New actors in an old scene

Diversity becomes the new watchword in Part 2 of A&E’s series on community theater.

by Greg Corradini

In the Twin Cities’ vast theater scene, what is good for the majority is not always good for – or representative of – the minority.

Traditionally marginalized communities (ethnic, sexual, religious or the unruly political mix of all these) seldom have had a voice in the cultural mainstream.

Outward Spiral, Theater Mu and the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company are some of the local theater companies that have tried to change that representation since the early 1990s.

In addition to their artistic aesthetic, these companies assert the primacy of cultural education, social action and therapy in their theater. Some of them shock everyday sensibilities, while others focus on the difference between exclusion and inclusion – all in an attempt to pluralize our perspectives on our community.

This article, the second part of a two-part series on “community” in theater, focuses on the parts of the Twin Cities theater ecosystem where marginalized communities have created a voice and are affecting the mainstream.

Filling multicultural gaps

At some point, Rick Shiomi realized that he was going to spend time in the Twin Cities. He just didn’t know where he was going to work.

“I thought, ‘What am I possibly going to do here? There’s no Asian-American theater,’ ” said Shiomi, artistic director and co-founder of Theater Mu.

Trained in San Francisco for ensemble taiko drumming, a post-World War II Japanese musical form, Shiomi also had 10 years of experience under his belt working with the United States’ largest Asian-American theater companies.

East West Players in Los Angeles and Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York had produced his plays. He started directing with the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco.

Unable to find a venue appropriate to their background, Shiomi and a group of three friends did the next best thing: They started an Asian-American theater company of their own.

Today, Theater Mu has full-time and part-time staff. They are performing four main-stage productions a year as well as festivals. They look toward a solid future in the Twin Cities as dramatic purveyors of Asian-American tradition.

“I feel like we are operating really nicely as a small arts organization with an annual budget of $350,000,” Shiomi said.

But things weren’t always like that.

“I thought we were very fortunate at first, because in Minnesota in the early 1990s the whole diversity movement was starting to happen,” Shiomi said.

Multicultural awareness and sensibility in Minnesota, especially in the Twin Cities’ art community, was on the rise in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

From that buzz grew an outcrop of new renegade theater companies, like Theater Mu, using their energy to push progressive political and ethnic theater forward.

Neal Cuthbert, arts program director for the McKnight Foundation, said that there was willingness on the part of foundations to be responsive to those efforts.

“There were a lot of artists of color who were coming up and there weren’t organizations to serve them. People were feeling fairly isolated and there were efforts to try and create cultural nodes that could serve specific populations,” Cuthbert said.

Barbara Brooks, founding artistic director of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, said she did not draw her initial resources from the same foundation pool.

Nevertheless, the Twin Cities’ cultural communities, compared to her native New York, were glaringly different.

While attending graduate school at the University for music therapy, someone told Brooks that they had never met a Jew before.

“In contrast to New York where people never bat an eye no matter what your background is like, I thought it was odd that it would even be an issue for someone,” said Brooks.

Brooks said growing up in Forest Hills, New York, a person’s ethnic background was just a part of life that was welcome and accepted.

“When I came to grad school in Minnesota, I was really aware of the fact that I was different,” Brooks said.

This difference in combination with the birth of her son brought Brooks to question her Jewish heritage and its future in the Twin Cities. It also provided the impetus to start the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company and its focus on the idea of dramatic community ‘therapy.’

Brooks had worked as a music therapist in St. Paul schools for eight years using her music skills as a tool to teach language, social and academic skills to children with physical and developmental disabilities.

“Theater can do the same thing. It can not only be entertaining, it can provide the experience for which audiences could learn about other cultures,” Brooks said.

And learn they will.

In the Twins Cities, there were no theater events during the Christmas holiday about the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah. So the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company commissioned “The Magic Dreidels.”

Brooks said their audiences are consistently 40 percent non-Jewish, according to the audience surveys that the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company conducts.

“I feel like we are a theater for the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community. We are providing experience for both to learn about theirs and others’ cultures,” Brooks said.

Affecting the mainstream

But culturally educating the mainstream can have its drawbacks.

As soon as Brooks’ theater had started to gain success, she said that one unnamed theater affiliate actually told her, “We are going after your audience.”

Outward Spiral Theatre Company knows all about this problem.

Their current artistic director, Jeffry Lusiak, now sees other theater companies appropriating gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender subject matter into their seasons.

“Everyone is doing gay plays. In the 1990s, what made Outward Spiral different was the fact that no one was telling the GLBT stories,” Lusiak said.

Outward Spiral’s 2002 hit production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is proof that a good GLBT story can sell well now – an idea that other companies are eager to follow.

“Now that the GLBT model has been taken up, it challenges us to find where we can break new ground,” Lusiak said.

The unearthing required Outward Spiral to refocus its energy on cultivating new works and becoming involved in community-based political organizations. They are also reinvesting and taking on a harder-hitting, edgier version of the word “queer.”

“We think the term is more inclusive. Society has changed a lot since the mid-1990s from just the acceptance of gays. For us it really is finding that new queer voice,” Lusiak said.

The new queer voice for Outward Spiral is akin to a queer mindset, the political and highly charged matter forever provoking the status quo. Lusiak said that the word opens up another creative space to instill a new way of thinking which is more open and risky.

“A lot of people have shied away from the political in theater. I prefer plays that can challenge you and incite conversation,” Lusiak said.

Rick Shiomi and Theater Mu aren’t worried about mainstream theaters’ multicultural initiatives because they see them built upon a completely different premise and tradition that hasn’t needed to include the minority.

Shiomi agreed that mainstream companies are making progress in their attempts to diversify their artistic pool and productions. He attributed this change to the presence of companies like Theater Mu, Teatro Del Pueblo and Penumbra Theatre, among many others.

Recently, Theater Mu partnered with Park Square Theatre for a production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Pacific Overtures.” Other creative bridges between Theater Mu and mainstream theater companies in the past have validated Theater Mu’s influence.

Shiomi stressed that he never believed larger mainstream companies would ever become so diversified that there wasn’t room for the smaller agenda-based theaters.

“The greater the mix at every level, the better. But (Theater Mu) will always have a service to provide culturally,” Shiomi said.

Still, the dramatic idealist can’t help but re-imagine the future of the Twin Cities theater scene.

In this place, more companies like Outward Spiral, Theater Mu and the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company will make mainstream audiences and theater companies aware that diversity is a progressive and worthy goal, and usher in an age of inclusiveness in the theater.