Veteran Minnesota politico Wy Spano takes to the Fringe Festival stage

Wy Spano
Political and civic activist Wy Spano, who runs an Advocacy and Political Leadership program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, is taking a break to act in “Habitat,” a Fringe Festival production about homelessness.

Wy Spano, usually seen in public places neatly dressed in a gray suit, is looking shabby these days.

Known for launching political initiatives (the Politics in Minnesota newsletter in 1980, and the Master of Advocacy and Political Leadership program at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2004), he’s playing the role of a homeless man in a Fringe Festival play this week.

“Habitat,” by Duluth writer Rachel Anne Johnson, began its limited run last week and will be staged three more times this week: at 8:30 p.m. today, at 5:30 p.m. Friday and at 4 p.m. Saturday at the University of Minnesota’s Rarig Center.

“It’s fun,” said Spano, 71, who hasn’t shaved in recent days as a bow to his part. “I did some acting years and years ago. In college, I did a fair amount of stuff, and in the late 1970s, when I was in the PR business, a friend was making an industrial movie. He ran out of money, and he needed someone who would work for nothing.

“He came to me and says, ‘The age of beautiful people is out, you know. Can you do this part?’ I said, ‘Great, if I can fill the ugly people role, I’d be happy to help out.’ ”

Script filled with actual words of homeless
One of the big benefits of appearing in this production is that neither Spano nor any of the other 13 actors need to memorize their lines. The actors carry the scripts.

“The lines are from actually recordings of homeless people,” Spano said. “The writer wants us to carry the scripts to remind the audience that these are the words of real people.”

Johnson conducted the interviews that make up the script several years ago while working at a shelter in Duluth.

“When Rachel was doing these interviews,” Spano said, “homelessness was clearly a bigger issue in the public eye. It seems we’ve decided we no longer need to take care of these folks; now we’re looking at others we don’t need to take care of.”

The producer of the play is Spano’s wife, Marcia Avner, the public policy director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and a faculty member of the Advocacy/Leadership program started by Spano. It was in her role as a teacher of the course “Arts and Social Change” that Avner came to know Johnson. Avner dubbed Johnson the “artist in residence” of her class, which performed the play at a number of places before heading to the Fringe.

UMD program a success in first five years
Only time will tell the success of the play. But the reviews on Spano’s program at UMD are already coming in — and they’re very positive.

The idea for the Advocacy/Political Leadership program came to Spano, a student of politics, as he did his work over the years as a lobbyist at the state Capitol. Young people constantly would approach him asking how they “could make a difference.”

Spano designed a program with three areas of concentration: working with nonprofits, working with labor, and advocacy in the public sector. Since its launch, 81 people have graduated from the program, and its graduates can be found sprinkled throughout Minnesota political offices, battered women’s shelters and other nonprofits, he said.

Although Spano is known for his ties to DFL politics and graduates often end up working in social programs typically identified with the left end of the political spectrum, Spano said the master’s program is nonpartisan.

In fact, two years ago, Richard Teske, a former member of the Reagan administration, flew regularly to Duluth from Washington, D.C., to teach in the program, which holds weekend classes. Teske’s career includes stints as a former assistant secretary in Health and Human Services, a lobbyist for drug companies and a scholar with the Heritage Foundation.

“The students loved him,” said Spano. “On his last day, we had a big party, and he told the students, ‘Wy Spano has fulfilled a great ambition of my life — to be a token.’ ”

So successful is the program that Spano, who left Politics in Minnesota in 2005, recently received a grant to take Advocacy/Political Leadership national. So far, he said, schools in Kansas, Washington and Ohio are expressing interest.

But this week, the play’s the thing.

“It’s a very un-Fringe-y thing,” said Spano of the play. “There are very few chuckle lines in it. But the response has been very good.”

Spano’s character, Rick, has disappeared from the Duluth homeless scene. No one seems to know where he’s gone, so it’s unknown what he might think of being portrayed by someone who once got a role because he wasn’t one of the beautiful people.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 08/05/2009 - 09:10 am.

    As noted above, years ago, Wy leaned a bit to the right. He worked for me in my advertising/PR firm for a number of years. Though it was a kind of stressful time for Wy, he was ALWAYS thoughtful, intelligent, pleasant, easy to be around and an effective associate. My thoughts of him will always be one of a positive relationship. Over the years I am delighted to see he has morphed more into my own political sphere — an unrepentant liberal.

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