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Bain Boehlke wins 2009 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award

My most vivid memory of theater artist Bain Boehlke goes way back — many years before he founded the Jungle Theater in 1991.

My most vivid memory of theater artist Bain Boehlke goes way back — many years before he founded the Jungle Theater in 1991. He was appearing in drag as the ugly stepmother in the the Children’s Theatre Company’s popular Christmas show, “Cinderella.”

The show was done in the style of a British panto, all slapstick and burlesque, with Boehlke as the designated “dame” character (always in drag, since the Brits have a reputation for falling out of their seats at the sight of a guy in a dress) who directly addresses the audience and incites participation. At the end of the Christmas panto, tradition calls for the cast to toss little packets of cakes into the audience — and this is where my memory of Boehlke is most vivid.

As he tossed the cakes, Boehlke somehow transformed himself from a garish theatrical battle-ax into a person of soulful humanity. And as he uttered “Merry Christmas,” I found myself suddenly tearing up at the sight of someone expressing a sincere love for all those who were sharing a moment together.

Boehlke, who is receiving the 2009 McKnight Distinguished Artist Award from the McKnight Foundation, has never taken the easy route. Convictions have always gotten in the way.

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I remember his attempt to stage Gorky’s “The Lower Depths” in the dank cellar beneath a warehouse in downtown Minneapolis (this was before the Warehouse District became a place you might want to visit) and wondering if the owners of the building knew what was going on down there. At the time, Boehlke was years into a project involving a film about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed by the Nazis. Eventually he got it made.

I remember, too, a production of “Journey’s End,” the trench-warfare play from World War I that Boehlke staged in a set that was about 6-feet wide and 4-feet high. And yet, a light glowed in that little war-tossed dugout where everyone had to crouch.

The McKnight award, which includes $50,000 for whatever Boehlke wants to do with it, honors 50 years of a life in the theater. Boehlke’s “oeuvre” goes all the way back to Theatre on the Road, a touring company that traveled around the Midwest in the early 1960s, with Boehlke, acting pal Wendy Lehr (of Children’s Theatre fame) and others putting on plays in places where theater seldom visits.

Boehlke later joined Lehr, Jim Stowell and others at the Children’s Theatre and also worked with a nucleus of actors – especially Stowell – at the rigorously off-beat Minnesota Ensemble Theatre and Palace Theatre. Theatre Perspectives, which staged “Journey’s End,” was another of the brashly struggling groups he worked with before deciding to establish the now long-established Jungle Theater.

The Jungle, which has occupied two locations near Lyndale and Hennepin avenues, has become one of the major landmarks of the cultural landscape of the Twin Cities. Boehlke is the 12th recipient of the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, and he’s in distinguished company. Past recipients include composer Dominick Argento, artists Warren MacKenzie, Kinji Akagawa, Mike Lynch and Judy Onofrio, writers Robert Bly and Bill Holm, publisher Emilie Buchwald, director/actor Lou Bellamy, and conductors Dale Warland and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.

Welcome to the club, Bain.