Here we are, well into December, barreling into the cold, unfeeling blitz of winter like the train in Snowpiercer. As we rocket on to the end of the year, burning up the last bits of coal in the bin of 2017, we are about to pass into that critical stage where critics start releasing their "Best of Year" lists (Except for City Pages, which pumps out its "Best of the Year" list when the year is only half over). Once again, John Townsend at Lavender Magazine has beat everyone to the punch in the winter rush with his theater year in review, and, once again, he has conjured that winter magic that allows him to fit twelve shows into his top ten list. It's a true pre-Christmas miracle!
In the weeks to come, as we light the torch to burn down the last of 2017, you will be seeing more "Best of 2017" articles (Minnesota Playlist is not above this, either). My congratulations to all of you in advance for being the best. But, once that's all done and we have ritually sacrificed this year to the malevolent gods of time, why not help ring in 2018 with us? Playlist will be reviving its annual Winter Bash on January 20 at Republic in Minneapolis' Seven Corners neighborhood. There will be music. There will be drinking. There will be something called Theatre’s Choice Awards. So, come on out! If nothing else, it will be one last chance to be declared "The Best" of something for 2017.
Tear down time
This is the time of year where I usually start getting all mopey and wistful, as I watch my finite amount of time on this earth speed past me at an ever-accelerating rate. (Ah, Seasonal Affective Disorder, my old friend! It's been so long! Shall we crawl into a whiskey bottle and catch up?) Why would someone whose good mood is so intimately tied to warmth and sunlight choose to move to Minnesota, where winter lasts for approximately a bajillion months out of the year? I guess I'm not that smart. But here I am, suffering from Vitamin D deficiency and looking on wistfully as the world I knew shifts and changes all around me.
When I first moved to Minneapolis, I lived in Uptown. For you new arrivals who revel in the urban life of hip new bars and fancy condo complexes that is today's Lyn-Lake district, I must tell you that this was a very different Uptown. I lived with some friends from college in a shitty, mouse-infested apartment, staying below a woman who was regularly passed out in the hallway of our building and dealing with a building maintenance guy who was chronically drunk and not too keen on the whole "fixing things" part of his job description. We were around the corner from a shop that sold outfits for strippers, a tabletop gaming store, and some storefronts that rotated lethargically through one failed business after another. Potholes the size of ponies grazed on the side streets all season long, only being filled when enough cast-off trash from the convenience store accumulated enough to bring them back up to street level. One summer, a bunch of people were mugged at gunpoint near my apartment, one time right in front of our building. On the plus side, there was plenty of free parking.
Back in these halcyon days, there was a giant trench running down the middle of Uptown, where two blocks worth of old, abandoned and condemned buildings had been demolished, their foundations scooped out of the earth. During the years I lived there, this pit stood empty, the signs on the chain link fence promising that something was coming soon, even as the construction company that was supposed to be building this "something" was swapped out on the sign again and again.
Right after I moved out of Uptown, that hole finally started to fill in. Pylons were driven. Foundations were poured. Steel reached up out of the ground toward the sky. The condo boom had begun.
It didn't take long for it to spread. All over Uptown, the hulking rectangles marched ever onward, radiating up and down Lyndale Avenue, swallowing up more and more of the rundown buildings that had defined my personal vision of Uptown. The anarchist punk collective bookstore quietly disappeared. The small shops that repaired all kinds of outdated technology vanished into history. Even landmark record stores succumbed to the inevitable as real estate values and rent jumped again and again. The neighborhood was irrevocably changing, and no matter how many longtime residents chanted the incantation word "GENTRIFICATION!", their spell had no effect. The young urban elites who worked downtown and had that sweet, sweet fast-track-to-the-executive-floor money to spend had decided to join us in the city instead of decamping to the suburbs. The population of the city was growing for the first time in decades, and all those people needed some place to live, so up went the new buildings (including that one that promised you "Dude, you'll totally get laid if you live here!").
Last week, my girlfriend and I went to see a movie at the Lagoon Theater for the first time in many years. Instead of a musty old theater with a dim projector and some crumbling plaster, we were treated to a fully-renovated space with comfy cushioned chairs and a bar. We ate sushi around the corner. Back when I lived there, you did not want to eat any kind of fish served in that neighborhood. Every storefront was occupied, including ones that I had learned to ignore in the past, because they had been empty for so long. People were everywhere, having a good time on a weekend night with no need to fear armed muggers waiting in the shadows. Free parking is a long-lost dream.
(At least that one dingy McDonald's where drunk people go to get into fights is still there.)
The reason that I am taking this trip down this grimy memory lane is that the Minneapolis Theatre Garage finally joined the anarchist book store and the vacuum repair shop in the graveyard of history last week. For decades, this converted auto shop at the corner of Franklin and Lyndale played host to many a small theater company. It was the first place I ever saw a Fringe show. It was the first place I saw companies like Nimbus, Walking Shadow, and Torch. It was the first place that many a young, fresh-faced actor got their start in the Twin Cities, and this past week it was reduced to rubble to make way for another upscale apartment building.
Out on Facebook, long-time denizens of the Theatre Garage have been sharing their memories of doing their time there. A few even walked down to Lyndale and Franklin to watch the wrecking crew do its work. So many memories from so many decades reduced to splinters and brick dust. When the plans to redevelop this corner were first announced, the Theatre Garage was intended to rise again with it, in a brand-new facility cocooned inside the new building. Neighborhood pressure to make the building shorter forced developers to redraw their plans, and since apartments and parking pay the bills better than a theater space, the rebuilt theater was cut from the plans. Ironically, the local forces who thought the taller building would ruin the character of the neighborhood helped squeeze out the one part that preserved part of that character. But, hey, at least the building is still named after the Theatre Garage, right?
The fight over this new building dragged on for several years, even as the other tenants moved out and moved on. Around them, Uptown continued to change.
And, yeah, I know this building is actually in the Wedge neighborhood; but, in the march of the condos, everything south of downtown has been subsumed into the greater entity known as Uptown. Back in the day, before the condo boom exploded, my second apartment in Minneapolis (a much nicer place) was up the street from the Theatre Garage. I remember seeing a show there and then heading out to one of the smoke-filled bars that lined Lyndale. I could could get stupid drunk at Red Dragon, get judged for not being punk enough to be in the CC Club, soak in the warped plastic Margaritaville vibe of the Gringo's annex at the back of Mortimer's bar and still make it home in time to rent an old VHS tape from that last surviving Hollywood Video store with the threadbare carpet on Hennepin. Today, the Red Dragon is smokeless, the CC Club serves brunch (which is the opposite of punk), Mortimer's is sacrificing Gringo's to another apartment development, and the Hollywood Video has long since closed out its VHS tapes for 99 cents apiece to make way for an oyster bar. Times have changed.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not actually all that nostalgic for these times. Now that I'm no longer in my early 20s and trying to live the dirt-poor, starving artist lifestyle, I realize that all these old, grimy, worn down places were only cool because I was in my early 20s, and at that age, everything in your life is either incredibly awesome and mind-blowing or just totally stupid and lame, because you're in your early 20s and this is all new to you. It's an adventure, and it's amazing (even during the inevitable hangovers) but it doesn't mean the place was actually, objectively all that great.
Truth be told, the Theatre Garage wasn't all that great of a space. Severely out-of-date equipment, constant moisture problems, plumbing that clogged the moment you looked at it, the scary trip to the basement green room: every actor I've ever known who worked there had something to complain about. The good memories that were made there, the shows that went on there, were not made by the building. They were made by the people. And the people will go on to inhabit other spaces and make other shows and memories.
Further down Lyndale, another performance space, Intermedia Arts, has gone by the wayside. In this case, the nonprofit arts organization got bogged down in its own bad finances, and it has the chance to save itself by selling off its building (another old, converted auto shop), which just so happens to be right near ground zero of the condo explosion. There are some well-meaning artists out there who are trying to raise money to save the space; but let's be honest: when the real estate brokers have been hired, the writing is on the wall.
I think people get way too bogged down in this idea that infrastructure is somehow permanent. Just because a building can live a longer life than the average human being, we start treating them like they have some kind of immortality, which is why we are stunned when they finally get torn down. Ripping apart that illusion of permanence is bound to cause some bit of existential dread in our squishy, fragile brains. But theaters sprout up like weeds here in the Twin Cities. Nimbus Theatre, whom I first experienced as a nomadic bunch temporarily taking up space at the Theatre Garage all those years ago, is already on their second building. Their first one turned over and became Minnsky Theater. With their current one, they've added a second small space. In the sum total, I think we're actually ahead now on performance spaces. No doubt, more enterprising theater people will make more. Then those spaces will run their course, and, for one reason or another, they will come to an end.
And then we'll make more. Because we always do. Because we have to. Because the magic isn't contained in the bricks. Just because.
On the Theatre Garage's Facebook page, the very last post, added after the last of the Garage was cleaned out, reads, "..... and scene."
What it didn't say was "End of play."
Who knows? In thirty or forty years all those Uptown condo buildings are probably going to fall on hard times after whatever next giant financial crisis happens, and you, my artist friends, might have a whole new slew of slightly crumbling architecture to move into and take over.
Our dumb industry
There's nothing I enjoy more than stories from our industry about stupid things that didn't need to happen, but did anyway, because that's just what humans do. Here's three:
(1) A billion dollars for a stadium. Hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure overhauls. Millions of dollars in police overtime to handle the horde of drunken fans. Yes, the Super Bowl is really a bottomless pit into which we are willing to pour literal tons of money. But you know where we draw the line? Paying the dancers.
(2) You can have my smart phone when you pry it from my cold, dead hands! At a UK theater, a patron punched the play's producer in the street after being asked to put away his phone during the show.
(3) At a recent performance of Cats, someone's service dog got away from them and literally chased after one of the performers.