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It’s a Frank thing: Theater excels at finding unusual spaces

Grant Richey (left) as Puntila and Carson Lee as his lackey, Matti.
Photo by Tony Nelson
Grant Richey (left) as Puntila and Carson Lee as his lackey, Matti.

Frank Theatre founder and artistic director Wendy Knox has a warning for anyone who might be driving behind her as she travels the roads of Minneapolis.

“I’ve developed a roving eye for empty buildings. It’s not safe to drive behind me as I am always scouting,” Knox says.

Joking or not, Knox and the Frank have developed quite a reputation — not just for the challenging fare the company has offered during the past 19 seasons, but the equally challenging locations they’ve found to stage these shows.

The latest — Bertolt Brecht’s “Puntila and His Hired Man Matti” — may be Frank’s pièce de résistance — a warehouse space at the Minneapolis Public Works yard at 26th and Hiawatha. Getting there seems about as complex as finding a secret rave in the 1990s, but once inside, the aging space lends itself to Brecht’s funny, but stark examination of a working man and his “master.” Puntila, the master, is kind and generous while drunk, but a complete monster while sober.

While developers, community organizations and other artists have helped find sites in the past, Knox had long thought of this location as a place for a show. “It’s about six to eight blocks from where I live. I had been eyeballing the brick building that fronts 26th street for years, thinking it would make a great theater,” she says.

Knox’s interest was piqued further while serving a term on the Minneapolis Arts Commission,  where she worked with the company redeveloping the site. Finally, “Mary Altman, who is the public arts administrator (for the city of Minneapolis), called me and said that there was a building that was going to be razed and she wondered if I wanted to have a look and see if it might be a possibility.”

Which doesn’t mean the space fit perfectly. While the folks at Frank figured the show would be in a warehouse space as opposed to a traditional theater, “when (set designer) Jon Bueche and I walked in, neither of us thought, ‘This is so right for this show!’ In fact, we immediately thought, ‘How do we transform this great industrial space to a Finnish birch forest at midsummer?’ “

Stage becomes a cast member of sorts
Those kinds of questions energize Frank’s productions. “How do we use the canvas (of the space) to make it right for the show? There is a whole different energy to these spaces,” Knox says.

Emily Zimmer as Eva and Carson Lee as Matti.
Photo by Tony Nelson
Emily Zimmer as Eva and Carson Lee as Matti.

In the case of “Puntila,” the birch forest is represented on the far walls of the warehouse space, where cutout trees have been plastered to the walls. The cutout theme stretches to the rest of the sets, which are a mix of simple flats and the occasional table and chair. The entire effect matches the manic energy and rough tone of Brecht’s work. No matter how beautiful the descriptions of the place are in the show’s dialogue, we see the hard and decayed reality of the lives of the working people who toil beneath Puntila’s view.

There is also much more freedom than using a traditional theater space, such as the Joe Dowling Studio at the Guthrie, where Frank presented its last show, “The Pillowman.”

“There are no rules like ‘You have to have 190 seats’ or ‘You can’t nail into the floor,’ so we get to decide where we want the playing area to be, where we want the audience to be, where we want the lights to be hung. Of course, all of those things also work as challenges — if there’s no place to hang the lights, you have to find or create a place to hang them,” Knox says.

There are also considerations that usually don’t come up at a theater – toilets, for example. At one venue, only a couple of the available restrooms were in working order “and that was after we pulled the decomposing rat out of one of them,” Knox says. “We have to find risers and chairs for the audience; we have to make sure that the bathrooms are usable; we have to get signage up so people can find us and we have to keep them warm.”

All of this helps to make the Frank experience one that is more than what is on stage. The stage — and the venue — becomes another player.

“The process of transformation in the buildings is incredibly exciting. Additionally, there is usually a great interest by the community to see what the building is and how we are going to use it,” Knox says.

What: Frank Theatre’s “Puntila and His Hired Man Matti”
When: Through April 13
Where: Bridge Building in the city of Minneapolis Public Works yard at 26th and Hiawatha. Directions [PDF]
Tickets: $14-$20
Phone: 612-724-3760
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