It was only a few months ago that the Twin Cities theater community lost its "sparkling showcase" of an awards show, the Iveys. After thirteen years of delivering a slickly packaged product in a swanky downtown theater, all the glitz, glamor and gumption in the world couldn't save a production that cost a cool $160,000 a year to produce. Theater folks around here greeted the announcement with a mix of shock, sadness and regret, as you might expect from the sudden closure of any institution that had existed long enough for people to take for granted that it would always exist. The Uptown Arby's got the same reaction when it closed(though I guarantee you very few people who lamented that sad sacrifice to the gods of capitalism actually squirted horsey sauceonto a sandwich any time in the past decade).
Personally, I've never been a huge fan of the Ivey Awards, but I did recognize their utility, in much the same way that no one is really ever happy with their cable company, but they sure do like being able to watch Game of Thrones. In its thirteen years of local market dominance, the Ivey Awards held the kind of monopoly of attention that undercut other local performing arts awards and discouraged others from trying to start competing ones. So, while others were lamenting the end of a tradition, I was looking forward to the messy promise of an open market.I figured we would go a year or so without some major awards show, see a small proliferation of niche awards for narrowly-defined communities ("and the award for Most Thought-Provoking Long-Form Improv on a Monday Night goes to..."), and then eventually someone would rope together enough corporate backers to try the whole "glitzy award show" again, replete with fancy theater seats and criminally overpriced drinks.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the guys at Four Humors Theaterannounced--just a few months after the demise of the Iveys--that they would be creating a brand new awards showto fill the void. I was a little perplexed, but pleasantly surprised. The main reaction that I heard on the interwebs and in private conversation, though, was, "Who the hell are these guys to decide how an awards show should be?!"
It's an understandable question. Four Humors is a small company whose entire annual budget is less than one-third of what the Iveys spent on one evening of award-giving per year. They are a company made up of a handful of straight white men, in a moment when hashtags like #metoo and #oscarssowhite are pushing the entertainment industry to adopt inclusion ridersas a standard practice. If that wasn't enough, the video they posted on their Indiegogo campaignposits that they want to make an awards show not just for the Twin Cities, but for the whole state.
That all seems to add up to one hell of a heavy lift. After thinking about it for a moment, though, my only answer to that question of "Who they hell are they?!" was, "Well, they're the ones who are actually willing to do it."
Now that Four Humors has secured the first-mover advantage, the only real question is, "What are they going to do with it?"
So, that's why I'm here at 7pm on a Monday night, attending the second of two town halls that Four Humors is putting on to elicit feedback from the community as to what, exactly, this new awards show should be. Four Humors' rehearsal space, lodged somewhere in the labyrinthian expanse of the Ivy Arts Buildingin south Minneapolis, has been ringed with chairs, centered around a length of butcher paper taped to the wall. I recognize most of the people who trickle in: representatives from the Fringe Festivaland the Minnesota Theater Alliance; a few Artistic Directors from small, local companies; a cohort of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers; an arts writer from City Pages. There are a few Ivey Award winners here, too, but I look around and see not a single person from a larger institution. There are no curious arts reporters from one of the major newspapers. I guess that makes sense. The Guthrie never needed an Ivey Award to help prove itself worthy of grant money, and the Star Tribune isn't going to expend its retracting resources on something that probably won't bring them much ad revenue.
In the moments before this shindig is scheduled to start, I look around the room and realize that I recognize it. I've been here before, but I can't quite place why. I ask one of the Four Humors guys what this room is. He explains that it used to be the rehearsal space for Live Action Set, the Ivey Award-winning critical darling that has been largely absent from the theater scene for over a year now. If that's not a metaphor for things moving on, I don't know what is.
As if to hammer the point home that the world is indeed moving on, Four Humors' AD Jason Ballweber begins the evening by saying, "This is not the Iveys." In fact, he says it five times. The point, he says, is try to start this process from a blank slate, instead of blindly following precedent or re-litigating past grievances from the old regime. This town hall format is not about deciding everything all at once, but for finding out what the general public actually wants from an awards show. "But it's not the Iveys," he adds one more time, for good measure.
But, it doesn't take long for commenters from the assembled crowd to start pre-ambling their statements with, "Well, at the Iveys..." The previous frame of reference will die hard. There are a handful of folks here who used to work on the Iveys, and they don't want to see the spectacle of the old shows disappear. A teenage actor reads out a prepared statement hoping that the youth pre-party the Iveys used to throw doesn't go away. There is desire expressed by many for the continued used of a red carpet.
However, as the night goes on, more and more ideas that have nothing to do with the Iveys fill up that butcher paper taped to the wall. One of the few rules for the evening is that any desires expressed by the crowd should not be countered by someone else saying, "No, that won't work, because..." and the Four Humors guys are deft enough at working a crowd to keep the process moving along pretty jovially. After so much time watching our national government spinning around a crass and petty toilet bowl of reality TV stupidity, it's pretty refreshing to see a public forum actually operating in an open, honest and respectful manner. It gives some hope for this future of this whole "democracy" thing.
However, that butcher paper on the wall fills up so much (with several ideas that are actually directly contradictory to each other), that I begin to worry. True democracy seeks compromise, which means that very few people get 100% of what they want. I look up at that list of ideas and see everyone wanting all things for all people (for the whole state, no less), and I wonder how this can possibly work. But, as they keep reminding us, this night is just for generating ideas. We're not here to decide everything.
However, Four Humors has decided one thing for sure: "There will be categories, and there will be nominations." This is greeted by generally enthusiastic approval. Sometimes, democracies do actually agree on things.
But they only really work if everyone believes that they work. You have to have buy-in from a critical mass of people, and that includes a whole lot of people who probably can't afford to give up an entire evening to attend a town hall. Four Humors ends the night with the promise that they will be reaching out to communities of color (it is rather white in here) in order to ensure that we won't be dealing with a #mntheaterawardssowhite hashtag in the near future. They're all bright and positive and earnest about this, and I have no doubt that they will put up some kind of awards show. It can't possibly be as polished and glammed up as the Iveys; but, then again, maybe that's a good thing. I just hope they can pull it off without making too many people mad at them along the way.
I find my way out of the Ivy Building and end up on the sidewalk in front talking to people, our Midwestern instinct to stretch out goodbyes in full swing. We're talking about a lack of performance space for small theater companies, prodded on by the recent revelation that Red Eye Theater will also soon be sacrificed to the gods of capitalism, as its crumbling building gives way to another upscale apartment complex. My girlfriend says to me, "Can we think about making our own theater now?" Of course, I have a list of reasons in my head why that would be incredibly difficult and expensive; but, then again, we just watched a theater company swimming against every conceivable current trying to do something that they think will make their community better, even though they will have to sacrifice copious amounts of time, money and effort, and it's a given that someone out there will think they're jerks for doing it in the first place.
I guess I have to start shopping for a place for a theater now. In the meantime, Four Humors has a lot of work of their own to do. These awards shows don't just pop out of the aether, you know.