Ordway names new producing artistic director; Art Shanty Project to open on Lake Harriet

Courtesy of the Ordway
On February 1, Rod Kaats starts work as the Ordway’s Producing Artistic Director, succeeding James Rocco, who spent 12 years in the role.

One night in August 2017, Rod Kaats (rhymes with gates) went to see the Bob Dylan musical, “Girl from the North Country,” at the Old Vic Theatre in London. Later that night, when he checked his messages, there was one from the Ordway’s President and CEO, Jamie Grant. When Kaats called Grant back, one of the first things he said was, “It’s so weird that you would call tonight, because I’ve just seen this musical that’s all about Minnesota and it’s fantastic.”

On February 1, Kaats starts work as the Ordway’s Producing Artistic Director, succeeding James Rocco, who spent 12 years in the role. Call it a simple twist of fate.

Of course, getting hired took more than coincidence. Kaats’ résumé is as long as your arm: producer, director, and writer; former VP of programming for Pace Theatrical Group, now Broadway Across America, the nation’s largest presenter and producer of touring Broadway shows; a founder of The Booking Office, the leading booking agency for Broadway tours; a manager and/or producer for various Broadway, off-Broadway, Las Vegas and touring shows; artistic director of the Helen Hayes Theatre Company; director at many regional theaters. And that’s just a summary.

Kaats has experience. He knows both commercial and not-for-profit theater. He has connections.

We spoke with Kaats and Grant by phone on Thursday afternoon. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

MinnPost: What’s first on your list of things to do at the Ordway?

Rod Kaats: Get to know everybody. I met a lot of people on the staff in the interview process, and it seems like a great team. I saw a lot of performers in “In the Heights” and “Annie” and was knocked out by how great they are. I can’t meet every artist and every musician in the Twin Cities right away, but I sure can’t wait to get started.

MinnPost: It seems like the Ordway has been moving more toward self-producing and less toward presenting. Any early thoughts on what might happen there?

Jamie Grant: Part of the reason Rod was such a fabulous choice for this gig was that he has experience in both the producing and the presenting worlds. He knows a lot of people and has a lot of contacts. I believe that our future is going to be a combination of producing and presenting. Because of his contacts, there are opportunities to share the Ordway’s work in places other than the Twin Cities.

MinnPost: What about local partnerships? This year’s “Hip Hop Nutcracker” was co-presented by the Ordway and Hennepin Theatre Trust. You’re perceived as competitors. Do you think we might be looking at more collaborations?

JG: The collaboration with Hennepin on “Hip Hop Nutcracker” just made sense to me. A few people made a funny face when I suggested it at the beginning, but in the end the show was successful. Rod has relationships with some of the people that bring theater to the Hennepin Trust. I would expect, a year from now when we sit down to talk about Rod’s first year, the number of collaborations that have either happened or are in the pipeline will be significant.

RK: I’m excited about partnerships of all kinds, including things we’ve already done and things we haven’t thought of yet. One of my favorite concepts is that theater is not a market share business. More hit shows create more excitement about the idea of going to shows in the first place. So even in times when you think you might be in direct competition, when correctly orchestrated, more activity generates more demand. Which makes it a pretty unique line of work to be in, if you can get it right.

MinnPost: Where you surprised that the Twin Cities has so many professional theaters?

RK: Yes and no. I’ve always had the impression that this was a not-so-sleeping giant in terms of a theater town. I knew that it was an enlightened community that has a strong interest in the arts and supports its artists. But when I read the list of every single theater company, it’s amazing. And so many different voices are being heard. That’s really thrilling.

MinnPost: The Ordway’s 2018-19 season will be announced in February. Will you have the opportunity to tweak it?

RK: Just because of the way schedules worked out, I don’t think James Rocco and I spent more than 45 minutes in the same room at the same time. [The new season] has been sort of a handoff. Parts are in place through work that [Rocco] and Jamie Grant have done, and now Jamie Grant and I, with help from lots of other stakeholders, are putting the final touches on it. So yes, I have had an opportunity to be involved.

JG: Having Rod’s thumbprint on some of the season is of great value. It can be hard for an incoming artistic director to live a year with somebody else’s season. Ordway audiences will get to know Rod quickly in the coming year. Of course, five seconds after he arrives, we have to start working on 2019-20. 

MinnPost: Jamie, what was the main reason you wanted Rod on the Ordway team?

JG: It was a combination of his skill sets as a producer and as a presenter. As I looked at this gig and the number of amazing artists who were interested in it, I realized I needed someone who could do both.

RK: My career has included equal parts producing, directing and presenting, all of which are key components of this job. I have been on a search for a long time. I’ve wanted a job where I could exercise all of those muscles. I couldn’t believe it when this opportunity first appeared on the horizon. There are so few theaters that do that at this scale, with this particular mix. The second I heard about it, I had to have it. It’s a match made in heaven.

P.S. So, when will we see “Girl from the North Country” in the States? Kaats is an investor in the musical, which was written and directed by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, and is getting rave reviews in London. He said, “It’s a show I fell in love with. I can honestly say, without hyperbole, that it’s one of the finest things I’ve ever seen in my life at the theater. There is no articulated plan for a production in New York … but I think it’s inevitable that it will be there. We’ll keep you posted.” 

The picks

Opens tonight (Friday, Jan. 19) at the Weinstein Hammons Gallery: “Robert Mapplethorpe’s Minimalism.” Formerly the Weinstein, the storefront gallery in South Minneapolis will host the first show under its new name: over 25 gelatin silver prints by Mapplethorpe, plus one-of-a-kind Polaroids from the early 1970s. Opening reception 6-8 p.m. Through March 3.

2018 Art Shanty Project
2018 Art Shanty Project: Start at the Welcome Shanty, a new-this-year information hub/warming hut conceived and built entirely by U of M College of Design students.

Opens Saturday on Lake Harriet (Bde Unma): 2018 Art Shanty Project. Weather- and crowd-wise, it looks like a perfect weekend to check out this year’s Art Shanties – in advance of the Super Bowl hordes. Start at the Welcome Shanty, a new-this-year information hub/warming hut conceived and built entirely by U of M College of Design students to serve as an intro to the artist-designed village on ice. Glassed-in, its frame painted red, the Welcome Shanty should be easy to spot. Saturday’s Art Shanty Project events include Mixed Precipitation’s “Tony and Nancy: The Opera.” Free. FMI including program (map, shanty descriptions, schedule of performances). 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 11. Free Metro Transit rides this weekend.

Sunday at MacPhail: The Bakken Trio: “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” Violinist Stephanie Arado is a descendant of Bohemian immigrants on her mother’s side. She grew up hearing her self-taught grandparents play music on the violin. With cellist Pitnarry Shin, pianist Michael Kim, guest violinist Sarah Grimes and guest violist Ken Freed, she’ll perform music by Dvorak, Martinu, Janacek and Janacek’s student, Pavel Haas. 4 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30/25/20).

Juho Pohjonen
Photo by Henry Fair
Juho Pohjonen

Sunday at Macalester’s Mairs Concert Hall: The Frederic Chopin Society: Juho Pohjonen. The young Finnish pianist makes his Minnesota debut with music by Bach, Franck, Mozart and Schubert. Pohjonen took up the piano at age 4; his long list of concerts and recitals includes the Suvisiotto Festival in Finland with Osmo Vänskä and Erin Keefe. In the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center at Macalester, 130 Macalester St., St. Paul. 3 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30).

Monday at the Sabes JCC: “A Pickle.” Produced by Really Spicy Opera, Deborah Yarchun’s one-woman show sold out every scheduled performance at the Minnesota Fringe, including an added encore. Then it sold out a follow-up run at Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater. Is it the title? Is it Angela Timberman, the star? Is it because we love pickles? Part of the Twin Cities Jewish Humor Festival (which starts Saturday, Jan. 20), this show should just move in somewhere and stay put for a while. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($12 advance/$14 same day).

Plan ahead

On Monday, March 19, Kevin Young, poetry editor at the New Yorker, and Marlon James, Man Booker Prize-winning novelist and Macalester professor, will meet at the Loft for what sounds like an unmissable conversation. Young has written a book called “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News,” published last fall by Graywolf, and they’ll talk about how reality has been distorted and manipulated throughout America’s history. 7 p.m. FMI and registration ($15/10).

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