U fellowship gives opportunity to theater critics

[bold on]Juliette Crane[bold off][fm][bold on][bold off][bold on][bold off]Staff Reporter[fm]
Most theater critics wind up with a list full of enemies, but Mike Steele was different. He managed to stay friends with just about everyone in the local arts community, even as he offered honest and informed criticism of their work. Now, after his May 3 passing, these friends are developing a program to allow his innovative writing and creative intellect to live on.
The University’s dance and journalism programs are sponsoring the Mike Steele Memorial Fellowship, a program that will give a young or mid-career critic from the upper Midwest the opportunity to work directly with performing arts organizations throughout the Twin Cities. The program was presented in November at a gathering in Steele’s honor at the Guthrie Theater. The evening was filled with remembrances by theater professionals and works from more than a dozen local dance companies to commemorate his career.
Steele, a Chicago native, first began earning local respect in 1966 when he signed on with the then-Minneapolis Tribune as a cultural writer. After the merger of the Tribune with the Minneapolis Star in 1982, Steele became one of the newspaper’s two theater critics and later widened his focus to include dance.
He retired from the paper in September after being diagnosed with liver cancer.
Steele wanted to develop a program that would support innovative ideas and lead to creative writing and dance programs. Therefore, the fellowship has been designed to reflect his interests and areas of expertise.
A similar experience during his own education fueled Steele’s desire to establish the fellowship. Given a scholarship to the American Dance Festival, he lived and worked directly with dancers and choreographers to develop a better sense of what their experience was really like. The opportunity not only helped to strengthen his writing but furthered his career.
As a result, Steele’s approach to writing was exceptionally creative and innovative. His knowledge of many different areas within the performing arts grew tremendously, and this expertise made him a terrific model for other arts critics.
The program will focus on the skills Steele “believed would be most useful and productive to aspiring critics,” said Kathleen Hansen, director of the Minnesota Journalism Center at the University. The fellowship will not only give a promising critic the chance to work within the local performing arts community, but it will help to expand their expertise in a specific area of interest.
There is no other program like this in the country, said Linda Shapiro, coordinator for the University’s theatre arts and dance program.
“Writers can go to critics’ conferences, but this is an opportunity for them to be directly involved in the local arts community and to design their own intense agenda,” Shapiro said. The creative candidate may be a writer interested in learning more about theater or dance, or a dancer who wants to move toward a career as a performing arts critic. The fellowship is designed to acquaint them with what goes on in real life behind the performance, to see what it is like to be a director, dancer or choreographer.
The University’s dance department is directly involved with the program. The school provides a potential resource for candidates applying for the fellowship who want to go behind the scenes of local theater and dance companies.
However, applicants will put together their own agenda based on their expertise.
“The person may want to conduct seminars, lectures or workshops for the public or teach classes in the performing arts,” Shapiro said.
The fellowship is completely open and available to the most creative ideas and aspirations, Shapiro said. Yet while the program’s agenda has been left wide open, its goal remains clear – to improve popular coverage of the arts.
“(Steele) was involved in the total design of the program from the very beginning,” said Dan Sullivan, a friend and journalism professor at the University who is on the fellowship committee.
Good at evoking experience, Steele “could describe what he saw from his point of view and then say why it did or did not work for him,” Shapiro said.
“He was informative and honest without belittling the performance, like a good critic should be,” she added.
Members of the committee are currently writing up a grant proposal for the program and will begin soliciting funds this fall.