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Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company announces new season – and new name

ALSO: A sneak peek at the LAB in transition; “CatVideoFest 2021”; and more.

photo of actor sally wingert with pickle jars
MJTC’s 2020-21 season ended with outdoor performances of Deborah Yarchun’s one-person play “A Pickle,” starring Sally Wingert. The 2021-22 season will open with a dozen more performances of this sold-out hit in various outdoor locations. July 28-Aug. 15.
Photo by Sarah Whiting

After surviving the pandemic and producing a 2020-21 season it called “Theater Six Feet Apart!” (part live and outdoors, part virtual), Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company is back with a 2021-22 season and a surprise. After almost 30 years – it was founded in 1995 – the theater has changed its name.

The new name is Six Points Theater, the logo a stylized version of the Star of David. The mission remains the same: producing theater “rooted in Jewish content” that “explores differences, illuminates commonalities, and fosters greater understanding among all people.” Despite its name, the theater has never been just for Jewish audiences. The house is generally about 50/50 Jewish/non-Jewish.

six points theater logo

The rebranding didn’t happen overnight, nor was it a response to the pandemic. About three years ago, as MJTC was nearing its 25th anniversary, a board member approached Founder and Producing Artistic Director Barbara Brooks and asked, “Would you ever consider a name change?”

“I was really quite surprised,” Brooks told MinnPost Thursday by phone. “But I’m not going to shut anything down. And I said, ‘Well, sure. Yeah.’”

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That sparked a process – paused by COVID, then picked back up again – of self-examination, reflection, focus groups, interviews with stakeholders (audience members, artists, board members and “at least one theater critic”) and work with consultants including Julie Dalgliesh, who has, in Brooks’ words, “known us for our entire history.” Over time, “we felt that a new name and a new brand might with more clarity represent who we were as an organization.”

Among the names suggested, Six Points stuck. “We had a real belief that this name would more closely capture a true, clear representation of our mission and the work,” Brooks said. “I want to emphasize we are not changing our mission. We are not changing the work we do. The world has changed in the last two years, and we just felt that this name and logo and brand would more closely represent our mission and the work that we do in today’s world.”

In what ways?

photo of barbara brooks
Barbara Brooks
“People’s attention is a lot different now. How they use their attention, and how they focus. I think if someone just came across the name, ‘Six Points’ makes our work appear less exclusive, more inclusive, and accessible to a more diverse audience. Not just Jewish/non-Jewish, but age-range-wise.”

More than 50% of the theater’s general audience is over 50. The under 40 crowd is “a very low percentage,” Brooks said. About 2/3 of any given audience are repeat attenders and 1/3 are new. “If you’re getting a small number of first-time attenders in a lower age range, you’re increasing your percentage of the audience at a very slow pace. You’re not getting very many first-time attenders in that age range.

“I don’t make decisions on anecdotal data, but I’ve experienced, and board members have experienced, that when we want to bring someone new to this theater, and we say the name of the theater, you see the look in their eyes: ‘Why would I want to go there?’ If you don’t know the work, the name Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company can be confusing. We’ve had people say, ‘Is it religious?’

“In totality, based on all of the research we’ve done, we just think that this is a better brand.”

If someone asks, “What does ‘Six Points’ mean?” what will Brooks say?

“It’s a representation of the Star [of David],” she said. “But we do have six core values that are integral to the work we do.” The values are Integrity, Artistic Excellence, Trust, Innovation, Fiscal Responsibility and Tikkun Olam, a concept in Judaism that means “repair the world.”

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So the rebranding made sense, was timely and is likely to create a different, more inclusive and contemporary first impression on first-timers than the former name. But that doesn’t mean it was easy for Brooks. “When it came time to take a vote on whether to use this name or not, it was very, very hard for me,” she said. “I birthed this theater shortly after I gave birth to my son, and I would never think to change his name. Even now, I get tears in my eyes.

“[The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company] has been such a part of my life. The idea that you, in a sense, take away its identity. … When it came right down to it, thinking about its future – which will be beyond me – I know that this was the right choice. That this would better represent what the organization is in our world.”

MJTC’s – make that Six Points’ – 2021-2022 season was announced at the same time.

The 2020-21 season ended with outdoor performances of Deborah Yarchun’s one-person play “A Pickle,” starring Sally Wingert. The 2021-22 season will open with a dozen more performances of this sold-out hit in various outdoor locations. July 28-Aug. 15.

Oct. 23-Nov. 14 at the Highland Park Community Center Theater: “The People’s Violin” by Charles Varon. This drama-framed-as-a-documentary will mark the theater’s return to its home on Ford Parkway. Brooks calls it the “wandering Jew” of its current lineup. The play was originally set to close the 2019-20 season, got moved to 2020-21, didn’t happen, but now it will.

Dec. 5-Dec. 21: “Chanukah in the Dark” by Hayley Finn. A world premiere with original songs, commissioned by MJTC/Six Points.

Feb. 23, 2022-March 13: New-Play Reading Festival. Other theaters have similar festivals, but this will be a first for MJTC/Six Points. Three new plays in Jewish theater, not yet seen by the public, will be presented in onstage readings.

April 30-May 22: “Two Jews Walk into a War” by Seth Rozin. Zeblyan and Ishad are the last two Jews in Kabul in a play that balances Borscht Belt humor with poignancy.

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A sneak peek at the LAB in transition

Workers were removing the old sprung floors (craaaaaack! Bang!) on Monday morning, July 19, when Minnesota Opera’s Julia Gallagher led us on a tour of the LAB Theater, formerly the Guthrie Lab (1988-2006) and then, under Mary Kelley Leer’s ownership, a stage for performing artists of all kinds and theaters without homes of their own.

photo of lab theater under constriuction
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
The LAB under construction
Perhaps you saw Theater Latté Da’s production of “Our Town” there? Or The Moving Company’s “Speechless”? Or the Heliotrope Festival? (That’s going back a few years.) Or the Burlesque Nutcracker? Or Liquid Music’s presentation of Ashwini Ramaswamy’s “Let the Crows Come”? We saw a lot of magic when we descended the stairs to the cavernous stone-walled space 2½ stories below street level.

Minnesota Opera bought the LAB in early 2019, both as a place to grow its own footprint and as a resource for local companies. Gallagher, whose official title is LAB and special projects director, knows every inch of the 12,000-square-foot building. When she looks at the lobby, the stairs, the performance space, the ceiling and the dressing rooms, she sees the future. The lobby will be brighter and lighter. There will be room under the main stairs for a piano. The ceiling will be a grid of catwalks. The seating will move across the room. The dressing rooms (and the restrooms) will be all-gender.

The cost of the renovation: $5.6 million. The time frame: Completion by May 2022. How much of each year the opera plans to use the space: 8-12 weeks. The rest of the time is TBD.

That’s all for now.

The picks

V is for virtual, L is for live and in person.

photo of artist painting colorful mural
Courtesy of the Creative Enterprise Zone
Chroma Zone artist Thomasina Topbear painting at Murphy Rigging, 2299 W. Territorial Rd.
L Saturday, July 24, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. in St. Paul’s Creative Enterprise Zone: Chroma Zone Midsummer Happening. Three new murals (by Thomasina Topbear, Kao Lee Thao, and Holly Miskitoos Henning Garcia) will make their debuts in a family-friendly event that includes free walking and bike tours, a makers market, live performances, hands-on art activities, shopping and dining at local shops and restaurants. Start in the parking lot at 2417 University Ave. W. Pick up an updated mural map or download one here. Free.

promotional image for cat video fest

L Sunday, July 25, 1 p.m. at MSP Film Society’s St. Anthony Main Theatre: “CatVideoFest 2021.” Because we never, ever tire of watching cat videos. Because 10% of the proceeds will benefit Feline Rescue. FMI and tickets ($12/8). Here’s the official trailer.

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Courtesy of the artist
Benny Weinbeck
V and L Sunday, July 25, 6 p.m. at Crooners: Twin Cities Jazz Festival: Keep Music Live Series: Benny Weinbeck Trio. The swinging and elegant pianist will be joined by Gordy Johnson on bass. Stream from home or head to Crooners and watch in person on the MainStage. Doors at 5 p.m. Streaming free with registration. In-person tickets $20-25.

L Opens Tuesday, July 27, outdoors in downtown St. Paul: SteppingStone Theatre for Youth: “Madagascar: A Musical Adventure Jr.” In August 2020, SteppingStone and Park Square Theatre formed a partnership to create “theater for life.” Next week we can see that partnership at work on West 7th Place, the pedestrian mall between Wabasha and St. Peter. Directed by Dane Stauffer, kids from SteppingStone’s LEAP musical camp will perform an original musical based on the DreamWorks film that explores big ideas like friendship, teamwork, adventure and forgiveness through song and dance. Performances, which last about an hour with no intermission, are weekdays and weekends. FMI and tickets ($12-16).