In the early 1950s, audiences in the Twin Cities could attend touring shows, academic theaters, and shows by four theatre companies: the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior; the Edyth Bush Little Theatre and the Group Theatre in St. Paul; and the Circle Theatre, which performed in the Calhoun Beach Hotel in Minneapolis.
When the Circle Theatre closed for financial reasons, seven of its members set out toward a new goal — a theatre supported by its members. They persuaded 50 of their friends to pay $10 each for memberships that included a season ticket to three performances. They incorporated in October, 1952 and engaged artistic director Frederick Hilgendorf for the new community theatre. On January 15, 1953, Theatre in the Round Players made its debut with “Life with Father”, performing at the YWCA at 12th and Nicollet in downtown Minneapolis.
The theatre became established, seasons grew, and the company’s skills were honed. The theatre’s second “home” was a brief foray into an old loft building on lower Hennepin Avenue in 1961. Then, in the summer of 1963, TRP moved to 1308 Stevens Avenue.
ITS SECOND HOME
The move brought stability and encouraged a larger audience. But it also brought changes. Now there was a transition from a member-oriented theatre to a theatre serving the entire community. Hildgendorf retired as the company artistic director and TRP began its current policy of hiring guest artistic directors for each production. The Moppet Players, the forerunner to Children’s Theatre, and the new Guthrie Theatre were bringing an influx of talent into the Twin Cities. The theatre began a second stage of major growth and development:
— From 1965-69, the University of Minnesota’s Office of Advanced Drama Research worked with TRP in creating a “playwright’s laboratory”, a new concept in which playwrights would work with directors and actors in developing scripts.
— In 1967, TRP toured the state to help communities develop their own theatre groups, through a special grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
— The theatre toured one-acts and cuttings of shows that demonstrated various illnesses (e.g., The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds for alcoholism) to medical students at local universities and hospitals.
The building on Stevens Avenue was sold (today the site of the Minneapolis Convention Center) and TRP was forced to move. Fortunately, there was a fire-damaged warehouse and restaurant, Bimbo’s Pizza Parlor and Dance Emporium, for rent in historic Seven Corners, in the Cedar-Riverside area near the University of Minnesota. With design supervision by Ralph Rapson and Associates (designers of the original Guthrie Theatre), and thousands of hours of “sweat equity” by volunteer workers, TRP built a modern, 287-seat arena theatre. It moved into its new home in 1969 in time to open its 18th season with The Killing of Sister George.
TRP pioneered theatre for minority communities in the Twin Cities. In 1975, TRP’s hit production of the area premiere of The Great White Hope drew attention to the lack of local opportunities for actors of color: TRP used proceeds from the production to help start a theatre dedicated to African-American experience – Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. The following year, TRP produced Sizwe Banzai Is Dead, the first staging of an Athol Fugard play in the Twin Cities; during this time, TRP pioneered color-blind casting in the Cities.
In 1973, TRP co-founded the Minnesota Association of Community Theatre. That same year, Theatre in the Round advanced through state, regional, and national festivals to first-place with its production of The Unknown Solider, which represented the United States overseas at the international theatre festival in Monaco. In the years to follow, TRP would win first-place at the state level seven times and first-place at the regional level twice, a record for any theatre in the state.
In 1976, TRP produced the first Vietnamese play in the area, Genghis Khan by Vu Khac Khoan; the following year, Time of the Indian was presented, a dramatization of poetry written by Minnesota Indians, and one of the first Native American productions staged in the Cities.
The success of The Faggot in 1976, convinced its cast and company members that the Cities could support a gay theatre group. A special benefit performance helped raise funds for the beginning of Out And About Theatre, the Twin Cities’ first gay theatre group, which became one of the longest-running in the country.
In its 1988 Radio in the Round Series with KFAI Radio, artists from the community, working under professional directors, broadcast three live shows from the arena, including live sound effects.
In 1989, the theatre began a youth program under artistic directors Jacie Knight and Laura Rudy. The Youth Performance Company performed at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis and proved so successful that it established itself as an independent theatre group in 1993. YPC is now one of the top youth programs in the Twin Cities.
In 1995, TRP TV produced two half-hour original plays that were shown over local cable channels.
2001-2002 marked TRP’s 50th season, an achievement for an arts group of any size. The theater celebrated this milestone with a special slate of titles and directors and the largest capital campaign in its history, transforming its home into one of the most attractive and accessible theatres in the area for audiences while improving technical shops and adding facilities for its artists.
Today, the Twin Cities boast more than 150 performing groups and TRP continues its role in helping develop audiences and serving as a training ground and major resource for the arts community. Stephen Kanee, on the theater faculty at the University of Minnesota and former Associate Director at the Guthrie, said: “TRP represents that community dedication to culture and the arts that attracted Dr. Guthrie here in the first place.”