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Ivey Awards founder Scott Mayer: Let’s make the most of our theater power

Scott Mayer has also been a key player in establishing the Charlies, the awards that celebrate our rapidly evolving (and nationally recognized) restaurant scene.

Scott Mayer fell in love with the theater in Minneapolis, galvanized by a production of "Cloud Nine" by British playwright Caryl Churchill at the late, lamented Cricket Theater in 1983.
Photo by Bill Kelley

Scott Mayer, founder and principal of the sponsorship-marketing agency Mayer, grew up in rural South Dakota and fell in love with the theater in Minneapolis, galvanized by a production of “Cloud Nine” by British playwright Caryl Churchill at the late, lamented Cricket Theater in 1983. Since then he’s become the moving force behind the Ivey Awards, which honor local theatrical achievement annually. And since no theater evening is complete without a sophisticated meal, he’s also been a key player in establishing the Charlies, the awards that celebrate our rapidly evolving (and nationally recognized) restaurant scene.

We sat down with him in the ornate State Theatre lobby on Hennepin Avenue.

The Line

The Line: Scott, I understand that you’ve been preparing some surprises for us at this year’s State Fair.

Scott Mayer: One of the few benefits that comes with owning your own business is that if you are presented with a good idea, you can give it a whirl. Yes, one of the things that I’m working on right now is called Arts Affair, and it’s a series of pop-up performances by local performing arts organizations at random times during the run of the fair. It emerged out of focus groups that the state fair foundation and I assembled.

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It’s really a cool concept because, as we know, the State Fair showcases a lot of talent, but unfortunately most of it comes from out of state. This is an opportunity to say to 1.8 million people, hey, we’ve got some really great performing arts that happen year round in Minnesota.

These performances pop up at the fair, and then if people want more information, we’re going to have a presence in the Education Building so people can get more information about what’s going on. I’m excited because it allows our performing arts to reach 1.8 million people.

Promoting our theater scene

The Line: Talk about the significance of theater to the economic and touristic development of our cities. I know you have some strong opinions about that.

Scott Mayer: I sat on the board of the Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association, and it was then that I really appreciated that theater was a differentiator for our community. I continue to believe that we need to be much more proactive about touting our theater community because it does provide a terrific tourist opportunity. I think we have kind of taken it for granted, but we have one of the few cities in the country where one night you can come here to the State Theater and go to a touring Broadway show and the next night you can be in somebody’s garage in South Minneapolis watching an experimental production and the next night be at Chanhassen having a totally different kind of theatrical experience.

Visitors should know about our theater scene before they come here, because by the time they do get here and find out about it, it may be too late to get tickets. I think we could do a better job of being proactive, much more overt in letting people know that this is a great theater town, and then making it really easy for them to take advantage of the theater.

The Line: A theater ticket kiosk at the airport, or something like the TKTS booth in Times Square?

Scott Mayer: Yes. We did try to create a kind of a pilot program where we had a door hanger that was placed in hotel rooms; you could just check off what tickets you wanted and the concierge would get them. The task of administering all of that became a little overwhelming. But things like you’re talking about could work: a kiosk at the airport or a central place in downtown Minneapolis where you can purchase tickets.

The Iveys: The people speak

The Line: How did the Ivey Awards come into being?

Scott Mayer: Well, I worked for Target Corporation for a few years in community relations, and I had the opportunity to travel around the country and meet with a lot of our arts partners in other major cities. And it struck me as unusual that we have one of the best theater communities in the country but had done nothing to celebrate that fact — while many other cities have these kinds of celebratory events. For example, Washington, D.C., has the Helen Hayes Awards and Chicago has the Jeff Awards.

Photo by Bill Kelley
“With the Ivey Awards is that it’s about fifty-fifty; half the audience are theater professionals, but the other half are people who just love theater.”

In most of these cities, the event is really an insider occasion for the theater community. The Jeff evening, for example, is a black-tie event attended by theater professionals. And one thing that we pride ourselves on with the Ivey Awards is that it’s about fifty-fifty; half the audience are theater professionals, but the other half are people who just love theater. If it were not for the audiences, theater wouldn’t exist, and so we thought that having the public involved as much as possible was a good thing.

When I left Target I was really fortunate to partner with American Express and have them fund a series of focus groups where we met with theater folk and said, “If we could do something to celebrate you, what would it look like?” And that’s how the Ivey awards were created.

The Line: I understand that the Iveys are run in a unique way — noncompetitively.

Scott Mayer: The members of the Twin Cities theater community were very clear that they wanted this to be as noncompetitive as possible. I think that it’s in part because Minnesotans have this concept that we are all friends. We don’t want to ruffle feathers — and to a certain extent I agree with that. We have a really strong sense of camaraderie and community here, and because most theaters are nonprofit, there is a collaborative feel.

No nominees, no categories 

So there are no nominees in the Iveys, there are no categories. We invite anyone who is interested in being a volunteer evaluator to become one. The volunteers evaluate literally every show that’s produced by the 76 participating theaters. By the end of the year, they will have evaluated over 200 productions and over 1,000 performances — we require that there be between five and six evaluators observing every production. Then they submit a form online. Their remarks are the basis of the honors that are given on the night of the Ivey Awards.

What’s great about not having categories is that some years there may be three actresses that deserve an Ivey; another year there may be none. There may be a lighting designer one year and two wardrobers the next. By not having to force people into categories, we can reward based on the significance of that year’s productions.

Theater ecology

The Line: How do you see the Iveys benefiting our theater community?

Scott Mayer: I think that they make people more aware of theater ecology in the Twin Cities. I think they allow all the theater companies, from the very largest like the Guthrie to the very smallest, to say, we’re all part of this, we all contribute to a successful theater community.

That’s really important, because the actors at Gremlin and Open Eye and the other small theaters are either currently acting at the Guthrie or may be. And, of course, some of the smallest theaters provide some of the most creative shows. The Playwrights’ Center is located here too, and it’s world-renowned for inspiring playwrights. But it’s the larger theaters that provide the opportunity for people to actually make a living here; put it together and you have a terrific ecology. I think that the Ivey Awards allow people to kind of sit back and say, yes, everybody is supportive of each other. 

The Line: How did the Charlies evolve?

Scott Mayer: There’s an Ivey connection there. Sue Zelickson is a woman who has been involved in the Twin Cities food scene for many, many years and has also been a supporter of the Iveys. She and Mayor Rybak were at the Iveys a few years ago and he said, “We need to do this to celebrate our food scene.” Sue said, “Let’s get together.” That’s how it was born. Just as we have a phenomenal theater community, our food scene has really been evolving quickly in the last few years.

Another really cool differentiator for us is that Minneapolis and Saint Paul were built on food — built on the Mississippi and milling. General Mills and Pillsbury and many other great companies brought us to where we are today. We have a huge community that encompasses all the important elements of a great food scene: the food companies, the farmers, the restaurants. The Charlie Awards are an attempt to celebrate that.

By the way, I think that there’s a huge similarity between the artistic directors of theaters and chefs. They’re both extremely creative and not necessarily good organizers. If you’ve seen the desk of an artistic director and the desk of the chef, they look very similar! (Laughter) They’re both right-brain creative geniuses.

The Ivey Awards for 2013 will be presented on Monday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m. at the State Theatre.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.