Press Room

This note of thanks is long overdue! I so enjoyed my first experience of Theatre B, and the performance of "The Year of Magical Thinking". From the greeting at the door to the goodbyes and come-again at the end of the evening, it was a relaxing, exciting, positive experience! ...and what can I say about Mary Cochran's performance — Masterfully done — true to the text. Five minutes into it I saw and heard only Joan Didion and her story. Blessings on all of you and the work that you do.

- Sandy

Published 1/10/13 – High Plains Reader

Saving American Theatre on Fargo’s Main Ave.

By Stephen Wilson
Contributing Writer

 

Perilous State

The average number of new plays opening on Broadway each year has plummeted. According to the New York Times, 130 new plays ran on Broadway between 1920 and 1940. That number fell to 29 between 1960 and 1980. And the total dropped even further to a measly 14 between 1980 and 2000.

This steady decline is a phenomenon that Todd London and Ben Pesner analyzed in their book “Outrageous Fortune, The Life and Times of the New American Play.” Over several years, they surveyed leaders in theatre and interviewed contemporary playwrights. They saw a pattern emerge that illustrated the perilous state of modern theatres and new plays.

Here’s what they saw: Most theaters operate on tight budgets. With the lack of government and foundation funding, theatres attempt to generate revenue by avoiding risk—they just can’t afford to have a play flop. So they rely on classics that audiences love.

When a theatre does take a risk on a new play, they either work with a playwright who is favored by critics or cast a major star in a leading role. Left out in the cold is the unknown playwright who takes on a controversial subject or cares more about art than business.

Luckily, some theatres are working to break this pattern by commissioning new work from emerging and established writers. In Fargo, Theatre B is joining this movement.

Mission to Life

On a blustery December night, a disheveled group of volunteers on the Artistic Direction Committee gathers at Theatre B for their monthly business meeting.

In the middle of the tiny stage, they sit on plastic chairs and belly up to a folding table. The stage is dressed for their current holiday show with heavy maroon curtains, a skinny Christmas tree and red-paper presents tied up with gold floppy bows.

Theatre B has always lived life on the edge. From opening the storefront theatre in 2003, to producing contemporary drama, to collaborating with organizations on socially relevant projects, Theatre B has brought their mission to life: Engage regional audiences through innovative theatrical productions that are culturally and artistically invigorating.

After a decade of solid growth, they now feel ready to dedicate time and resources to developing the next great American play through their Incubator Series.

The series began as a challenge from a friend of Theatre B, Rob Urbinati, who is Associate Artistic Director at Queen’s Theatre in the Park in New York. Urbinati told the founding members that Theatre B should be developing new work. Two of Theatre B’s co-founders, David and Carrie Wintersteen, took the message to heart.

David Wintersteen says, “We’re in season 10, which means, this theatre, that started on a hope and a hunch, has been around for 10 years. So it is time to grow and change.”

Carrie Wintersteen adds, “We are freer to take risks, to innovate and to challenge ourselves and our audiences.”

But finding and developing new work is a time-consuming task. To kickstart the group, Urbinati sent the Artistic Direction Committee a selection of 12 anonymous and still unpublished scripts. After reading all of them, they selected one to produce.

While producing untested work can be risky, producing unfinished work comes with an even higher risk. Until a play is published, it is open to change … wild and drastic change.

Ensemble member Brad Delzer explains, “A new play is a living document, so, in essence, we are the driving force in the developmental process.”

That process could include actors staging readings, working on scenes, collaborating with the playwright, improvising new dialogue, deepening a character, altering the plot, all the stuff needed to finish a play for publication. All the stuff actors, a director and a theatre troupe hunger for.

Ensemble member Matthew Burkholder says, “It’s easy to get caught in the cycle of tearing down a show, building a new one, running it, then tearing down a show. We need a new artistic tool in our toolbox. We need to keep training as artists.”

Practical Goals

Theatres across the country have engaged in a similar development process, and some have found great success.

Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut, commissioned the play “Water by the Spoonful,” by Quiara Alegria Hudes. It was the first play to move from their development process to a fully staged production. The play was also awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Back in 2000, the Manhattan Theatre Club, in partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, commissioned their first play on math, science and technology. David Auburn’s “Proof” went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. The two collaborators now commission four to five new plays a year.

Winning major drama awards remains an impractical goal. Instead Theatre B is aiming for more humble accomplishments. “There are stories about our community that are not getting told,” Delzer says. “And we need to tell them.”

Another goal is developing relationships with area artists. “We have a writer base here,” says Carrie Wintersteen, “and that community of artists is our extended family. We can cultivate those relationships.”

A good example of the potential bonds between playwright and theatre is in Chicago. Steppenwolf Theatre Company had critical success with Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County,” which won a Pulitzer and Tony. But her next commissioned work for Steppenwolf, “Superior Donuts,” earned mixed reviews and operated at a loss. Such is the risk and reward of developing new work. But the relationship between the writer and theatre remains uncompromised.

Carrie Wintersteen adds, “Cultivating a strong dynamic between collaborators is possible and will then serve to attract even more artists.”

Claiming the Heat

So Theatre B is set to launch its Incubator Series. It’s an apt name. Nothing turns up the heat like producing an unseen and newly finished play. And that heat in turn will further develop this strong theatre ensemble.

The Incubator Series will help emerging playwrights see how their work translates from the page to the stage. Actors will influence scripts before final publishing. And regional audiences will see brand new work.

The series will also put Fargo on the map as a theatrical hotbed working on the development of the next American classic.

David Wintersteen concludes, “We want to claim this work. What we’re doing is not the calling of community theatres, college programs or even small troupes. But it’s who we are. As a storefront theatre, it’s our calling. And we claim it.”

Given their past successes, it’s a claim that will yield dramatic results.

Questions and comments: stephen.reed.w@gmail.com

 

Published 12/08/2012 F/M Forum

Wintersteen makes mark on the F-M arts community

By Sherri Richards, The Forum

FARGO - It’s a running joke among the Wintersteens that they can’t leave an event or restaurant without Carrie needing to talk to someone first.

“We can’t go any place without her knowing somebody. And a lot of times she knows half the people or more,” says her husband of 20 years, David Wintersteen. “The three of us are in the car, asking ‘Where’s Mom?’ It’s a funny characteristic, but one that’s really telling.”

It’s this gregarious personality and the wealth of connections that Carrie Wintersteen has honed through her years in Fargo-Moorhead that suit her well as executive director of Theatre B, the ensemble-driven theater in downtown Fargo, celebrating its 10th year.

Carrie admits she didn’t set out to be an arts administrator, but found it to be a good match for her skillset. She’s an organized person with a passion for the stage.

“It’s a good way to facilitate not only my own art making, but the art making of others,” she says.

Despite the rigors of leading a nonprofit organization, she still finds opportunities to act, whether in occasional Theatre B productions, commercial work or as part of the Dakota Airheads, a live radio show acting troupe.

Carrie will next take the stage during the Dakota Air Christmas show, 2 p.m. Dec. 16 at the Fargo Theatre. Coincidentally, a performance of Theatre B’s current show, “The 12 Dates of Christmas,” is slated for 2 p.m. Dec. 16 as well.

With David teaching and directing in Concordia College’s theater department, and two teenage children also keen on the stage, David says they are often a “four-show family.” For example, their son Cameron recently finished a run of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and daughter Linka was just cast as The Widow Douglas in her middle school’s production of “Tom Sawyer.”

That can lead to crazy schedules, and a need for intentional family time.

“Balance is really important to me. I struggle with it all the time, but I also really value it,” Carrie says. “I think that’s a big reason I like Fargo-Moorhead,” noting its support of the arts and family-friendly nature.

But it took a while for the community to feel like home, Carrie says.

In many ways, her contributions to local arts helped create the environment she loves today.

They are contributions recognized and admired by others. Carrie was a 2012 YWCA Women of the Year nominee.

“I just have so much respect for what she has done,” says Kate Henne, a co-producer of Dakota Air. “For a place to grow and grow healthy, they need to have the arts … (Theatre B) just gives our art community another resource to enjoy. It gives actors another place to share their skills and talents. It gives people yet another great choice to go out and enjoy what Fargo-Moorhead’s got to offer.”

FINDING HER PLACE

David and Carrie Wintersteen moved to Fargo-Moorhead 14 years ago from Colorado, when David was hired by Concordia. They were both teaching at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo. Carrie grew up in St. Paul. David had ties to northern Minnesota.

“I don’t think we thought this was permanent, but here we are,” Carrie says. “The roots got really deep when we started Theatre B.”

At first, Carrie was teaching at Minnesota State Community and Technical College and then at North Dakota State University, but she realized teaching wasn’t a good fit for her.

She says she was trying to find her place and her people in a city that wasn’t as culturally refined as she was accustomed. In addition, her parents’ health was failing. She says she felt a deep sadness.

“Life is too short to simply work a day job without some purpose,” she realized.

She left NDSU for jobs at Prairie Public Broadcasting and later Trollwood Performing Arts School, during which a vision for Theatre B began to crystallize.

Carrie, David and friends Scott and Lori Horvik wanted to create theater they felt was missing in Fargo-Moorhead: edgy, thought-provoking plays in an intimate setting.

“Starting Theatre B was really the beginning of establishing my identity here in Fargo-Moorhead, and also finding my community,” Carrie says.

The strictly volunteer group quickly evolved, becoming a 501c3, establishing a board, and finding a permanent home. Carrie says the group really blossomed after securing a three-year ArtsLab grant. It now has a $100,000-plus annual budget and is looking to hire a third person.

“The organization itself, it’s like a foster child that needs attention and work and is something that Carrie is rightfully very proud of,” David says.

Theatre B wouldn’t be around today if it weren’t Carrie, co-founder Scott Horvik says.

“She’s the face of Theatre B. She has a great way of communicating the mission, vision and values to the community,” he says. “She’s passionate about what she does and she brings that passion and excitement and energy to what she does.”

The goal now is to become a regional professional theater company, Carrie says, a level of quality that requires increased resources.

She says every generation needs to be reminded of the importance of investing in the arts.

“I don’t think (art) is a luxury. I think art is essential,” she says.

FEARLESS PERFORMER

Carrie describes her executive director job as “cat herding” sometimes. There’s bookkeeping, box office sales, grant writing and donor visits. Theatre B does five productions a year, including three main stage shows, community collaborations and a summer arts program for teens.

But Carrie is an actress at heart. She has a master’s degree in acting from the University of Pittsburgh. People ask her regularly when they’ll see her on stage again.

Theatre B’s shows aren’t pre-cast, Carrie says. She needs to audition like everyone else. But she says the committee that schedules shows knows if she would be a good fit for a particular show, it can’t be staged in February (grant-writing time). In the fall, she’s an active parent with Moorhead High School’s theater program, for example, coordinating meals for the cast and crew.

David describes Carrie as a fearless performer. He’s worked with her as both a co-star and her director. (“God bless her, she’s very patient with me,” he adds.)

“I think that she’s hardworking and committed and very sensitive, and gets a feel of a character,” David says.

The first time Steve Stark, director and head writer for Dakota Air, saw Carrie on stage along with David and the Horviks, he says he was blown away. “It was like a little acting lesson to watch,” he says.

“Carrie, because she’s trained so well, brings a real good actor’s insight into all the roles that she’s given, that I’ve written,” Stark says.

For Dakota Air, she’s played historical characters like Mary Lincoln and Sakakawea, bit parts in radio dramas, and loaned her voice to comedic public service announcements. Stark comments on how her versatile voice and expressive movements creates wonderful characters.

And, he notes, Carrie herself is a wonderful character.

“She is one of the great personalities and advocates for the arts here,” Stark says. “She’s just a real asset to the community.”

If you go

What: Dakota Air the Radio Show

When: 2 p.m. Dec. 16

Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 N. Broadway

Info: Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. (866) 300-8300. www.dakotaairtheradioshow.com

What: “The 12 Dates of Christmas”

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through Dec. 29 and 2 p.m. Dec. 16

Where: Theatre B, 716 Main Ave., Fargo

Info: Tickets are $10 students, $20 adults. (701) 729-888. www.theatreb.org

A Statement from Vino Veritas’ Director Sarah Knight

Sarah Knight comments on Theatre B's production of Vino Veritas