A Recap and a Good Cause

Well, the turnout tonight was admittedly a bit on the dismal side, which is a pity seeing as the performers were (in my opinion) even more spectacular than the night before. Quick recap:

Nancy Donoval: Oh. My. GOD. She has an informal and welcoming style you can’t help but sit back and enjoy. And she told a beautiful story, funny and sad and everything in between, that just drew me in like a black hole.

Andrea Stern: At the risk of repeating myself, oh. My. GOD. Okay, I thought the stuff I’d listened to online was good–that was nothing. She blew that out of the water. I was mesmerized just watching her pluck the strings; if you had told me that her hands had gained sentience and were doing it all on their own, I probably would’ve believed you.

Dean Seal: Heresy is fun! 🙂 Well, I already knew that. But Dean Seal brought a lot of cool new facets of Biblical characters to life through the readings of his plays. I particularly liked the one about Miriam of Magdala.

Kay Kirscht: Mmm, more awesome stories. I could get used to this. Everything she said was infused with such warmth and feeling that I felt like I was a little kid again, sitting cross-legged on the floor with my friends, waiting for the nice librarian lady to tell us another story.

Axial Age: Utterly, utterly kick-ass. The movie was chilling and haunting and mysterious; its grasp of the power of images and movement amazing. And the music just continued the awesomeness, surging back and forth between different emotions, swirling around and around inside my head.

In conclusion, I hereby sentence those of you who did not go to a lifetime of regret. The pain will never fade.

Also, Nancy Donoval needs your help. She has Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, a federally-recognized disability that makes it very hard for her to find safe housing. She is currently working on making an apartment safe, but this is a major strain on her finances. Please help out: we all need this paragon of awesome to continue telling stories. No donation is too small (or too big)! You can find more information, and/or donate online through the following address:


Or if the Internet’s not really your thing (though if so, why are you reading a blog?), you can send a check made out to Nancy Donoval, or cash, money orders, and in her words “lottery tickets, wooden nickels, and shiny, lucky pennies” to:

Nancy Donoval, 2415 24th Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN, 55406

Nancy Donoval

So shame on my face for not bringing your attention to this sooner, but there’s another performer joining the line-up Friday and Saturday: the talented Ms. Nancy Donoval. In the grand tradition of college students everywhere, I shall now blame my exceedingly busy schedule and fail to mention other pertinent information, such as the fact that I compulsively sign up for events and organizations I have no time for, and delay doing homework in order to devour the latest Terry Pratchett novel. Speaking of which: OH MY GOD TERRY PRATCHETT IS A GENIUS! LET US ENSHRINE HIM AND WORSHIP HIM FOR ALL TIME!


Anyway, here are some long-overdue factoids on Nancy Donoval. An accomplished storyteller (she was awarded the 2008 VSA Minnesota Artist Recognition Grant, and her stories have been broadcast on Chicago and Minnesota Public Radio) she tells tales that are at once hilarious and heartbreaking. For ‘Spirit in the House’ she will be performing a work entitled ‘Bride of Christ’ vs. ‘Bride of the Stage.‘ It is described as the chronicle of her ongoing wrestling match between spiritual and theatrical paths. Her work explores the need to give a name and a voice to our experiences so that we can understand them, and in doing so, more fully understand ourselves.

She has performed at various festivals and conventions all over the country, and was in fact featured at the 2004 National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. In addition, her one-woman shows Dancing Rats & Vampire Moms and Monster Movies with my Undead Dad were sold out at the Minnesota Fringe Festival (North America’s largest performing arts festival), and the Minneapolis Star Tribune named her as “Cream of the Crop.” An MFA in Directing/Theatre from Northwestern University, Nancy Donoval is also a workshop leader and performance coach to actors, writers, and public speakers all over the U.S.

And if you need any further inducement to come see her, just listen to this audience members’ testimonial: “I laughed so hard my cramps went away.”

From the Horse’s Mouth

Yo! Behold, for I returneth bearing a new post, and the post doth contain the transcript of an e-mail interview between me and Dean Seal (guest curator of the upcoming Spirit in the House). And I looked upon it and it was good. And I bade readers look upon it and deem it good as well, for the show described within soundeth pretty much kickass.

Me: What is it about theater that you feel you are most drawn to? What about the church?
DS: Theater brings people together in a communal way that is not based on everyone agreeing with each other; but instead, everyone is curious and has an open mind. They want to see new ideas, they want to be moved in compassion, and they want to be entertained.
Church is a means by which people can approach the sacred in their lives, slow down and have a time when they are not thinking about money. It is a means of forming a community with people who want to actually do something to help the world.
Both of them share this: The creation of meaningful moments. Theater comes from the church, and carries with it the expectation that something meaningful will happen. Lousy church and lousy theater shares this: bad ideas and meaningless rituals are not worth the time.                                                                                                                                                                                          
Me:Where did the idea for Spirit in the House come from?                                                                                                                           DS: There were several shows on the Fringe waiting list that dealt with spiritual issues, including a play by Holly Davis. It was called “The All You Can Eat Spiritual Buffet,” and I was helping her cut 30 minutes off the time. I used to run the Fringe Festival (1998-2001) and I knew this would work in a separate venue. When I saw there were other shows, I contacted Fringe producer Leah Cooper, and asked if she’s let us do a Spiritual Fringe and have it as a Bring Your Own Venue, and she agreed. Attendance was 1600 the first year, and 1800 the next. At that point, new director Robin Gillette and the Fringe Board decided it was too juried, and I agreed. We moved it out to Augsburg for one year as the Manna Fest, and then to Hennepin Methodist as Spirit in the House!
The current name comes from Patrick Scully of Patrick’s Cabaret, who asked me to guest curate a spiritual weekend annually. Now we do two. The name is much more open to all faith traditions; Native American playwrights especially appreciated the difference.
Me: Why do you think Spirit in the House has endured as an annual tradition? What about it appeals and/or speaks to the audience?
DS: Artists say, I have spiritual work, but I don’t know where I can perform it. Audience members say, this is a safe place to explore what other faith traditions are like. I say, there is no more important contribution we can make to mutual understanding and, frankly, world peace than to get more understanding about faith traditions besides our won.
Me: Do you have any stories about previous productions: any amusing anecdotes, or else moments that particularly moved you?
DS: The most powerful initial experience was in the first year. The first show to sign up was by Gail Anderson, who was just elected to our board. She is a savvy television producer, whose two-year-old daughter drowned. Her one person show, “Losing Nina Finding God” was a knockout, and when people hear it, they can move forward in their own healing process. There is now a track record of people who have done shows about how their spiritual life has helped build resilience in the face of trauma.
Me: Has the production transformed along the way in any way that you can think of? If so, how so?
DS: Shows are getting better and more diverse. We are also going to grow the movie part of it. John Gaspard, an independent filmmaker from Minneapolis is going to curate spiritual films; last year we had four, this year we will have at least twelve. We talked him into being on the board as well. We will also reduce the number of shows from thirty to twenty, to make it more curated and less Fringe-like. However, it will still basically resemble the Fringe system I developed when I was at the helm. It still works that way, and it’s a good basic system to enable audience members to see as many shows as possible.
Me: Please tell us a little about the Spirit in the House show that will soon be coming to Patrick’s Cabaret.
DS: There will be a film from a Persian filmmaker whose spirituality is rooted in place, and as she lives in the U.S. now there is a deep disconnect for her. There will be live music from a Persian instrument with 73 strings, played like a hammer dulcimer.
Kay Kirscht is a storyteller who has in the past addressed mystic Catholicism. Andrea Stern is a Jewish harpist playing sacred music of all types on an old Irish harp, which sounds astounding in Patrick’s, which has great acoustics. I will be staging pieces of my new Play,
The Rabbi of Capernaum, about Yeshua (Jesus) as a real human in his time; it’s very political. Nancy Donoval has a living and breathing story about her emerging personal theology that is updated at the end of every tell.
Me: What are some differences and similarities between the worlds of church and theater? Are there ever difficulties in bringing these two worlds together?
DS: I wrote a book about this called Church & Stage, but I will try to summarize. Theater per se is not always involved in ethical issues, but they are always involved in entertainment issues. Good theater, I contend, deals with ethical issues and spiritual issues whenever you get into themes like Life and Death, or choices of conscience, like All My Sons by Arthur Miller.
More and more churches are finding that doing theater in their youth programs and young adult programming is a superb way of teaching, of mixing kids and adults so they don’t get stuck in a demographic ghetto, and of reaching out to the community and inviting them in. It’s not so strictly denominational that you are putting up
Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s also good for fundraising.
In my case, I am writing a play from the viewpoint of a low-Christology theologian trying to immerse the historical elements of the time Jesus lived in, in a way that most people have never been clued in about. Jesus was an amazing teacher- for example, of all the founders of religions in this time, called the Axial Age, he was the only one who talked about women, talked to women, and ever probably had women disciples. Why is that? Because he saw them as human beings.
Theater is a way to introduce new ideas from archeology and academia to churches that wouldn’t normally address this information for fifty years after it came out.
Me: Could you please tell us about Church & Stage?
DS: I wrote it as a how-to about how to do original, Fringe-style theater in any church that has some people with some experience. If you’ve done high school theater, it’s easier than that. But is also has as a basic resource the Bible, which is sixty-seven different books–a whole library–of stories, quotes, love poetry, raging prayers when people are mad at God, etc. Even if you are an atheist, it is still the basic, founding document of Western civilization, and we all need to know more about it. I also included two plays, a Christmas comedy called “The Three Wise Men and One Wise Guy” and the more serious Herod and Pilate for Palm Sunday. Anyone can start with those.
My goal was to get more church people to do theater, and for them to hire theater people to help them do it. Also, they would go to more theater and learn from it. Also, it may get a few theater people interested in developing their spiritual side, whatever their faith tradition may be. The two communities have a rich world in common, and still more to teach each other.
Me: Why did you decide to become a hospital chaplain? Can you tell us what that experience was like?
DS: It is required training to complete a Master of Divinity degree, and I took an opportunity to do a nine-month residency at United Hospital in St. Paul. First, you have to learn a lot about yourself, and clear out a lot of junk in your own head, or you won’t be any good to anyone. Second, a lot of my work was with families as the patient was being treated. Third, I was working with all faith communities: Ethiopian Orthodox, Baptist, atheist, Hmong animist, Christian, agnostic, plus the traditional Lutheran and Catholic overloads. I helped people in the recovery process, I was chaplain to the Brain Tumor Support Group where almost all the patients are going to die; I presided over four infant mortalities, of which two were beautiful and two were awful; I worked in the Intensive Care Unit and the psych ward. Two of my patients were nurses who had tried to commit suicide, and that tells you a lot about how poorly we take care of nurses. I wanted to be a chaplain really bad, and if I had found some way to do that I would have left theater in the dust. But who funds chaplains? Hospitals are always building a new wing with some guy’s name on it, or buying new electronic gadgets. Churches are trying to pay for a new roof or a new marketing campaign. Government can’t support religion. Insurance companies? Please. It takes an enlightened administrator with power to make it happen. There is now evidence from California Blue Cross that having chaplains helps reduce hospital stays, and that means cash, so that might turn around, but not in time for me to make a living, and I found myself slipping back into show-biz through the requests of artists to help them do this kind of thing.
But helping people face death is one of the ancient cores of the practice of spirituality, and that is daily business in a hospital. I really felt like I was as accomplishing something.
Me: How long have you been teaching at Augsburg? Had you taught before? What is it about teaching that drew you to it?
DS: Three years. I have taught classes in producing our own Fringe show, and I was a teaching assistant theology at United Seminary. I also taught there occasionally in other classes dealing with the arts and the life of the church. I come from a family of teachers, so there is nothing alien about it. I really like having that ongoing contact with the academic approach to spirituality, and the contact with special, amazing students cannot be replicated elsewhere, except maybe with amazing young actors.
I also needed a job. Still do.
Me: Can you tell us about how your brain injury affected you, both professionally and spiritually? Do you feel this continues to influence your work, and if so, how?
DS: First, it made it very hard to remember names, titles and phone numbers, which is at the core of being effective as a producer or performer. I have a 5% permanent disability to my memory, which bothers me every hour of every day. It has kept me out of areas of competence in computers and other specific tasks, and forced me to find a way using my imagination, my sense of taste and my own nose for talent. I can brag about that; I know great artists when I see it, and I do what I can to facilitate them. I can look to some specific people I’ve worked with that I am proud to have given a nudge at the right time; the Scrimshaw Brothers, Miss Richfield 1981, Brian Kelly and “The Temp,” Walking Shadow Theater. Ask them. But I loved working with them because I would never be able to memorize anything and do any serious performing. I was now going to be a producer and playwright.
There was also a clear sense, after having migraines for a year and a half, that life is precious, each minute of each hour means something, and nothing is wasted if you are paying attention. And that means not just what you get done on the job; it means what you do in the personal encounters you have each day. If you can get some sourpuss to laugh at a stupid joke, that is an act of love, and therefore it is connected to the infinite. And I have a vast collection of stupid jokes.
Me: This article is mostly about Spirit in the House, but if you could tell us about your numerous other accomplishments that I left out–including Minnesota Fringe Festival, Visual Fringe, Comedy Central, HBO, Prairie Home Companion, Skyway News, mnartists.com, Mpls/St. Paul magazine, etc.–that would be fantastic.

DS: Well, you left out  the Bryant-Lake Bowl, where I was Managing Director of the Cabaret Theater. I tripled the business in my two years there. After doing shows for many years in Modern Entertainment and Mr. Elk and Mr. Seal, I took everything I knew and put it in a Producer/Performer Protocol. I sent it out with every contract, and when we learned something new from an artist, then we added it. This was before e-mail, ladies and gentlemen. My innovation in Minneapolis theater was to share that info, to the artists how to do their own marketing, and to hold the show people responsible for bringing in their own audience. I told them, if you are not going to try to bring in people you know, just go home and do it for yourself.
I had been a performer a the Bowl and in the Fringe, doing “solo cabaret” like
Authentic Replica 2.0 and Dropped On My Head! The True Story of an Industrial Accident. and I knew what had to happen to make the Bowl and the Festival work. Part One was training the artists to market. I moved the Protocol over the Fringe, where it remains today, continually being updated by the current practitioners.
The other aspect of the Fringe was to grow attendance to more than 20,000 in order to get corporate funding. That meant introducing people to the idea of Fringing, seeing a lot of shows instead of one. The Ultra pass, named after the Ultra Creative marketing company a friend owns, was one pass to as many shows as you could see. So see ten, or 20 or 30 instead of 1 or 2. That’s what build the numbers from 4400 before I got there to 28,000 when I left, making it the largest Fringe in the U.S. It still is.
But the core motivation of my work was still in the center of my spiritual philosophy; and that was I knew the Fringe could be an ongoing engine to build community, where strangers could meet and enjoy a conversation, and enrich their lives. It’s the artists in this town who have made it as amazing as it is. I set it up so it would work the way I wanted it to work for me as an artist. And now I’m too tired to do a Fringe show.
The Visible Fringe was an idea I had to dress up the lobbies in each of the Fringe venues with original art, but I did not know anyone who could handle the assignment. Then I met Yuri Arajis, who was famous for curating Outsider Art, that is art made by people with no training. MCAD people need not apply. He hung 12 shows in four days, amazing stuff that people could look at when they were waiting in line. People who had never exhibited were selling hundreds of dollars of art. It has changed now, into something that has no outsiders and is not in the venues. So I don’t have any idea what they are thinking.
In New York, I was in a band with Rob Elk and Penn Jillette (Penn & Teller) called “Bongos, Bass, and Bob.” We played original stuff, and practiced in Penn’s bedroom on Friday nights after his shows. We played “La Bamba” in Hebrew on MTV once, before the MTV awards (I can still do it in Hebrew, Norwegian and Japanese). That broke up when Penn went to make his big fat bomb of a movie
Penn and Teller Get Killed. Robbie and I had worked together in Modern Entertainment and we were tired of hauling instruments around, so we developed an a capella act called Mr. Elk and Mr. Seal. We did funny songs mostly at Catch a Rising Star at a time when comedy was cresting. The guys we worked with were about to break; Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Rosie O’Donnell, Jon Stewart, Blue Man Group, that crabby lady from The View that just called McCain a liar, Joyce Behar, Dennis Leary. Our guide was Lewis Black, who ran the West Bank Theater Bar, which was the model for the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Lew got us into Catch, got us a gig warming up for Ray Romano, etc. We got two more songs on MTV, Oral Hygiene and the Yahoo Resort, both of which dropped like stones. When the Comedy Channel Started, it started with us doing about twenty-four bumps for shows that ran as re-runs during the day. When the Comedy Channel merged with the Ha Channel, Joel Hodgeson got a chance to produce a new show. We’d been working with him on an avante variety show about a lodge in the great north woods, called the Thunderbird Lake Country Lodge. We go the gig, shot it at Paisley part for a quarter million, and HBO decided to go with Def Comedy jam.
At that point I was sick of TV. Rob went to L.A., and I stayed in Minneapolis to do theater.
When I decided to go to the seminary, I figured out I needed to find a part time job that paid $25 an hour, and I’d never made more than $10 an hour in my life. Mr. Elk and Mr. Seal had appeared with Mr. Keillor in NYC, so when I heard he was going to do a show at St. Olaf, my alma mater, I knew I could give him something he could use: a history of St. Olaf College and its pranks. He liked it enough to hire me for six months. Then I figured out I wasn’t able to do both, and I had found other work less demanding. He pays well, but it’s hard work. We still e-mail each other on occasion. I told him to book Bob Dylan before it’s too late so the two lumbering titans of the U of M could be on the same show, and he said that he heard Dylan was eally weird, “and I don’t do weird very well.” I wish he’d give it another thought. It would be a bitchin’ show to have Bobby on the PHC.
I’ve written for many publications, and my work with the Skyway news, mnartists.com and Mpls/St. Paul has been to try to raise the profile of Spiritual Performance. It’s hard to get paid what the time is worth, though, because there are so many people out there who will write for a nickel.

I have also covered the UN for Nippon Television, wrote for two Japanese trade magazines covering retail trends in the U.S., been mugged by a bird, and other incidents of little value in recounting.

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