Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cheers for young people, jeans, and scuffed shoes

Minneapolis, Minnesota

They held the annual Ivey Awards in downtown Minneapolis last night to celebrate our 68 professional theaters and to recognize artistic excellence among organizations large and small and people old and new.

es began with a VIP pre-party at Seven on Hennepin, followed by the main awards show at the State Theatre. The red carpet post-party took place at Mission and its spill-over "patio," the IDS Crystal Court. Thanks are due to the financial sponsors.

Melissa Gilbert and Steve Blanchard, lead actors in the Guthrie Theater's production of Little House on the Prairie, served loosely as emcees of the tightly-run State Theatre proceedings, attended by 2,000 of the onstage, backstage, and front-of-house people who make the theater community tick.

Performers from several organizations provided entertainment throughout the 90-minute production, including members of the Brave New Workshop, Buffalo Gal Productions, the Guthrie Theater, Nautilus Music-Theater, Theater Latte Da, and Cantus.

Awards for overall excellence were presented to Open Eye Figure Theatre for Prelude to Faust, and to Workhouse Theatre for 'Night Mother. Recognition also was bestowed upon Frank Theatre for the emotional resonance of The Pillowman; Interact Center for the innovative concept and idea behind Broken Brain Summit; Ordway Center for the Performing Arts for costume design, scenic design, and choreography of Cabaret; Gremlin Theatre – and Gary Geiken, Katie Guentzel, John Middleton, Carolyn Pool, Matt Rein, and Alan Sorenson – for ensemble acting in Orson's Shadow; and to Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and Tamara Kangas for choreography in 42nd Street.

The Ivey Awards recognized three actors for individual performances: James A. Williams as Troy Maxson in the Penumbra Theatre production of Fences; Kate Eifrig for her portrayal of nine characters in 9 Parts of Desire at the Guthrie Theater; and Jarius Abts for his performance as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Jungle Theater.

Matthew Amendt, a 26-year-old actor, received the Emerging Artist Award for writing The Comedian's Tragedy, presented at the Theatre Garage last summer.

A 90-something-year-old Don Stolz was summoned to the stage to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from Diana Pearce of KARE TV and from the Guthrie's legendary – and last year's lifetime recipient – Sheila Livingston. Stolz founded Minnesota's Old Log Theater 67 years ago, pre-Guthrie, pre-Children's Theater, and pre-all-the-rest. According to the couple next to me, Stolz was still giving pre-show curtain talks as recently as Sunday night.

I had a blast and enjoyed every minute of the evening save one. Following his introduction by Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak, I joined whole-heartedly in the standing ovation that greeted Dominique Serrand's arrival to present an award. He could and should have made the presentation and dispensed with his lament for the demise of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the organization he co-founded 30 years ago that crashed and burned earlier this year, following a recognition that years of financial mismanagement and accumulated debt necessitated closure.

"The angels we hoped for have not appeared," he mourned. "The powers that be have spoken with their silence." Invoking Samuel Beckett in blessing, Serrand concluded, "Go on failing. Only next time, try to fail better."

I appreciate that Serrand has a background in European traditions where generous and indulgent support for the arts is a given and carries the character of an entitlement. While I laud the sensibility of that approach, my sympathy has its limits. Enough!

Too many of us work too hard to convince our fellow citizens, of all political stripes, that the arts merit even a pittance of public support. At our best on this side of the pond, we offer investment in artistic endeavors that require the reciprocity of good stewardship: pursuit of artistic excellence, good governance, and fiscal responsibility. Ultimately, Jeune Lune failed on the latter two points.

Several young people took the stage to receive awards last night. Unable to afford fancy suits, in their jeans and scuffed shoes they represented all the starving artists who seek only a chance to create and present their work. The tears they choked back bespoke their disbelieving amazement that, for a brief moment, the community in which they labor had lifted them from the ashes of their chimney hearths and welcomed them to the ball.

Serrand and his colleagues burned their tickets to the dance on the altar of organizational dysfunction and inattention to business basics. In this, they were abetted by what I call "the collective we" that looked away when deficits became chronic, plans became unrealistic, and the ties that bound them to the community frayed beyond repair. Finally and, perhaps, unfairly, we acknowledged that we owed no more and, in the tradition of Minnesota Nice, we kept the angels at bay and allowed the silence to speak for us.

I believe in second and subsequent acts, however, and hope that in his next adventures Serrand will be able to "fail better," if fail he must.

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