Local group OnStage works to connect Twin Cities audiences with theater

The discussion-based organization hosts workshops with students and community members about local theater

Guest speakers Harry Waters Jr. and Thomasina Petris, both local actors and teachers, read sections of the play Anna in the Tropics during a class at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul on Wednesday, March 1, 2017. The On Stage program works to bring theater into classrooms like this one and the Twin Cities community.

Ellen Schmidt

Guest speakers Harry Waters Jr. and Thomasina Petris, both local actors and teachers, read sections of the play Anna in the Tropics during a class at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul on Wednesday, March 1, 2017. The On Stage program works to bring theater into classrooms like this one and the Twin Cities community.

Maddy Folstein

Within the theater community, engaging new audiences can be difficult — but a local group is lifting the curtain and exposing the art form’s power to new viewers.

The program, OnStage, seeks to connect Twin Cities theaters with non-traditional theater-going audiences, and Lucas Erickson — a graduate student in the arts in cultural leadership program at the University of Minnesota — founded the program in order to solve some of the issues he saw in the local theater community.

“I wanted to solve this issue of dwindling older audiences at a lot of the theaters I was going to,” Erickson said. “A lot of my friends don’t go to the theater, so I wanted to take on the role to be more of a promoter to drive future younger audiences, which is a big part of my research in my master’s program.”

Erickson hosts discussions in local classrooms and community centers with non-traditional theater audiences. But beyond bringing in new audiences, OnStage seeks to identify the audience’s personal connections to topics presented in local theatrical productions.

“We’re taking it to the classrooms, so we’re humanizing theater and really tying in to a lot of the personal values of community audiences and non-traditional theater people,” Erickson said.

OnStage discussions typically include a reading of a scene from the show and an open-ended, flexible conversation about the script’s themes.

“We really try to tie it in to the subject matter and whatever they’re talking about,” said Thomasina Petrus, one of the actresses who reads scenes for OnStage discussions.

The most recent set of OnStage workshops centers around “Anna in the Tropics,” a play running at the Jungle Theater through March 12. The play tells the story of a lector in a Cuban cigar factory and the passionate romances he induces through his reading of Anna Karenina.

One such romance is a heated affair between two of the play’s characters.

“We had a whole discussion about the affair and how men and women deal with that subject and its sexuality,” Petrus said.

The discussion’s focus often steers toward the students’ own lives.

“It’s talking about theater without talking about theater,” Petrus said.

This discussion of live theater is what lives at the core of OnStage’s mission. Theater, after all, is a communal art form.

“If you’re an introvert, you can literally go to a show and observe the show and the audiences,” Petrus said. “Being involved in someone’s conversation — or even hearing someone’s conversation — is important. You can hear people talking at intermission, buying concessions — it’s a natural talkback.”