"We can create good juju here, at the best wedding venue in the country!" Nathan Keepers stood behind a podium at Aria, the event center formerly known at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. "Good juju means you can pee in the corners. Let's do it! Let's retake it!"
Paying tribute to his former company, which spurred a wave of adventurous theater in the Twin Cities and beyond, Keepers struck a rare note of bittersweetness in what was otherwise an exuberantly goofy inaugural celebration of the Minnesota Theater Awards. The awards were held on Monday night, the fulfillment of a months-long promise by Four Humors Theater to create a replacement for the defunct Ivey Awards.
Beyond the date, the company had also promised that there would be nominees, in contrast to the Iveys' practice of simply declaring winners without previously narrowing the field. In one of the evening's many inversions, though, except for special categories there were only nominees — no winners.
That sounds anticlimactic, but on Monday night the attendees seemed to glory in a format that encouraged lots of applause, lots of hugs, and little disappointment. The list of honored productions had previously been released, so all we were waiting for was to learn how organizers sorted the nominees into categories, and which if any individual artists were cited from each show.
For example, a category for "performative direction" encompassed Amber Bjork (director of the Winding Sheet Outfit's Memory Box of the Sisters Fox), Jason Hansen (music director of Theatre Latté Da's Assassins), H. Adam Harris (director of Underdog Theatre's Luna Gale), Wendy Knox (director of Frank Theatre's (Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.), and Sarah Rasmussen (director of the Jungle Theater's The Wolves). Everyone huzzahed, the nominees/honorees gathered onstage for a group photo, and it was on to the next category.
The selections were the result of an online ballot, open to theater community members, that didn't go quite as well as organizers hoped: voting was reopened after the original deadline because "approximately 90% of ballots came from people who self-identified as white performers and the top results in almost every category centered on the same four theaters," organizers explained when making another push for votes. "We want to give everyone a chance to help represent the community." Eventually, they determined not to even try to select winners per se.
If there were any hard feelings over the way things turned out, it was tough to detect in the room on Monday night. Arriving in various versions of finery, attendees seemed immediately at ease — in contrast to the Iveys, which made a point of splashy ceremony and tony receptions with blue-chip corporate sponsors. The organizers' peers seemed to well understand how much work had gone into the ceremony, and to join in the spirit of shared celebration.
There were a handful of actual awards presented, in the form of Minnesota-shaped wooden trophies created by theater artist and carpenter Derek Lee Miller. The first of these were handed out in what amounted to lifetime achievement awards. In keeping with the night's indie-forward spirit, they went to longtime champions of new work: Steve Busa and Miriam Must of Red Eye Theater (which is about to lose its longtime space at the edge of downtown Minneapolis), and Patrick Scully of Patrick's Cabaret (which formally "sunsetted" this year, ousted from its own firehouse space in 2016).
The other statues went to the honorees in a category that had been reserved in advance for...whatever organizers failed to think of when designating categories. The answer: stage managers. As several stage managers were called up to receive trophies, the audience roared so loudly that the cheers overwhelmed the struggling PA. As the stage managers stepped back into the crowd, they were jumped with embraces by artists whose productions they'd kept in order.
These were truly awards by, of, and for the theater community. No representatives of the event's few sponsors appeared at the podium, there was no teleprompter, and there were no dinner-theater musical numbers. It felt more like a backyard afterparty than a glittery ceremony, and if that meant fewer people showed up (the Iveys were the best-attended theater awards in America outside the Tonys), those in attendance seemed perfectly fine with that.
Right in the middle of them all, carrying drinks to his cabaret table companions, was Iveys founder Scott Mayer, who seemed to be having a blast. For all the differences between the Iveys and the Minnesota Theater Awards, the latter clearly benefited from the precedent and momentum Mayer built over the Iveys' successful history.
Before the dance floor opened up, the four core Humors took the stage to acknowledge their role in organizing the ceremony. "We're just members of this community who want to celebrate with you," said the company's artistic director, Jason Ballweber.