Playwright Matthew Everett heads out to Osseo to profile a new company, Yellow Tree Theatre, founded by a couple of actors who, after a few years working in NYC, have returned to their native Minnesota to start a distinctive new theater of their own.
ACCORDING TO OSCAR WILDE’S OLD ADAGE, life often imitates art. But in the case of Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, so far it’s worked the other way around. Take their holiday show, for example. Yellow Tree had plans to produce a previously existing script for the holiday season this year, but the rights to that script fell through. Luckily, there was a playwright in the house. Jessica Lind, who, along with her husband Jason Peterson, is a founding proprietor of Yellow Tree Theatre, suddenly found herself tasked with creating a new holiday play which would also be Yellow Tree’s first world premiere.
Her script, “Miracle on Christmas Lake,” is about a couple who leave behind acting careers in New York City to run a theater in a small town in Minnesota. That fictional theater loses the rights to the seasonal play they intended to produce, and the two must create one of their own instead. While not strictly autobiographical by any means, “Miracle on Christmas Lake” certainly tips its Santa hat to the situation in which Yellow Tree found itself this year.
Now in the middle of its inaugural season, Yellow Tree Theatre aims to bring professional theater to the suburbs northwest of the Twin Cities. Osseo initially sounded like an exotic locale to me. After looking it up and making the trip myself, I quickly realized it was only a little farther than I drive every morning to my day job — just in the opposite direction. If I can drive that far to work, I’m certainly willing to do so for some good theater. That said, as one who gets easily lost, sometimes even with directions in hand, finding a new theater in unfamiliar territory is always a bit of an adventure for me. I was relieved to discover that Yellow Tree is a simple destination to find. Even with the confusion of a little road construction on the way the day I visited, I found the theater without having to call for help.
At first glance, Yellow Tree’s home doesn’t look much like a theater. The distinctive sign out front brings your attention to a nondescript storefront in a strip mall, right next to a gas station (which makes a mighty handy landmark). It’s only after you pass through the entryway, past the store windows of the businesses on either side, and down the welcoming hallway that the theatrical atmosphere begins to assert itself. Yellow Tree has taken over 3,000 square feet which formerly belonged to a furniture warehouse and split it up: half the place is turned over to a spacious, homey lobby which doubles as a bar and cafe with plenty of seating. Right next to that inviting space for socializing before the show is a perfect little 100-seat, black box theater space equipped with state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment. The audience area has a lot of variability built in, and the seats themselves are far from typical—more like luxurious patio furniture than the usual, hard-backed theater seating. (Apparently, the chairs are a hit. Jason Peterson laughs, “So many conversations start with, ‘I really loved the chairs.’ I say, ‘Great. And what did you think of the show?'”)
But the Yellow Tree’s actors needn’t worry about being upstaged by the furniture for long. Pre-sale for “Miracle on Christmas Lake” back in the middle of November had already surpassed the final audience numbers for the previous production. It looks like the audience is finding Yellow Tree and that they’re interested in seeing something they haven’t seen before. Word of mouth is already beginning to spread, and people seem to be coming back for more. Not a bad start for a theater still in its infancy.
So why Osseo? Jason Peterson grew up in Champlin. He and Jessica Lind met and married while at college in Duluth. (Lind said, with a grin, “We had a lot of the same classes, but really got to know each other because we kept getting cast opposite each other in plays. We must have had good chemistry or something.”) The two love Minnesota and have deep roots here, so after discovering that New York wasn’t a place they wanted to call home, personally or artistically, it wasn’t hard to figure out where to go next.
Returning to the Midwest, they realized Minneapolis and St. Paul already had a high concentration of small and mid-size theater companies. Rather than put themselves in direct competition, they looked for someplace close by that didn’t already have a theater to call its own — somewhere close enough to be attractive both to the wealth of local talent and, hopefully, to some of the audience from the downtown metro area. But Peterson and Lind really wanted to set up shop in a community of their own, with which they could connect and become part of the family. Osseo turned out to be a perfect fit on both fronts.
Speaking of family, the duo behind Yellow Tree has started one of their own. At the same time they are launching a new theater, Lind and Peterson are also involved in the off-stage production of raising Westin, their one-year-old son. Lind admits the double duty has been “extremely challenging. But it also seems fitting — we are beginning such a new chapter in our lives, professionally and personally. We are finally able to spend our days pursuing what we love; and although we go to bed weary and exhausted, it’s a good feeling, because we really believe in what we are doing. Ultimately, it’s good for our little boy for his parents to love what they do. Hopefully he won’t be afraid to take risks and pursue his dream when the time comes.”
Lind continues, “Westin comes to the theater with us and runs around, but right now [at 18 months old] he has the attention span of a gnat. He always wants to climb the tree in the lobby.” She stays with their son during the day and works around naps, relying on family for occasional help: “If I’m needed at the theater at night, fortunately Grandma and Grandpa aren’t far away.”
There is, in fact, lots of extended family nearby who’ve assisted them in getting Yellow Tree Theatre off the ground. Peterson’s father is a builder, and he helped them convert the furniture warehouse into the theater and watering hole it’s become. Add to that their adopted theater family, Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. Jason Peterson was part of the cast of the Jungle’s recent production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy of grief and rebirth Rabbit Hole; and the Jungle serves as Yellow Tree’s temporary fiscal agent for donations while they process the paperwork to gain their own non-profit status. The Jungle’s artistic director, Bain Boehlke, dropped in during construction to offer suggestions on creating the black box space.
Yellow Tree is working to establish its distinctive personality early, already becoming known for staging new and unusual work with a quirky or offbeat sensibility. The theater’s artistic hello to the community was Short Stuff, a May showcase of four short scripts. One of the scripts, Marco Ramirez’s urban superhero fantasy, “I Am Not Batman,” won the 2007 Heideman Award from the Actors Theater of Louisville’s national 10-minute playwriting competition. Also on the menu for Yellow Tree’s debut was Lind’s “What I Learned From Grizzly Bears,” a surreal tale in which a woman leaves her new family to study an animal mother who would never leave her own children behind.
“We’ve learned not to stereotype our audience,” Lind notes. “That first showcase had some great stuff in it, but some of it was also kind of weird. We weren’t sure how people would take to it, but we had some 80-year-old couples in the audience who really enjoyed themselves.” Yellow Tree’s first season, thus far, has been full of such surprises — both planned and unplanned, for audience and artists alike.
The official start of the season was Lind’s own award-winning romantic comedy, “String.” This was part of the reason Lind was, at first, hesitant to take on writing the holiday script this year. Jason Peterson explains, “She didn’t want the theater to be perceived as some kind of vanity project where she wrote all the scripts.” Three productions in a row to kick off the first season felt like a bit too much, but the only quick solution to their holiday show conundrum was to go in-house. The upside is, if things go well, they’ve got a homegrown holiday comedy in their back pocket for the future.
“String” is also the source of the company’s distinctive name. There is a quote on the wall of the lobby and socializing area, just behind that towering set of tree branches Westin always wants to climb, its limbs currently dangling Christmas decorations. The quote reads:
If I am not the right one, there has never been an ocean.
A yellow tree never grew where it grew.
The sun never exchanged places with the moon.
Jessica Lind says, “The phrase ‘yellow tree’ actually originated from a poem Jason wrote for me when we were dating. I stole the phrase and put it in a poem in “String,” which the main character (Ryan) uses to woo the woman he loves.” In Yellow Tree’s production of “String,” Peterson played Ryan, wooing that woman he loves, played by Lind. Art imitates life, yet again. In another real life/fictional life feedback loop, the set designer for “String” took inspiration for several of the set pieces from the look and feel of the Yellow Tree lobby itself; and now that the production is over, a quirky but handy set of shelves and a curvaceous chalkboard have migrated off the stage, to become a functional part of the lobby that inspired them.
Yellow Tree has also just finished its first round of classes for young actors. This initial group included children, ages 6 to 12, who learned a combination of theater games, improvisation, and about the use of masks and props. The class concluded with a play created by the kids, performed for family and friends. My visit to the theater coincided with the day of the big show. Jessica confessed, “I was up until one o’clock this morning making a turkey tail for the main character.” Beyond the particulars, one of the main aims of the class is just to enjoy theate — Lind and Peterson want these budding actors to enjoy the process of creation as much as the end result.
After the year-end holidays, Yellow Tree will conclude its first season with A.R. Gurney’s comedy “Sylvia” (February 13th to March 15th, 2009) and Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown’s musical “The Last Five Years” (April 17th to May 10th, 2009).
Jason Peterson admits, “We’re looking forward to “Sylvia” because other people are doing the acting and directing on that one. We’re just the producers, so we get a little bit of a breather.” “Sylvia” has been a popular staple of recent seasons at the Jungle Theater, but it still fits the Yellow Tree’s off-beat sensibility. After all, a man-woman-dog love triangle is hardly typical romantic comedy territory. “The Last Five Years” has been a favorite of the Nautilus Music-Theater crowd in St. Paul and is notable, mainly, for the play’s unusual structure: The male half of the couple in a failed relationship relives their time together in song, from the day they met to the day they parted, while the woman relives that same span of time in reverse, from finish to start. I’ll be interested to see how Yellow Tree tackles this one — when I saw this play elsewhere, I found the male character to be extremely unsympathetic, but the music still haunts me.
Right now, Peterson says he and Lind are immersing themselves in the scene, scouting for talent: “We’re just trying to get out there and see as much theater as possible. Actors, you can audition, but to find good directors, you really need to see their work on an actual production to know for sure.” Yellow Tree’s founders also want to spread the word about their new theatrical home in Osseo, to bring in new collaborators, and to interest other small companies in renting the space for rehearsal and production. (“There’s nothing scheduled in the space for the summer at the moment, and we really hate to see the space go unused.”) They’ve already hosted a concert or two, and the lobby area often displays the work of local visual artists on the walls.
Lind summed up their feelings, as they look ahead: “Jason and I both are very passionate about the power of storytelling — the live aspect of theater affects people in ways that the screen cannot. The relationship of the audience to the actors on stage is a profound one. We believe that having a theater in this community will really make a difference in people’s lives. Seeing a play opens doors of communication; it inspires and surprises people. It really is amazing.”
It looks like the folks behind Yellow Tree Theatre on their way. Why not check it out for yourself?
About the author: Matthew A. Everett‘s next play on a Minneapolis stage will be “Two Left Feet,” part of Commedia Beauregard’s “Master Works: The MOBA (Museum of Bad Art) Plays,” Sundays in January and February 2009 at the Bryant Lake Bowl. Recent productions include “Leave” (afterdark theatre company), “The Bronze Bitch Flies At Noon” (Magicword Theater), and “Dog Tag” (Appetite Theatre in Chicago). Matthew is the recipient of a Drama-Logue Award for Outstanding Writing for the Theater, and he is a three-time recipient of support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. He holds a master of fine arts degree from the Yale School of Drama. His blog about the Minnesota Fringe Festival (and theater in general) can be found online at Twin Cities Daily Planet. Sample scenes, monologues, and further information on Matthew and his work can be found online at www.matthewaeverett.com and, of course, at www.mnartists.org/matthew_everett.
On stage now:
What: Yellow Tree Theatre’s “Miracle on Christmas Lake”
Where: Yellow Tree Theatre, Osseo, MN (320 Fifth Avenue SE, Osseo, MN 55369)
When: Performances run through December 28 (Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm & Sundays at 2 pm)
Tickets: $17-$20. (For reservations and further information, call 763-493-8733 or visit www.yellowtreetheatre.com)