Saturday, August 29, 2009

Chameleon Theatre Circle: New play contest and festival

Burnsville, Minnesota

An example of community theater that facilitates the power of people to imagine and create new realities and communities for themselves is alive and well in Burnsville. Since its founding in 1998, The Chameleon Theatre Circle has served artists and audiences South of the River by staging nearly 70 plays and musicals, many of them original scripts by contemporary playwrights.

The company's work has been recognized over the years by numerous awards at state, regional, and national levels of community theater festivals, including the biennial MACT•Fest, sponsored by the Minnesota Association of Community Theatres. Chameleon also gained broader visibility when its 2000 production of "Hair" was featured in a PBS broadcast.

As it takes up residence in the new, Burnsville Performing Arts Center, the Chameleon will look to extend its horizons further when it opens its 12th season, Sept. 18, with "Paper Dolls" by Timothy Braatz, playwright in residence.

In addition to a Playwrights In Residence program – Braatz and Rick Raasch currently hold the positions – the theater cultivates and nurtures new work through its annual contests. This year, more than 300 playwrights from around the world made submissions to the 10th Annual New Play Contest.

Following a multi-panel process that started last October, eight plays were selected to receive concert-style readings in the Annual New Play Festival, held at the Burnsville center's Black Box Theatre, Aug. 29. The plays were selected based on Full Length, One Act, and 10 Minute categories.

Full Length Category:

"Ponzi on Sunday," by Jon Steinhagen, Brookfield, Illinois. In August 1920, famed financial advisor and guru C. W. Barron invites immigrant Charles Ponzi to his office for a “pleasant chat” after newspaper editorials suggest Ponzi's quick rise to wealth is based on fraud. A cat and mouse game follows between two men who want everything but will admit to nothing.

One Act Category

"Cue," by M. Thomas Cooper, Portland, Oregon. Four Hamlet characters – modern 1970s, classical, female interpreted, and German avant garde – find themselves together backstage waiting for a cue.

"Merry-Go-Round," by Sam Wallin, Vancouver, Washington. A circular play of interlocking scenes and the story of people pushed beyond their means, sacrificing the long term for the short. Pimps, prostitutes, hit men, office workers, CEO's, politicians and robots all play a role in this exploration of society on the edge.

10 Minute Category

"Old/Bored/Trouble/Dead," by John Allison, Ewing, New Jersey. Many parents have had a conversation with a teenager who refuses to appreciate loving care. Janine finds herself alone with her grandmother, who finds a way to actually engage Janine in such a conversation.

"Have Your Cake," by
Sara Ilyse Jacobson, Washington, D. C. Lily, a 20-something woman, wakes up in bed with Caleb and Max, her two 20-something roommates.

"Good God Enters Flossing," by
J. Stephen Brantley, New York, New York. It's a normal morning for Josh, Dinsmore, and Billy until the Ark of the Covenant appears in their living room. What sort of message is God sending, and why would He choose a trio of trendy Brooklyn queers to spread the word?

"The Winner is...," by
Arash Karami, Irvine, California. After Stalin receives a letter saying that for the second consecutive year Hitler has outdone him and won the Best Dictator Award, Stalin's assistant and masseuse help him to absorb the assault on his fragile ego and brainstorm new and better strategies to win the next year’s award.

Submission by Playwright In Residence:
"Cossacks Under Water," by Timothy Braatz, Laguna Beach, California. Three stories come together onstage: Dmitri and Tolstoy's 19th century Cossacks; four 21st century Iowans in a town flooded with water and outsiders; and Lynn, looking back at her “journey” as she prepared to stage “The Cossacks.”

Each play generated a variety of informed discussions and insightful observations from dozens of audience members who arrived and departed throughout the day.

"As far as what this play was about ["Cossacks"], I really didn't care very much," said one observer. "I just really watched these characters interact."

Another attendee said the premise of "Good God Enters Flossing," in the 10 Minute category, was "really interesting – and now I want the whole play."

Of the four readings I attended, only one clunked, and that so badly that I wondered how it had survived the juries. "The Winner Is..." was poorly written from a lousy premise and featured pedantic preaching. Nor was it funny. No one should waste money giving it a full production.

In prior years, the Chameleon has produced seven scripts that have emerged from previous contests. Tickets for the six plays in the 2009-2010 season are available at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center box office, 12600 Nicollet Avenue, just north of Burnsville Parkway. You also can get them from Ticketmaster, but why would you?

The Metropolitan Regional Arts Council provided funding for the festival.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Minneapolis, Minnesota

Monday, August 24, 2009

If you're not for profit, then what are you for?

Minneapolis, Minnesota

"Nonprofits are not founded to meet a need," says Michael Kaiser, "but to pursue a mission. If you are not pursuing a mission successfully, then you either have the wrong mission or the wrong strategy."

A thin line separates health and sickness in the arts, he says, and when executives run out of solutions it is easy for board members of unhealthy organizations to revert to their more familiar, for profit missions. When that happens, missions become about raising money, with a negative spill-over effect to the community.

"People come to [the arts] for solace and refuge," Kaiser asserts, "but we talk to them about how bad things are. I don't believe in talking publicly about my problems. That's what my family is for. Too many organizations are talking to the press and to their constituencies about problems."

"Executives have to provide fiscal stability so boards will believe the mission is good. It is the executive's job to have the solutions – and to ask for help."

Kaiser serves as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts where h
e has created an online forum for arts administrators, and “Arts In Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative” which provides management consultation throughout the United States. He graduated in economics and music from Brandeis University and earned a Masters in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kaiser has been dubbed “the Turnaround King” for his work at the Royal Opera House, American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Kansas City Ballet.

He spoke to about 200 people at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul this morning, in a two-hour session moderated by Alison Young of Minnesota Public Radio. His visit
is part of a 50-state tour started in Boston, March 18, designed to help arts organizations respond to the recession.

I last heard Kaiser speak at a Dance/USA convening years ago, prior to his gig with the Royal Opera House in London. Then, as now, his defining credo was "great art, well marketed."

To his eye, the arts face two economic facts of life: productivity cannot be improved (e.g., "Hamlet" needs the same cast it first had and Beethoven cannot be played faster) and, once a venue has been built, its earned income potential has been set in stone. The response of arts organizations for 30 years has been to raise ticket prices when faced with fixed earned income and rapidly expanding costs.

"The arts are still relevant," Kaiser says, "but they are too expensive." As evidence, he cites the Kennedy Center's free performance days when the symphony – that "irrelevant art form" – is the most well attended by people across all demographics.

The solution? I have long argued, possibly in reaction to Kaiser's earlier speech, that no arts organization ever cost-cut its way to success.

Cutting expenses, Kaiser says, runs counter to mission and does not work. When he arrived at the Royal Opera House with its $30 million deficit, he had to contend with a board that had decided to cut all artistic programming for 18 months. He never favors cuts for exciting, artistic programming and aggressive marketing. "I believe in cutting everything else."

The arts have to be exciting, he argues, in order to get people talking and to compete harder for the money. Make that exciting and risky. One place to start is the mission statement. "Often," Kaiser says, "we gather people in rooms and keep them there until the language becomes blander and blander and you offend no one and stand for nothing. Someone should leave the organization by the time you end a mission discussion."

Kaiser also believes that planned programming, four and five years ahead, makes for better art and provides more talking points. "Maybe you aren't doing the most exciting thing this year, but if you know the great things coming up, you have something for people to buy into and adopt." For organizations large and small, with and without their own facilities, advanced planning also allows for joint ventures. Kaiser is bullish on joint ventures, both for the current environment and for more normal times.

He also thinks a bit of tension between artistic and executive directors can be a good thing when it makes long term program planning happen. "You can't do marketing and fundraising until you do the programming. The three are very linked. You will get a better result if you start now than if you wait two years to see what happens."

With programming in-hand, organizations have two marketing challenges, institutional and programmatic.

"Institutional marketing is central to organizational health. It is the responsbility of the CEO and not the marketing department. It is what we do to get people excited about the organization. It is not expensive, but it does take time. It has to happen again and again. Programmatic marketing depends on many variables, and its cost should be falling with the adoption of technology and online communication."

Boards of directors are a key cross-roads in marketing efforts.

"A board is not a monolithic whole," Kaiser says. "Each member must be treated as an individual. Communicate with them at least once a month and not just at meetings. A healthy organization keeps reaching out and bringing in new people." To change a board culture, "Never ever add one member at a time. Have three or four new people become acquainted with each other and then bring them onto the board together."

Kaiser also favors involving artists and the rest of the staff in an organization's ongoing discussions.

From his book, "The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations," Kaiser outlined 10 rules that organizations ignore at their peril:

1. There has to be a/one leader who, at the end of the day says "This is what we are doing, where we are going, and how we are going to get there."

2. The leader must have a plan, a strategy, for getting from here to there.

3. You can't save your way to health. It makes you look irrelevant and you don't compete well.

4. Focus on the present and the future, not the past.

5. Extend your planning calendar. It costs nothing to do so.

6. There has to be one spokesperson, and there can be only one – positive – message.

7. Marketing is more than just brochures.

8. Don't aim fundraising gift solicitations too high or too low.

9. The board has to be willing to re-structure itself.

10. You have to have the discipline to do the first nine rules.

The man does have his detractors, many of whom expressed their views in comment replies to his July article on the Huffington Post,
"Why The Arts Don't Pay for Themselves".

Ultimately, Kaiser says, there is no end of private funding available. "There is money in every community – 65% of arts money comes from individuals – we have to improve our marketing. There is no magic. It is just common sense."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Steppin' up and out for the Midwest Arts Conference

Minneapolis, Minnesota

When Minneapolis-St. Paul last hosted the Midwest Arts Conference in September 2001, current events had rendered the four-day summit of cultural leaders and mavens nearly prostrate. The air travel system barely had a pulse after the euphemistic "events of Sept. 11," the stock market was in the tank, and many artists and their purveyors stayed home. Huge question marks hung over all aspects of a world accustomed to all-but-certain predictions and expectations.

Since then, we have realized that the shocks of those days altered our cultural life but did not destroy it, our expectations adapted to less predictability and greater bewilderment, and the Midwest Arts Conference scheduled its return to the Saint Paul RiverCentre next month, Sept. 9-12.

In preparation, artists from throughout the U.S. are primping and preening, ready to display their wares to the wholesalers of the cultural establishment. This is especially true for Minnesota artists and, in particular, choreographers and their dance companies.

Just as fundraisers know that donors contribute to and invest in people with whom they have some degree of relationship, performers recognize that the process of connecting with audiences begins by forming relationships with the performing arts curators and directors who contract the engagements that define their venues. Thus, when Arts Midwest annually convenes hundreds of these pooh-bahs – they are called "presenters" in the trade – many more hundreds of artists, their managers, and agents also join the party.

Arriving mostly from 15 states in the middle of the continent between Canada and Mexico, more than 1,000 people are expected to attend this year's four-day series of workshops, seminars, and social gatherings. For most, primary attention will focus on the Marketplace exhibition hall and the rounds of showcase performances that will consume hours of introductions, window shopping, and deal-making.

More than 4,000 artists will be represented in Marketplace exhibit spaces for visitors wandering the aisles with varying degrees of purpose and intention. In the essential simplicity of the information exchange that occurs there, presenters will relate the problems they need to solve and artists will make the case that they have the solutions to those problems. When there is congruence, performances and community outreach activities will get scheduled and subscription seasons will be created.

This business of buying and selling usually begins at some earlier time when presenters first attend performances of the artists they eventually will invite home to meet the folks. The Midwest Arts Conference provides numerous opportunities for presenters to attend a variety of performances.

Twin Cities Triple Play: Opening Night, Wed., Sept. 9, 7:15pm-8:30pm

Sampler performances by 10 Twin Cities dance, theater, and jazz ensembles will be presented simultaneously at three venues in downtown St. Paul. These samplers are ticketed events, restricted to Conference attendees.

The Walker Art Center's Philip Bither curated the dance sampler at the McKnight Theater of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Performers will include the Twin Cities dance organizations Buckets & Tap Shoes, Catalyst Dances, and Hijack.

Robin Gillette, the Minnesota Fringe Festival's executive director, pulled together the theater sampler at The Lowry Theater, featuring performances by the Four Humors Theater, Nautilus Music-Theater, and Rockstar Storytellers.

Lowell Pickett, resident impresario at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, programmed the jazz sampler at The Saint Paul Hotel's M ST. Cafe. His musical menu will include The Atlantis Quartet, Irv Williams Quartet, Tanner Taylor Trio, and Fat Kid Wednesdays.

Spotlight Showcases: Thu., Sept. 10, 6:30pm-9:30pm; Fri., Sept. 11, 3:45pm-6:45pm

The adjudicated, 15-minute Spotlight Showcases will feature 18 performance groups over two days at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul. One Minnesota-based group is included in the line-up: Cantus, a men's vocal chamber ensemble, will perform Thu., Sept. 10, at 6:55pm. A listing and schedule of the other 17 acts, including bluegrass music from Alaska, can be found here.

Live Performances at the Conference

The Midwest Arts Conference will include several live music and dance performances as part of its proceedings. Single-day tickets can be purchased from Arts Midwest.

Happy Hour, Thu., Sept. 10, 4:30pm-5:30pm, RiverCentre
A performance by Jeremy Davis & The Fabulous Equinox Jazz Orchestra will feature original arrangements of Johnny Mercer tunes and the Great American Songbook by a trio of male vocalists based in Rincon, Georgia.

All-Conference Luncheon, Fri., Sept. 11, Noon-1:30pm, RiverCentre
As it did in 2001, Minnesota's James Sewell Ballet will present a 20-minute performance from its repertoire of original, contemporary ballet. The company is beginning its 17th season in Minnesota.

Northrop Dance Series, Fri., Sept. 11, 8pm, University of Minnesota
In what for many will be the Conference's pièce de résistance, Wayne McGregor / Random Dance will kick off Northrop's 2009-2010 dance season with "Entity," a full-length work combining neuroscience, physical choreography, and software engineering. The British McGregor is resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet, and Random Dance is the resident company at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London. Single tickets available, $31-$55, 612.624.2345. Northrop Auditorium is located on the Minneapolis East Bank campus of the University of Minnesota.

Conference Brunch, Sat., Sept. 12, 11am-12:15pm, RiverCentre
Fans of television's "Days of Our Lives" and Broadway's "A Chorus Line," will want to add a dash of Kevin Spirtas to their eggs and java. Fresh from his gig as Corney Collins in the Las Vegas production of "Hairspray," Spirtas will croon a mix of Broadway and pop standards. (Spirtas also will showcase with Linda Purl, Fri., Sept. 11, 8pm, at The Lowry Theater.)

Independent Showcases: Thu.–Sat., Sept. 10-12, various times and venues

More than 75 artists and ensembles will perform at venues throughout downtown St. Paul – and two in Minneapolis – at independently-arranged showcases. Many of the acts will welcome locals. Performances by artists with Minnesota connections are listed below; a complete list of all showcases can be found here.

Minnesota's Butch Thompson, the legendary jazz pianist and former regular on "A Prairie Home Companion," will hold forth at The Artists' Quarter in the Historic Hamm Building, Wed., Sept. 9, at 9pm, 9:30pm, and 10pm.

Ananya Dance Theatre will present three, full-length performances of "Ashesh Barsha" at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, Thu., Sept. 11, 7:30pm; Fri., Sept. 11, 8pm; Sat., Sept. 12, 8pm. Tickets are available at 612.340.1725, or from Conference Booth 921A. The Southern Theater is located near the Minneapolis West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota.

Mathew Janczewski, artistic director of ARENA Dances, has organized Twin City Dance, late-night showcases for 13 diverse Twin Cities ensembles – plus two guests – at the St. Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts, Roy Wilkins Studios, RiverCentre, 5th Street entrance. Performers for Thu., Sept. 10, and Fri., Sept. 11: Maggie Bergeron & Company, 9:30pm; Cathy Wright Dance, 9:30pm; Bryan Gerber, 9:45pm; Shapiro & Smith Dance, 9:45pm; Flying Foot Forum, 10pm; Black Label Movement, 10pm; Buckets & Tap Shoes, 10:15pm; Zenon Dance Company, 10:15pm; Live Action Set, 10:30pm; Ragamala Dance, 10:30pm; Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater, 10:45pm; Kate Weare Company (NYC), 10:45pm-Thu. only; Epitome-No Question, 10:45pm-Fri. only; ARENA Dances, 11pm; Koresh Dance Company (Philadelphia), 11:15pm. Locals are welcome at these free performances.

8 @ 8 - The CIA (Choreographers in Accord) will showcase nine Twin Cities dance companies on stage at The Ritz Theater, 345 - 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, Thu.-Fri., Sept. 10-11, 8pm-9:15pm. Tickets are available at 612.436.1129, or from Conference Booths 902, 900B, and 724B. Ensembles include Ballet of the Dolls, Ethnic Dance Theatre, Flying Foot Forum, Jawaahir Dance Company, Katha Dance Theatre, Shapiro & Smith Dance, TU Dance, Zenon Dance Company, and Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre.

New Folk Booking will present several modern-acoustic, Celtic, folk, and world musicians in the Kellogg III room on the lobby level of the Crowne Plaza St. Paul – Riverfront: Thu., Sept. 10: Dáithí Sproule, 9:30pm; Billy McLaughlin, 10:10pm; Boiled in Lead, 10:50pm; Dennis Warner, 11:30pm. Fri., Sept. 11: Cooker John, 8pm; Greg Herriges, 8:45pm; Lehto & Wright, 9:30pm; Todd Menton, 10:15pm; The Galactic Cowboy Orchestra, 11pm.

Theatre of Fools will display its version of Vaudeville for the 21st Century, Thu., Sept. 10, at 10:01pm, 10:13pm, 10:23pm, and 10:37pm, in The Lowry Theater.

Buckets & Tap Shoes will present two performance segments, Thu., Sept. 10, Midnight and 12:30am, in The Lowry Theater.

Cantus will present selections from its 2009-2010 touring show in the Ramsey County Room 317, Landmark Center, Fri., Sept. 11, 8pm, 9:15pm, and 11pm.

The Rose Ensemble will present a free, full-length performance of early choral music at Central Presbyterian Church, Fri., Sept. 11, 8pm.

In addition to showcase and networking opportunities, the 22d Midwest Arts Conference will offer professional development workshops and seminars on topics such as Classical Music Basics, Innovating in Turbulent Times, Family Programming Basics, Dance Basics, Self-Represented Artists, Artist Managers and Agents, and Presenting 101.

A list of Marketplace exhibitors can be found here.

Minnesota's Buckets & Tap Shoes performed for 5,000 people at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater and the Vail International Dance Festival, Tue., Aug. 11, 2009. Engagements like this one often are the result of relationships built at regional and national arts conferences.