The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
St. Paul artist Tyler Olsen has an easy, self-deprecating laugh, and he talks fast — as if his tongue is in a race with his mind. He’s the principal behind a veritable warren of projects, all at various stages of development. Chat with him for a few minutes, and it’s clear he’s busting with still more ideas. His catch-all performing arts company, Dangerous Productions, is the umbrella organization for three ambitious endeavors, each with various tentacles and stand-alone projects of their own: Dangerous Theater, Happy Minnesota and the nascent civic pride outfit, stpauliscool.com.
“When I get an idea to do something, I’m not the kind of person who waits for permission or a full plan to get going — I just dive right in,” Olsen says. “I’d rather go ahead and get these projects out there and see what develops.”
Olsen grew up in West St. Paul and Falcon Heights, but left for California to study at the famed Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, where he remained after graduation to teach for six years. “Then, after some big life changes, I was ready for a new direction. I wanted to come home,” he says. And so, recently he returned and put down roots in St. Paul. (In fact, he says he came up with the web-based project, stpauliscool.com, in direct response to all the grief he got from his Minneapolitan friends for just that decision.)
European-style theatrical clowning and movement theater is a vital part of the performing arts scene here. Prominent local companies working in this vein—Live Action Set (one of whose founders, Noah Bremer, studied under Olsen at Dell’Arte), Jon Ferguson Theater, Four Humors Theater, 3 Sticks and, of course, Theatre de la Jeune Lune and its offshoot The Moving Company — have cultivated strong audience support for this hybrid form of theater-making throughout the years.
Thanks to his local roots and old friends, and his work at Dell’Arte, when he came back to Minnesota, Olsen found a scads of eager, like-minded collaborative partners for his efforts. Four Humors Theater, in particular, worked closely with Olsen; he wrote and directed a well-received show in Plainview, Minnesota's Jon Hassler Theater* with them last year, “Happy Café;” a number of their company members regularly appear in his Happy Minnesota productions.
While he’s been doing plenty of work in more traditional, scripted musical theater (under the aegis of Dangerous Theater) , Olsen is putting most of his energy these days in the looser, more playful fare of Happy Minnesota, combining performance and community activism.
“Right now, the whole point of Happy Minnesota’s work is to do shows in the middle of the war zone: Central Corridor construction. For every one dollar someone spends in the theater, they spend five dollars more in neighboring businesses; we want to draw people into the area, even as the inconvenience of the construction may be driving them out. I live here, in the Hamline/Midway neighborhood, and I want to do something to help,” he says.
“Happy Minnesota shows are fun and participatory — they’re loose and silly, and there are games where we invite members of the audience to play along. These are party shows, especially the ‘Happy Crazy’ productions.”
He goes on, “There’s a script, character and story, but we’re trying to experiment with what traditional theater normally does; the audience has a real say in how the show plays out each night.”
“We’re in the age of participation — the generation coming up wants to participate in art, not just be shown something,” Olsen insists. What’s more, he says this emphasis on participation and grassroots audience cultivation isn’t just for the sake of neighborhood revitalization, it’s simply a necessary element of preserving the relevance of local theater.
“I’m the ultimate Gemini — I want to take this idea beyond the Central Corridor project. We’re not done in two years just because light rail construction is done. We’ll just figure out new ways to engage these audiences.”
“[An old teacher of mine said] ‘There are no new stories, what’s unique is how you tell the story.’ We’re trying to do that. And I figure, if you’re rooted in the community and have their interests in mind, you’ll make it — but only if you have that community support.”
So far, Olsen’s efforts to garner such support seem to be paying off: Happy Minnesota’s aim to put on performances in both established venues and abandoned storefronts along the Central Corridor recently gained the sponsorship of U Name it Construction, Adam Duckwall Realty and Ironton Assets (which owns the building where Gremlin Theatre is located). And just yesterday, Olsen announced that Walsh Construction, the company involved in building the light rail line, signed on with some financial support for Happy Minnesota's productions, too.
Olsen says he’s hopeful about coming up with still more partnerships and enduring funding sources for this and his other projects soon. Happy Minnesota's current project includes a St. Patrick’s Day-themed "Happy Crazy" “party show” on stage now. But as you'd expect, he’s got a number of other irons in the fire he’s excited about as well; he's hoping to remount a full-length version of 2011's successful show, “Happy Café,” with Four Humors Theater sometime in the coming months.
Happy Minnesota’s current production is this weekend — the goofy, participatory “Happy Crazy St. Patty’s Hangover,” is on stage March 22 through 24, 7:30 p.m. at Gremlin Theatre, 2400 University Ave. West, St. Paul, Minn. For details on the show: http://www.happymn.com/. To keep track of all Olsen’s projects: www.dangerousproductions.org.
*Correction: The original version of this article stated in error that "Happy Cafe" was produced for the Fringe Festival. The play Olsen wrote and directed for the 2011 Fringe was "HERO: A New Musical." For the 2010 Fringe, he wrote and directed "QUAKE: A Closet Love Story."