Twin Cities' Thriving Theater Scene
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Vibrant and distinctive
Every night, the lights go down in theaters all across the Twin Cities, and the shows begin. Posh multimillion-dollar theaters host proven Broadway plays, and urban warehouse spaces showcase cutting-edge works. Hennepin Avenue (left), a.k.a., the Theatre District, glitters in Minneapolis.
The Twin Cities boast more theater seats per capita than any U.S. metro except New York City. And historically, Minnesota ranks near the top nationwide in federal and state arts funding. It also has a strong history of private arts philanthropy.
It's more than funding and fancy fact-finding, though, that make offerings on Twin Cities stages vibrant, distinctive and envy-inspiring. Quality, variety and community support feed off one another to create a theater scene that's among the best and most diverse in the nation.
Elegance at the Ordway
Consider this typical night: Though most patrons have settled into one of the 1,900 seats at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, a few hundred elegantly dressed people still chat softly over glasses of wine, lingering in the soaring two-story glass lobby (left) with a view of downtown Saint Paul. A trumpet fanfare cuts through conversation, signaling that the play will soon begin. But that's only one of the productions about to start in the Twin Cities.
Art, meals and music
Across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis' hip Lyn-Lake area, ticket holders in the Jungle Theater's narrow, art-filled lobby (left) pass through red velvet drapes. And in the southwest suburbs, the balancing act of providing meals and multiple performances is in full swing at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' complex. Steaks have been eaten, dishes cleared, and now, audiences in three houses await three different musicals.
The Guthrie: More successful than ever
The Twin Cities' theater scene owes much to the internationally acclaimed Guthrie Theater, which began in 1963. World-famous English director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, searching for a Midwest city in which to establish a professional theater, chose Minneapolis. "He had a feeling that the community here would support the theater in good times and in bad," former Artistic Director Joe Dowling says. "He was right."
More than 40 years later, the Guthrie is more successful than ever, presenting classic works (few seasons pass without at least one of Shakespeare's plays) and a dash of contemporary plays. It outgrew its location adjoined to the acclaimed Walker Art Center, and in 2006, it opened a $149 million, three-theater building complex (left) along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.
Diversity and quality
The Guthrie and the Ordway are the cities' heavy hitters, with multimillion-dollar annual budgets and total seating in the thousands.
Distinctive, however, are the abundant, established, high-quality midsize companies, with annual budgets around $1 million and theaters with a couple of hundred seats. One is Penumbra in Saint Paul, occupying part of a red-brick community center in a residential neighborhood. The plays that unfold inside the cozy, 265-seat theater garner national acclaim, and the careers of noted actors, directors and playwrights have blossomed here, including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson.
Lou Bellamy founded Penumbra in 1976 as a forum for African-American voices. Today, it's considered one of the best theaters of its kind in the nation. Works speak solely about the African-American experience, though diverse audiences who support this mission fill theater seats. "You can't do this stuff if no one comes to see it," says Bellamy, also the artistic director. "People here appreciate the diversity and quality of the art."
An artistic culture
The Twin Cities' support for diversity and quality also explains why more than 50 years after its inception, the Brave New Workshop still hits home with its searing original political comedies. And why the Tony Award-winning Children's Theatre's widely attended production about the Holocaust eloquently and tactfully speaks to both children and parents. And why theaters like the State (left), the Orpheum and others continue to thrive.
"There's an artistic culture I haven't found anywhere else," local actor Robert O. Berdahl says. "I've thought about moving to L.A. or New York, but it's nice to be here, where the work is more important than the money or fame. It's more about the art."
It's your stage, too
Want to get in on the action? Audiences and artists benefit from the Minnesota Fringe Festival's "no auditions" policy. Artists get a truly democratic outlet, because the festival's roughly 175 shows, performed in about 20 Twin Cities venues, are chosen first-come, first-served. Audiences get 10 days with an eclectic range of performances. Past shows, usually an hour long, include cabaret, spoken word, juggling and modern twists on William Shakespeare. Fringe festivals take place around the world, and organizers say this one is the largest and fastest-growing in America, selling more than 40,000 tickets a year.