Marya Hornbacher’s essay on the “Minnesota mythos” in local theater is part of a series of topical articles, “Feeling Minnesota,” jointly published by mnartists.org and Minnesota Playlist, a site with “information and inspiration for Minnesota’s performing arts.”
When Strangers say: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?
— T.S. Eliot
EVERY REGION HAS ITS THEATER: not a building or a company, but a notion, a concept, a sense of what theater is, how it should be performed and watched, what plays are important, what periods matter and are relevant or irrelevant to the region’s audience — that semi-blind stab at what the audience wants or needs or cares about — and every region lacks, in some ways, an ability to articulate what its theater is.
A region also has a mythos. The region, or city, or town, may have a literature; what we know of the Deep South, of New York, of Chicago, of the West, is drawn primarily from the literature of those places, and that literature is drawn primarily from a place’s mythology of itself; in turn, it deepens and expands that mythology. But literature — including plays — can be parsed and examined for descriptive characteristics, while the living animal of theater does not hold still, and will not be contained, long enough for a viewer to say what makes it it.
The mythos of a place is what gives that place its identity. It’s what we tell ourselves about who we are, as a body of people, as a community, and by extrapolation, as individuals. It becomes how we perform ourselves. Our theater is part of that identity: Minneapolis will tell you, almost right off the bat, that it’s a theater town. So how do you define that theater, if pressed? What makes it different from any other theater in any other town?
We are quite at a loss.
Chicago has Sandberg’s poetry to articulate the place, and the city’s explosion of theater in the early twentieth century coinciding precisely with the rise of the industrial era and the influx of an ethnically diverse populace, and from all this the city created a mythology of itself as urban, industrial, bold, rough; I see every reason to believe that that mythos trickles down to the Steppenwolf style of the 70s that still takes its place on many Chicago stages, and the playwright who told me the other day — I asked him to describe Chicago theater — that it was “basically big and loud.”
Similarly, New York has been embellishing and curlicuing and fattening its notion of itself since it was born, through its massive and diverse body of literature and theater and film and people and politics, and its mythos — that it is the center of the world, and can do and say what it likes, pretty much — translates to a theater that is, as an audience member described it to me the other day, “pretty much balls to the wall.”
Say we are Emily Dickenson to Chicago’s Walt Whitman — of equally spectacular skill, equally and endemically American in voice, and wildly different not simply by virtue of gender. Or, say that we are Truman Capote to New York’s Kerouac. I think these things could be said. I think there is a degree of — what? containment, compression, control? — to our theater that is telling. It doesn’t tell us everything. But it tells us a little about the way we express — physically, verbally, in gesture and expression — both what our theater is, and, by extension, who we are.
All this leads me to wonder: what is the mythos that informs, or even creates, our identity of place? Define that, and you will come closer to being able to define what our theater is, is about, and is for.
When we see a show that feels rooted in a place — whether because the play itself is set in said place, or because the performance shows characteristics of the place in which it’s played — we know that place better, and can find our own place in it. This is what most theater wants you to do — it wants to connect, wants to invite you in, wants to make that fourth wall little more than a pliable, barely-perceptible screen. And I’ve heard from two actors — long-standing fixtures of the Twin Cities theater community both — that Minnesota theater is particularly adept at allowing that to happen.
Sally Wingert wrote to me, “Years ago, when Garland Wright was the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, he asked his acting company what they thought defined their style or aesthetic as a group of artists making theater. I remember one word very clearly: ‘muscular’. We … concluded that it meant physically strong, outward reaching. Maybe we were less likely to subtly draw an audience in but rather chose to reach across the fourth wall and bring them along.”
Barbara Kingsley was reminded of an old friend who said you could always tell Midwestern actors because “they lead with the heart.” She said, too, that there’s a kind of Everyman the shows try to reach, and I think she’s right. It could be said that the regional style here has a kind of subtlety and breadth of range that does reach an Everyman, and that can contain Whitman’s “multitudes.” And I do feel, when I see a show in the Twin Cities, that it’s my heart they’re after, more so than merely my intellect, as you often run into in New York, and more so than my gut reaction, as you may stumble upon in Chicago.
(Let’s pause and note that for every single thing I’m saying, there’s an obvious and glaring exception. Some of the work performed in New York is aimed directly and effectively at wrenching the heart, and some of the work in Chicago has a remarkable subtlety to it. But work with me. I’ve been asked to find a working definition, and I will fail, but I will continue to try.)
I sometimes feel we — the audience — want a certain degree of distance, remove, and no feeling that the play will come and put its messy hands on us.
So we have a few words — muscular, from the heart, Everyman — but I’m going to return to one I threw out a little ways back: controlled. This is where you’ll find Twin Cities artists parting ways on what works and what doesn’t in these parts, and this is why: a controlled performance can go two ways.
It can be a beautifully — well — controlled performance, finely done, pulsing with a tamped-down, livid energy contained beneath the surface of the skin. In a performance, or a show, like this, you do get the sense that the fourth wall is just barely holding the play back from exploding right into the world. But when it doesn’t work — and sometimes it doesn’t — it gives a sense of hesitation, too great a sense of remove, and no sense that the play or performer is about to burst free of the fourth wall. Instead of exhibiting the tensile strength and held-back energy that keeps audiences holding their breaths, it exhibits a softness around the edges that in turn softens the audience’s engagement — it may make for an easier performance, but it does not make for a lasting one.
And so this is where the doubters doubt: they find a lack of passion, at times, in these performances. They see too much mannered work, too much a sense of watching a carefully choreographed piece. It’s not totally absurd to say that you don’t see much sex, or even much violence, on a Twin Cities stage, and those are areas where passion, and a certain kind of chaos, are most often expressed.
I have to wonder how much of that can be credited to, or blamed on, Twin Cities audiences. I sometimes feel we — the audience — want a certain degree of distance, remove, and no feeling that the play will come and put its messy hands on us.
However, in the past few years, I’ve seen audiences get more demanding of work and direction that is visceral, passionate, palpably alive. The audience here seems more and more willing to take risks. It seems that the way we watch is changing; what we are willing to see as representative of the human condition is broadening its reach, and taking in a far more complex notion of the human. And it seems to me that if there still is hesitation on the part of theater artists in the choices they make about what to perform and how to perform it, it may be time for that hesitation to fall away.
It’s my speculation that we are on the cusp of a change in what Twin Cities theater is, or at least, what it is willing to do. You get the sense around here lately that people — audiences and artists alike — are itching to break free of something, and you get that sense most clearly at the Fringe. The explosive success of the festival speaks volumes about the urge in the theater community to create new work, and the hunger of the larger community to consume it. The next step is to harness that enormous generative energy toward the end of making exciting, crafted work that is not just risky, but thrilling.
That thrill will arrive in the form of a marriage between risk and control. The youngest generation may — and I’m just speculating here — be reacting against a degree of remove that they still see in local theater, and rejecting what they see as complacency on the part of a theater community that is 30 years away from its last truly experimental era. When the newest theater artists and companies have combined their ideas and energy with the exquisitely honed craft of the established theater community, they will be in a position not only to interpret a mythos, but to make one.
The Minnesota work ethic and lack of patience with pretense creates a radically different theater environment than exists in almost any other town.
The Twin Cities theater community was at its most vibrant, by a number of accounts, in the 1980s, when it was “the go-to place for new plays,” in Kingsley’s words. “That’s why a lot of us came here.”
And a number of local theater artists have said, more than once, that the community here is, in fact, a community. Wingert writes that the interaction she’s had with East Coast actors “leads me to believe that we’re friendlier here, happier in our work and maybe less envious of others’ success. I think work begets work for everyone, and I think I’ve heard others express that as well. We love our jobs, we love our theaters, and we love our homeplace,” that last a term borrowed quite aptly from Bill Holm (one of the makers of Minnesota’s mythos, if such a thing exists).
As a result, the Twin Cities theater style may not be so much a style of performance as it is a style of process. This is the one place where the region’s mythos — such as it is — does play out in practical terms: the Minnesota work ethic and lack of patience with pretense does create a radically different theater environment than exists in almost any other town. Kingsley pointed out a few features of this environment that make it a place where theater artists want to be: for one, it’s not a closed shop. There’s extensive interaction between union and non-union artists. And this isn’t — with a few deeply annoying exceptions — a town that has time for stars. And, as Kingsley put it, rightly noting its roots in the tradition of the Playwrights’ Center: “the work is about the work.”
But what is that work? What’s making it onto the stage? Right now, there are more companies than ever, but fewer producing new plays. With a few notable exceptions, no one would argue that the choices of plays performed on the larger stages lately has been as radical or ambitious as it was, say, in the 1980s, when Minneapolis was the nation’s hotbed of new plays and playwrights. The more limited repertoire is a direct effect of economics and the perception that you can’t put butts in seats with new, experimental, or cutting-edge work.
Which brings me to the heart of the question — which is not so much what is our style?, but what do we want our theater to be?
We need to ask ourselves what we want from our theater — we, both audience and artists. Where are we pushing limits? Is it good to push limits? If we say yes, can we push harder — push Twin Cities theater to take greater risks, and push audiences to be open to what those risks turn up?
If we define ourselves as a theater town, and yet cannot define our style — and I think we cannot — then we need to reach deeper and find out what we believe about this place. What is our identity? And how can theater begin to deepen and enrich our concept of who we are? If we have a mythos, a core sense of what makes this place our homeplace and what makes us us, we may not know what that mythos is.
Yet we are a culture, as any region is a culture, and we are a rapidly changing one. Our myths and meanings are quickly becoming richer and more textured, originating in more places, taking in more histories. The Everyman to whom our theater speaks now does contain multitudes. And those multitudes have made it more than clear that theater is a necessity, not a luxury, in this place.
Our theater may need to think more deeply about what stories it wants to tell, what stories it has not told, stories of what we are now, and of what we have always been. I do believe that theater is the oldest and truest way for a culture to remember and know itself. This remembering and knowing is the task of the generation of theater artists now coming to the stage.
About the author: Marya Hornbacher is the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author of three books, most recently Madness: A Life. An award-winning journalist, Hornbacher’s work has been published in sixteen languages.