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Leadership changes at Open Eye Theatre; on-demand performances by local artists

ALSO: The Moving Company’s “Liberty Falls 2020”; Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra’s “The Mahler Project”; and more.

Maren Ward as Ralph Kramden and Kimberly Richardson as Ed Norton in Open Eye Figure Theatre’s "To the Moon!"
Maren Ward as Ralph Kramden and Kimberly Richardson as Ed Norton in Open Eye Figure Theatre’s "To the Moon!"
Photo by Larry Lamb

Susan Haas, who co-founded Open Eye Figure Theatre in 2000 with her husband, Michael Sommers, has stepped down as executive director after 20 years. Joel Sass, who joined Open Eye in 2018 as associate producer and became producing artistic director the following year, will become executive director, and Haas will join the theater’s board.

Earlier this year, Open Eye was one of 20 theaters – 10 in New York City, 10 across the country – to receive a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation to help it through the COVID crisis. It also received funding from Henson for the specific purpose of supporting BIPOC artists in creating first drafts of two new shows. Only six theaters in the country were awarded this funding. The new shows will have lead characters of color and will be featured in Open Eye’s award-winning Driveway Tour summer program.

During the pandemic, Open Eye has been offering a free online series of award-winning productions from its archives. November’s show is “To the Moon!” Directed by Sommers, written by Joseph Evans, with an all-female cast, it takes “The Honeymooners” to new and unexpected places. Recommended for ages 13 and up. FMI and registration.

Open Eye’s home is a 110-year-old historical storefront in south Minneapolis. It’s a magical place – it feels like a living room, except with a stage and raked seating – where magical things happen. We’ve seen several performances there, from plays with people to plays with puppets, live music and one-man shows, and no two have been alike. We’re eager to return. COVID be gone!

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Catching up with Sheila Smith

Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA), tipped us Monday to news from the Minnesota Theater Alliance (MTA), which connects performing arts organizations and practitioners around the state. It will hit pause on new programming and suspend its search for a new executive director. Instead, it will start a strategic planning process that will include equity and anti-racism training, community conversations and program evaluation. This will prepare the organization to better support our theater and arts scene “when this intermission is over.”

Originally a program of Springboard for the Arts, MTA was formed in August 2009. With startup funding from the McKnight Foundation and the Travelers Foundation, it hired Leah Cooper as executive director and incorporated in December 2010. After holding a series of informational meetings across the state, it launched a membership campaign in Jan. 2011. Today it has close to 150 organizational and individual members.

Commonweal Theatre Company in Lanesboro is a member of the Minnesota Theatre Alliance.
Photo by Katrina Myrah
Commonweal Theatre Company in Lanesboro is a member of the Minnesota Theater Alliance.
When Cooper stepped down in 2016, she was succeeded by Joanna Schnedler, who served until April of this year, when she moved to the Minnesota Music Coalition. Hannah K. Holman has been interim executive director and will stay on as adviser to the organization.

This is a reminder that it’s not just the arts organizations we interact with – the theaters, performances and festivals we attend, and the art centers we visit – that are suffering under COVID. So are the service and advocacy organizations that support them and provide a sense of community.

Sheila Smith
Photo by Adam Kissick
Sheila Smith
Smith is looking on the bright side. “I’m glad to see that the Theater Alliance will continue to work on figuring out how to go into the future,” she said. “All of their members are in crisis, because they can’t have audiences due to the coronavirus, and it’s causing stress across the entire theater sector. But we have so many wonderful theater people and theater advocates in Minnesota, and such an amazing theater sector, that I find it hard to believe that once we get on the other side, they won’t rise up again.”

Meanwhile, what can we do?

“Anyone who cares about theater in Minnesota should make sure they continue to contribute to theaters and the Alliance in the interim, while we wait for the coronavirus to be over. Those of us who love theater need to make sure that we help them get over the next year.”

Give to the Max Day 2020 is coming right up, on Nov. 19.

“It’s been interesting to see how high political contributions have been this year,” Smith said, “and I’m hoping that will translate over into the arts. While we’re all hunkered down and waiting for this to be over, there are organizations we care about. We want to help them make it to the other side.”

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The picks

Assuming you’ve already voted – and if you haven’t, please do – what are your plans for the rest of the day, besides the usual Tuesday things? Someone we know will be watching Wes Anderson films all day. That sounds like a lovely idea, and we could just stick with that. (Do you know his stop-motion animated films? “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Isle of Dogs”?)

Instead, here are performances by local artists and arts organizations that premiered recently and are still available for on-demand viewing. In our humble opinion, every performance presented online, whether it’s a livestream or a recording, should be available on demand for at least 48-72 hours after its original showing. Even if it’s free and especially if it’s ticketed.

Ananya Dance Theatre: “Earth,” “Water,” “Fire.” Ananya has adapted its new evening-length work, “Dastak: I Wish You Me,” into four performances filmed at White Sands Beach, Mississippi River Gorge and Coldwater Spring. “Dastak” is a Farsi word that means “knockings.” The dance – about home, belonging, borders, boundaries and loss – traces the knockings of global injustices on our hearts. The fourth part, “Air,” will be available soon. Created by filmmaker Darren Johnson, with passionate, expressive choreography by Ananya Chatterjea, music by Spirit McIntyre and Dameun Strange and text by Sharon Bridgforth.

Saltee (Jacqueline Ultan, Terrence Hill and Mike Michel) in “Music for Change.”
Screen shot
Saltee (Jacqueline Ultan, Terrell Woods and Mike Michel) in “Music for Change.”
MacPhail Spotlight Series: “Music for Change.” Conductor Mischa Santora now lives in Boston, but he continues to serve as artistic director for this series featuring MacPhail’s faculty. The April 4 concert was canceled (how long ago that seems!), but the series returned on Oct. 24 with a virtual performance of protest music from across centuries and continents, recorded under COVID restrictions. It’s available to view now at MacPhail’s website, and it’s thrilling. The 13 performers include classical, jazz and hip-hop artists (to drop a few names: Pavielle French; Jacqueline Ultan; Terrell Woods, aka Carnage the Executioner; pianist Soojung Hong; trumpeter Omar Abdulkarim; saxophonist Chris Rochester), and the music ranges far and wide, from a pair of Schumann marches to a song by Nina Simone to a medley with Carnage singing Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” (He’s on fire. Can we all just agree on how great Carnage is?) The finale is everyone together on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” From the day it premiered, the concert has been available on demand at MacPhail’s website, along with a video of interviews about it.

The Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra: “The Mahler Project.” The original plan was for the MSO to perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 before a live audience on Oct. 11. They couldn’t do that, so they created the Mahler Project, an hourlong video event hosted by MSO Music Director William Schrickel on Mahler’s life and the circumstances under which he composed the symphony. With musical excerpts played by MSO musicians, interviews with MSO collaborators, including Minnesota Orchestra conductor Osmo Vänskä, composer Carol Barnett and mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski, and musicians’ personal stories of their experiences with Mahler’s music, this is a short course on an important work, delivered by experts. If the pandemic has left you with time on your hands, this is a good way to spend it. You’ll learn something, plus you can brag about it later. Free on the MSO’s website.

Steven Epp and Heidi Bakke in “Liberty Falls 2020.”
Screen shot
Steven Epp and Heidi Bakke in “Liberty Falls 2020.”
The Moving Company: “Liberty Falls 2020,” Episodes 1-3. “The clementine is gonna be over soon, right?” With the world teetering on the edge of absurdity, the Moving Company has remounted its absurdist comedy from 2015 (and 2017) about a town in Wisconsin and its exceedingly odd residents. Only now it’s 2020, there’s a pandemic, and the town’s annual Proclamation of Emancipating Reenactment Pageant is on the calendar for Nov. 3 … but isn’t something else happening that day? Deliciously silly with a wicked edge, “Liberty Falls” is directed by Dominique Serrand. The exceptional cast includes Heidi Bakke, Christina Baldwin, Jennifer Baldwin-Peden, Joy Dolo, Jay Eisenberg, JuCoby Johnson, Nathan Keepers, Gabriel Murphy, Randy Reyes, Dominique Wooten and Steven Epp as 110-year-old Liberty Rose, who has survived everything from the Spanish flu on. The first three 20-minute episodes are available free through the Moving Company’s website. If you want to see the fourth when it drops on Nov. 6, it will cost you $6.99.