Transcendent playmaking

The exceptional world of Children’s Theatre Company’s Peter Brosius

Peter Brosius, the long-time artistic director of Minneapolis’ internationally acclaimed Children’s Theatre Company. Photo by Susan Schaefer
Peter Brosius, the long-time artistic director of Minneapolis’ internationally acclaimed Children’s Theatre Company. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called “creative class,” dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create — and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.


 

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Creativity and leadership are not always bedfellows. When the two share a pillow on a highly visible stage, dreams come true.

Minneapolis boasts just such a dream maker whose singular vision is to make his theater “a powerful force to illuminate connections, create common bonds and to transform lives by building bridges to empathy, understanding, inclusion and opportunity.” He and his wide-ranging team of collaborators do this by asking, “Who is missing? Who is not attending? Who is not represented?” Then they address the gaps. His drive and determination for social justice and inclusion have garnered far-reaching recognition; his reputation is charismatic.

Charismatic leadership is defined by a compelling charm that inspires devotion in others; it is frequently considered a spiritual gift or naturally endowed grace. Modern critics often disparage the authenticity of such leadership, labeling as narcissistic or superficial one who arouses such loyalty.

But in the world of theater you could travel to Never Never Land and back without finding a single cynic of the explicitly charismatic Peter Brosius, long-time artistic director of Minneapolis’ internationally acclaimed Children’s Theatre Company (CTC). An authentic Peter Pan of artistic direction, this Peter’s inner creative core is equally at home inspiring as being inspired. His allure stems from a genuine collaborative nature — a primus inter pares — a first among equals. He leads and he learns; he is followed, he follows.

Brosius infuses “class” into the concept of creative. His boy-like charm is suffused with such deep sensibility and responsibility that the cloud of enthusiasm surrounding his every move sports a vapor anchor. His magic is grounded in profound reality.

Consider this: CTC boasts a world-class multi-million dollar budget that matches its world-class reputation. The only theater for young people to win the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, named the number one children’s theater by Time magazine, recognized as North America’s flagship theater for young people, CTC works with playwrights across the country and around the world to premiere new works on its stage.

Steering this helm requires a gravitas to go with guileless grace. Brosius has been equal to the task for his 19 years at the helm.

Creating a culture of curiosity

Anyone who knows Brosius understands that his first and most essential audience is youth, and his respect for them is paramount to every script CTC accepts, grant or donor it seeks, actor it auditions, staff it hires or program it runs.

His colleague, G.W. Mercier, a Tony Award-winning set, puppet and costume designer, lauds Brosius’ “outstanding … passion to create exceptional theater that is in no way reduced or simplified because it is for a young audience,” further noting, “I have seen countless young imaginations transformed due to Peter’s respect for them and passion for making good theater.”

This year the American Alliance for Theatre and Education (AATE) presented its Sara Spencer Artistic Achievement Award to Brosius, exemplifying this dedication, “acknowledging an individual who has accomplished meritorious achievement in the field of theater for young audiences and whose body of work is extensive and widely commended.”

According to a well-circulated National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report, “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies,” “… at-risk students who have access to the arts in or out of school tend to have better academic results, better workforce opportunities, more civic engagement, and other positive outcomes.” These correlations to leveling the playing field for success for all youth drive Brosius’ creativity and leadership — on and off stage.

During his tenure with CTC he has spearheaded creation of Neighborhood Bridges, a nationally recognized literacy program that uses storytelling and creative drama to help children develop their critical literacy skills, as well as Theatre Arts Training, an education program that is designed to mold the next generation of theater professionals.

The father of two now-grown children, Brosius credits his mother for sparking his theatrical passion. The theater literally helped young Brosius overcome an early tragedy in his life. When Brosius was only 2, his father, a West Point graduate and Air Force officer, died on a training mission, leaving his widowed mother to raise four children.

A secretary for a local painter’s union by day, and a community theater actor by night, his mother introduced Brosius to this world of stagecraft. His earliest memories are “of rehearsals, the race to opening night and the cast parties.” And, significantly, he remembers, “working with the adults in the shows and the excitement and responsibility of being treated like an equal.”

To a fatherless child what could leave a more indelible mark than being treated as an equal in the company of adults? Such respect has obviously forged Brosius’ fiercely egalitarian perspective on the role of theater in creating a more just world.

Question how the world works

In his elegant “To the Mountaintop” speech, with every ounce of his fiber Brosius admonishes: “We are public institutions, we receive public funds. We have public responsibilities. One of the critical ways we all can move forward on issues of social equity and inclusion is to make damn sure that young people are in our theaters.” Brosius’ leads a charge to make theater a major instrument to combat injustice and oppression.

And it isn’t just youth who are caught in his humanistic headlamps. His clarion call is to have CTC, and all theater by extension, mold social justice and human rights by being change agents. He emphasizes that, “historically, many have been excluded from participating in the theater due to implications of racism, discrimination, bias and classism.”

So, under Brosius, CTC has developed ACT One, a cohesive platform for access, diversity and inclusion for audiences, programs, staff and board. ACT One aims to make CTC a home for all people and families, reflective of the community. Like his other efforts, it has gained a national spotlight.

Additionally, Brosius created Threshold, a play development lab at CTC that has commissioned and developed almost 40 new plays since its inception. This tremendous amount of new play development led to the creation of the Plays for Young Audiences program, CTC’s script licensing program, which serves as a catalyst to drive the field of theater for young people to new heights.

A Minnesota love fest

From an unassuming pocket-sized corner office atop CTC’s landmark building, the result of Brosius’ ambitious and successful $30 million capital campaign a few years back, he commands this impressive cultural enterprise.

The child from Riverside California vividly remembers seeing the gigantic staircase in “Man of La Mancha” on one of his rare trips to Los Angeles to the Music Center, where he would later be a resident director. He recalls the power of Don Quixote and the feeling of awe that swept over him in the spectacle and passion of that show. Coincidently, we leave his office to capture his photo on the giant staircase of CTC’s latest production of “Cinderella.”

Brosius has an infectious smile and a reassuring positive attitude about his life and work.

“I love to laugh,” he grins broadly. “I love to find the humor in most situations. A day where we haven’t made each other laugh is a strange and unusual day.”

The radiance of that smile beams back from staffer after staffer as we encounter blatant goodwill and respect in the hallways, on stage and backstage. Here there is no squeamishness at public displays of affection (PDA); it’s the HR pixie dust at CTC.

With previous stints in the warm worlds of Hawaii as artistic director for The Honolulu Theatre for Youth, from where he was invited to the Kennedy Center’s New Voices/New Visions Festival and the Sundance Playwrights Laboratory, and the dry dessert of the Arizona Theatre Company, Brosius has readily embraced the energy and diversity of his adopted frozen state. He praises the Minnesota’s culture of truly giving back.

“We have had great leadership from the Dayton family, who helped create the expectation that to be a member of this community means not only that you participate but that you give both your time and money to make this community stronger and better,” he extols. “That expectation of engagement really sets us apart nationally. What we achieved a few years back when we passed the Legacy Amendment, which supports our rivers, lakes, parks and cultural heritage is a model for the rest of our nation.”

Also a model is CTC’s past year: its 50th-anniversary season with five world premieres; a transferring of work to the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; a partnership with Kevin McCollum and Fox Stage; and bringing in acclaimed national and international artists to create extraordinary new work.

Brosius’ generous and ferocious heart beats in every corner, nook and cranny of this marvelous world where sight, sound, light, laughter, tears, song, dance, sets, costumes, puppets and humans come together “to tell the absent narratives, to represent the wonderful diversity of this community, to create new aesthetic experiences and to reimagine classic stories in ways that are vibrant, deep and engaging.”

As Brosius enters his 20th year of service, our community can take heart that the leader of one of our most vibrant cultural institutions understands, “that the future of this nation is in its interconnectedness to the rest of the planet and its ability to develop creative, collaborative citizens able to dream and imagine.”

It’s why he comes to work each day and why we want to witness the magic and miracles he and his company create there.

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If you go:

“Dr. Suess’ The Sneetches” the musical

When: Feb. 7—March 26

Where: Children’s Theatre Company, 2400 3rd Ave. S.

Info: childrenstheatre.org, 874-0400

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  • debra turnbull

    How wonderful! I’m from Riverside, California too and his name is so familiar to me.

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