From stage to street: How theaters are changing after years of racial reckoning and COVID

Chanhassen Dinner Theater empty stage and tables
The Chanhassen Dinner Theater sits empty after having its doors closed for a year and a half. The theater recently canceled their upcoming production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, saying given the show's largely white cast, choosing a new show would allow the theater to continue towards equity and inclusivity.
Courtesy of Kris Howland with Chanhassen Dinner Theater

After having their doors closed and their seats empty for much of the past two years, theaters across the Twin Cities have found ways to help those affected by the pandemic and increase efforts to build a more diverse and equitable future for their stages.

“We’re in a field whose signature is assembling people for a common shared experience and in the time when doing so was illegal, how do we show up?” Jack Reuler, the artistic director and founder of the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, said about the theater's response to the pandemic.

Mixed Blood Theatre founder and artistic director Jack Reuler
Mixed Blood Theatre founder and artistic director Jack Reuler.
Euan Kerr | MPR News File

“What were our assets? And those assets were our building and location.” 

Last year, Mixed Blood offered voter registration, census taking and COVID-19 testing for members of its Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

Cisco Omar, an employee of the theater, organized a food-delivery service for older adults isolated in the high-rise apartments nearby and connected with local restaurants and community members to pick up and deliver the food safely. 

“We changed our mindset to be: ‘We want to be a part of your stories,’” Reuler said. “Listening became a really active ingredient.” 

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In March 2020, Mixed Blood started a strategic planning committee made up of both board members and staff to take a deeper look into what the theater stood for and represented.

And after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, they made space for local artists to share their responses to the incident.

“We commissioned 10 artists to create something and deliver it in two weeks. Whatever they wanted, there was no assignment — just respond to this moment in time,” Reuler said. The pieces were posted on their website.

As protesting took to the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Mixed Blood became a food shelter feeding 300 families daily, held the “University Rebuild” movement in their parking lot and established a community watch program for the block surrounding the theater.  

“We decided we were going to try to have that theater drive the change, be a part of the change, affect the change rather than just reveal the change that needs to be made,” Reuler said. 

JuCoby Johnson headshot
Twin Cities theater actor, director and playwright JuCoby Johnson
Courtesy of JuCoby Johnson

JuCoby Johnson, a local Twin Cities actor, director and playwright, has worked with Mixed Blood both on and off the stage.

Johnson said that after Floyd was killed, there was as much a demand for change in the theater community as there was in other industries looking to address racial inequity within their systems.

We See You, White American Theater” is an artist collective created as a direct response to the civil unrest during summer of 2020. Made up of all Black, Indigenous and people of color theatermakers, the collective represents a communal voice reaching out to theaters across the country. 

“[It] was for theaters to recognize and understand that there has been a historic abuse of Black people and people of color in the theater space,” he said. 

The artist collective includes a list of principles for building anti-racist theater systems, a statement focused on the needed change existing in the theater community nationwide and a seven-month accountability report that tracks the changes theater companies are making in response to the concerns being voiced by the collective.

“It’s a real call-to-action for theaters to not only make statements but to make real, tangible changes,” Johnson said. He said that as a performer, it’s easy for theaters to make promises that never happen, and artists across the Twin Cities have begun to take matters into their own hands.

“What can we as artists do?” he asked. “What are the things that we have control over so that we can make sure that if a theater isn’t going to hold themselves accountable, we hold them accountable?”

Johnson said that playwrights are retracting the rights of their shows if any form of abuse — either mental, physical or emotional — is put on an actor in a theater setting. Johnson offers guidance on contract reading for actors around the Twin Cities and is promoting a new rehearsal schedule for theaters across the state to enforce. Typically, rehearsal schedules have been a Tuesday-through-Sunday work week, leaving Monday as the only day off for actors.

As accessibility and the safety of all guests and employees becomes a primary focus for theater companies across the metro, Johnson believes the changes artists are asking for will create a more comfortable rehearsal and performance setting. 

“I think [2020] gave us the opportunity to say, ‘I know I love what I do and I want to get back to it. But I can’t go about it in the same way that I did before,’” Johnson said.

As “We See You, White American Theater’s” message traveled through theater communities nationwide, the Chanhassen Dinner Theater welcomed the change. 

Chanhassen Dinner Theater empty stage and tables
Chanhassen Dinner Theater is changing its casting process in order to find a more diverse group of actors.
Courtesy of Kris Howland with Chanhassen Dinner Theater

“The theater community in general is more open to change. They want to be correct,” Kris Howland, the theater’s marketing director, said. “So theater administrators across the board are looking at their programming and looking at their casting practices, looking at how they’re recruiting new actors and saying ‘we can do better.’”

After “We See You, White American Theater” was released, the theater canceled their upcoming production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Their Diversity, Inclusivity and Equity statement describes the show as having a 98 percent white cast, and in the midst of the national cry for civil justice, choosing a new show would allow the theater to continue towards equity and inclusivity.

The dinner theater formed a new diversity, equity and inclusion committee headed by Kelli Foster, an actor and 20-plus-year veteran of diversity and inclusion work, who stayed with the theater company for several months.

“A lot of people are set up and ready to embrace the fact that we do need to do better here,” Howland said. “It’s just having it brought to your attention and having it explained and then you’re like ‘oh gosh, I understand now.’”

The theater is rehearsing Footloose, set to open on Jan. 28, 2022. The musical chosen to replace Cinderella will highlight a diverse cast of performers from across the state.

“It’s a mixed bag,” JuCoby Johnson said regarding the changes he’s been seeing. “I think I’m seeing more than anything a sort of difference in theaters taking accountability and some not. It’s really apparent the ones that are and the ones that aren’t.”

Johnson pointed to the Jungle Theater, the Pillsbury House and the Playwright Center as some theater spaces that are facing change head on. Their current seasons and their community outreach programs focus on the changes needed in the theater community.

Johnson believes that if change is going to be made, theaters need to be willing to adapt. After releasing their new strategic plan spanning 2021-2024, Mixed Blood’s future is turning corners that keep the promises they’ve made. Reuler with Mixed Blood announced in April that he would be stepping down.

“As an older white guy, I became Mixed Blood’s cross to bear,” Reuler said. “So, in seven months and next summer in July, I will be leaving and there will be a new leader of Mixed Blood … It’s definitely the right thing to do.”