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Theater festival explores spirituality, religion

Matters of the spirit — especially those from other cultures — can be a bit frightening to approach, especially if you are an overly polite Minnesotan. Dean Seal has a solution for you. Read more… By Ed Huyck 

Matters of the spirit — especially those from other cultures — can be a bit frightening to approach, especially if you are an overly polite Minnesotan. Dean Seal has a solution for you.

The Spirit in the House theater festival offers audiences a chance to “come and see and learn in a safe place,” says Seal, the artistic director of the festival.

From May 23 to June 1, audiences can gather at the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church to take in nearly three-dozen plays and films that explore spirituality and religion via a variety of theatrical styles and across the religious spectrum. There are Bible stories, traditional Hindu dance performances and a number of works that trace an individual’s journey through darkness. There’s even an atheist in the mix.

The event has been around for several years, first as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival and now as an event on its own. Seal worked on those programs and also worked with Patrick’s Cabaret to develop showcases of similar work (Seal credits Patrick Scully with giving the festival its name).

Seal knows plenty about the Fringe — he was the artistic director of the organization — and hopes his event has the same kind of energy as the larger festival held in August. One major difference between the two is that Spirit in the House was curated by Seal (Fringe shows are selected via a random draw). “I would say about one-third of the shows were pieces or people that I wanted, while the others were ones who came to me,” he says.

Apart from that, you will find a similar packed schedule, with the 30 live performances and four films presented in half a dozen venues at the church, which is located at 511 Groveland Ave.

Seal’s own story comes out in “Dropped on My Head!” The film is a live performance of the show Seal wrote in the wake of an industrial accident (he was filming a commercial, the cable broke and, well, check the title) that affected his memory and partially disabled the performer. The experience also opened Seal’s spiritual journey. Presenting the film of a performance not only helps emotionally, but also practically, as his memory loss has affected him: “I have to bring a script whenever I perform,” he notes.

A number of the shows “are about how spirituality can help us” when negative things happen, Seal says. “What are you going to do when you take a whack on the head?”

Varied topics

That comes through in a number of shows in the festival, including Nancy Donoval‘s “Date Rape for Beginners.” Seal has found the work to be an honest look at one of the most devastating events of anyone’s life.

Popular local storyteller Kevin Kling teams up with musician Claudia Schmidt for a show of Bible stories in “Back of Beyond.” Kling was an artist Seal wanted to include in the festival because Kling’s work in the years following a devastating motorcycle accident have dug deeper and deeper into the artist’s own spiritual journey.

The festival is not just about storytelling, however. Warren Bowles brings good old-fashioned preaching for “Dr. King’s Dream.” The Mixed Blood Theatre production has long been a favorite for local audiences, but here Seal has scheduled the show for the church’s sanctuary. “So you will go in and Dr. King will be preaching to you,” he says.

Other pieces tackle the spirit and politics, such as “I Voted for Gummi Bears,” about laws that prevent convicted felons to vote; and the provocatively titled “Jesus at Guantanamo.”

The program also includes a number of dance performances, from Christian celebrations of faith to Hula to Native American to the Ragamala Music and Dance Theater, which will present a type of Hindu dance that traces its history back 2,000 years.

And some works are set entirely in familiar traditions. Nautilus Music-Theater will present “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” — which, Seal notes, has music by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame and a script by Mark Twain.

Yet all theater has a bit of the preacher in it, which makes Spirit in the House just an extension of a larger tradition. “Anyone who does a show is doing missionary work for their point of view,” he says.

Spirit in the House
When: May 23-June 1
Where: Hennepin United Methodist Church, 511 Groveland Ave., Minneapolis
Tickets: $8-$12; five-ticket punch cards, $48; universal pass, $99
Contact: Spirit in the House