slot open at the BLB when they went downtown to Sandy Hey’s place; they should have done that five years ago. Miss Richfield 1981 did when she moved to the Illusion, and has taken up an annual residence there.

Hitting the road is becoming more of an option. Illusion is so enmeshed with the educational system that that is where you find their phone number.

Mixed Blood does something different. Shows represent about 10% of their income. They do industrial training shows, road shows, educational stuff, all sorts of stuff that goes out.

But the exciting thing is the outstate market. Fifty Foot Pengy is doing shows in St. Cloud; others are going to Duluth, Lanesboro, Bemidji, and other entertainment-starved places. There are high school auditoriums and civic performance palaces that can shell out a couple thou for a weekend’s entertainment.

Going in the other direction, I found a way to produce shows for even cheaper than the Fringe. I’m working part-time at Grace-Trinity Church, which rents rehearsal space to small theater companies. There’s a space in the basement where shows can be done; bring your own lights. It was a Kid’s Fringe venue two years ago. The rent is dirt cheap; it’s $10 an hour, with, get this, a fifty-dollar maximum per week.

Well, Galumph figured out that no one was using it on Friday and Saturday nights, and that averages $25 a show, with free rehearsal time. So they booked four weekends in February. It could seat between 60 and 100, depending. And there’s a full working kitchen if they want to throw a benefit.

I suggest going to look at your local church. Theater in the west started in Greek religious ceremonies, and was revived in Elizabethan England with churches doing bibliodrama.

And don’t forget: Paul McCartney first met John Lennon when John was playing guitar at a church teen dance.