In celebration of Out There’s 25th anniversary, we invited theater professionals from near and far — Jeff Bartlett, Wendy Knox, Young Jean Lee, and Mark Russell–to share their perspectives on this annual festival of boundary-crossing performance.
“OK this all sounds great,” said Robert Stearns, “but what should we call it?”
The four of us there in Robert’s office sometime back in ‘87 or ‘88—Robert and Steve Waryan from the Walker staff; Sandy Moore and me from the Southern Theater—were silent for a bit. We’d gathered for the latest in a series of planning meetings for our upcoming proposal to The McKnight Foundation’s newly-created Arts Partnership Program. A few months prior, The McKnight in its characteristic forward-thinking philanthropic wisdom had announced (at the Walker auditorium, as it happens) a program to encourage larger arts organizations and smaller ones to find ways to work together. McKnight envisioned the mutual benefit that might accrue if the experience, resources, and connections of the “major” institutions could combine with the flexibility and, it might be said, more adventuresome spirit of some smaller ones. The smaller organizations would increase their knowledge and connections; larger ones might get to try things they otherwise wouldn’t. The arts community at large would benefit from imaginative new arts programs.
When we at the Southern first heard about the program, we were all over it. “Let’s see if the Walker wants to partner with us!” Sandy and I said to one another. In those late 1980’s the Southern was a fledgling presenting organization with aspirations toward a more national presence. Robert at the Walker was entirely receptive to the idea; he’d been dreaming of a way to produce a few events of a perhaps riskier nature, suitable to a smaller seating capacity, outside the Walker auditorium. It seemed to all of us a match made in heaven, and we embarked on a series of meetings to work out the details.
By the time of this meeting, we’d come a good long way. We’d hammered out the central vision: the series would present new performance work broadly seen as in some way “experimental’ (defined very broadly or more accurately, not precisely defined). Work that was “not exactly mainstream,” as former Southern board chair Diane Waller used to say. The series and the work it presented wouldn’t be genre-specific and in fact would resist categorization. We’d present primarily nationally known artists but would also find ways to bring attention to locally based artists whose work fit the same criteria (or lack thereof).
We’d worked out the division of labor between our two organizations: we’d figured out the budget, we knew how the proposal to McKnight would get written. We were cautiously optimistic we might even stand a chance of getting the grant. We were almost there… and then Robert had to go and ask that pesky question about the name.
So we pondered. We shifted uncomfortably in our seats. We mumbled some stuff about what the name should convey—you know, like, it should tell people what it is but not be all specific and literal. Descriptive yet open to possibilities, y’know? Except, no, we didn’t know. We couldn’t come up with nuthin’. And so we sat.
Until, in one of the most brilliant moments of inspiration I’ve ever had the privilege to witness, the young Steve Waryan piped up: “What if we just call it Out There?”
There it was, no question. Oh man, it was brilliant! It said it all! It included everything while naming nothing. Evocative, challenging, mysterious, illuminating. Specific yet general. Adventurous. We considered a moment or two … there were likely a few cautious nods with perhaps the random affirmative-sounding grunt … and over a couple minutes we collectively realized there was not one single way this was not the perfect name for the series we’d just spent a few months dreaming up. Out There it became, and Out There it has remained.
I don’t think one of us, maybe not even McKnight, would have dreamed it would last a quarter-century (and still going strong). But why not? In some ways it’s no big surprise that it has. It’s a truly excellent series, built on a solid conceptual foundation, with tons of viable material to present. Now solidly ensconced in the Walker’s beautiful McGuire Theater, Out There has rightfully earned its place as a real staple in the Twin Cities’ January performing arts season.
Memories? They could fill a book. John Woodall’s exquisite Gim-Crack (1990), a marvelous and magical painting-come-to-life-onstage, remains one of the most memorable pieces I ever saw on the Southern stage. Its memory lives on too… If you know where to look you can still see the areas on the Southern’s back wall that John’s production team darkened down when I wasn’t looking.
Or how about the first real time Twin Cities audiences were moved to reverential silence by Ruth Mackenzie’s magnificent singing voice? The first public dance duet by Joe Chvala and Karla Grotting, subsequently of Flying Foot Forum fame? Or the meeting on the Late Night Showcase stage between Joe and Karla and Savage Aural Hotbed, from which grew the landmark Berserks and a years-long artistic partnership?
Other highlights come to mind: Dan Hurlin’s one-man tour de force A Cool Million (1991) followed a decade later by his expansive and sprawling tractor-ride-across-the-prairie in The Shoulder (1998). John Jesurun’s media-saturated Everything that Rise Must Converge (1990) featuring audience seating inside the Southern’s proscenium and the total bifurcation of the space by a giant rotating wall. The dozen or so actual homeless folks who became a fixture during the year of LAPD Inspects (1998). Linda Carmello Sibio, an honest-to-goodness schizophrenic, screaming absurdities at the top of her lungs from the top of a giant jungle gym under the arch. And her blood-curdling cries from the dressing rooms, too! (Except those weren’t part of the performance. But we invited her back two years later anyway, which maybe shows how crazy we were!)
Crazy? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Visionary? I’d like to imagine that as we sat in Robert’s office those many years ago we dreamed of setting a twenty-five-year-plus trajectory in motion. But I don’t think we can take that much credit. The true credit belongs to each and every person who’s worked onstage and off to make this rich body of work come to life.
And to Steve Waryan for his brilliant flash of inspiration. It was really truly Out There.