Running Uphill: A Minnesota Theater Memoir

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By Sally Bronski Childs

Publication Date: Fall 2022

About the Book:

Running Uphill emerged from the memories of a woman brought up on the shirttails of the Depression and World War II, that time of great change for women who left jobs as domestics, secretaries, and teachers to move into war production jobs while the men were conscripted into military service. By the time Sally Bronski Childs graduated from high school and married Donald Bronski, a veteran of the Korean War, the 60s had brought cultural change—Woodstock, drugs, pop art, op art, abstract art, television and the Beatles. But with all the new freedom created by change, women still needed Gloria Steinem and MS. magazine to launch careers in what remained a man’s world.

In 1985, while employed full-time as a secretary, author Sally Childs joined with two other Mankato theater students to start a nonprofit theater company in the Twin Cities. They called it the Lyric Theater. Thus starts the development of the Lyric—from selling Freddie’s Fudge to pay for incorporation fees to the loss of two of the founders. Childs then carried the Lyric Theater through another thirteen years to the transition of the theater into the Jon Hassler Theater in rural Plainview, twenty-three miles northeast of Rochester, Minnesota.

The Lyric became more Minnesotan as it grew, with Childs commuting state-wide at times. The mission of the Lyric entailed making music integral to stage productions, which led to the adaptation of several Minnesota poets’ work for the stage.

Childs recounts her work with Bill Holm to stage Boxelder Bug Variations (published by Milkweed Editions, 1993) for a weekend in Bill’s hometown of Minneota, Minnesota, and then to Minneapolis for a two-week run at the Theatre Garage. The show was reprised later at a writers’ festival at Southwest State University (SSU) in Marshall, Minnesota. Holm gained national attention as a guest on Prairie Home Companion on PBS. Boxelder Bug Variations was the result of a student assignment that Bill completed himself and then repeated until he had created an elaborate metaphor for living (in Bill’s words) “like a proper American transcendentalist.”

Carol Connolly’s Payments Due was first staged at the Ivar Theater in Los Angeles and then by the Lyric Theater at the Hennepin Center for the Arts in Minneapolis. Connolly’s wicked sense of humor, which had once landed her at a local TV station as the “Duchess of Dish,” now revealed Connolly’s point of view as a divorced feminist after raising seven children. Payments Due also traveled to the YWCA in Duluth and to the Women’s Prison in Shakopee.

Bill Holm’s colleague, Leo Dangel, taught English and wrote from a wheelchair. His collection of poems, Old Man Brunner Country, spun the story of growing up on a South Dakota farm. The poems were “guy talk” and painted a remarkable portrait of contemporary life on the prairie. The show previewed at a writer’s festival at SSU in Marshall, then played in Minneapolis and eventually in Plainview, Minnesota, at the Jon Hassler Theater.

When the Lyric began producing scripts by well-known Minnesota author Jon Hassler, it settled into a steady uphill climb. Simon’s Night, the story of an elderly college professor who moved into a group home in an attempt to run away from reality, was first produced in 1992, and Hassler fans filled every seat. Grand Opening followed in 1996. Set in 1944, it was based on Jon’s family moving to Plainview, Minnesota, to operate a grocery store. It drew the attention of several Plainview residents who wanted a local theater and writers’ center. In 1997, Childs adapted Hassler’s novel Dear James featuring a small-town retired teacher, Agatha McGee, and Father James, a Catholic priest in Ireland. The show played for a weekend in Plainview at the Catholic church, which led to the formation of the Rural America Arts Partnership. The Lyric agreed to move operations to a theater space carved out of a tractor dealership and became the Jon Hassler Theater.

The Lyric produced several other Minnesota writers and also sandwiched in productions by a broadly divergent list of writers before the move to Plainview in 2000. Childs’ book demonstrates her tenacity as a director in the male-dominated business climate. Using memoir techniques of storytelling, she places the history of the Lyric and Jon Hassler Theaters in a cultural and social context. Short samples of scripts are embedded as introductions to the poets.

The book is meant to acquaint readers with the world that lies beyond the backstage wall and the range of work that goes into managing a small theater company. Childs demonstrates that our personal lives are inseparable from our work lives—and shaped by cultural change. Now, thirty-five years after starting the Lyric Theater, many small professional companies are directed by women. Most importantly, Childs’ story demonstrates the need for empathy that cuts through gender expectations or assumptions. Introverts may not be driven by the passionate behavior that extroverts exhibit—huge emotions, drama, explosive humor. Passion may be directed into the successful birth of an organization—or even a successful grant proposal. Displays of passion are reserved for the stage.

In 2017 and 2018, Childs enrolled in several memoir classes at the Loft Literary Center. The manuscript has been read by three qualified editors: 1) Sandra Stanley, teacher of writing techniques and Women’s Studies at North Hennepin Community College, 2) Brian D. Fors, Historian, Archivist for The History Writers and Publisher of the Minneopa Valley Press, Inc. and 3) Deborah Locke, Journalist, published by The St. Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal, and The Circle, a Minnesota publication focusing on indigenous people. Major revisions took place between each reading.

About the Author

Sally Bronski Childs holds a B.S. in English Education from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and an M.F.A. in Theatre from Minnesota State University, Mankato. From 1968 to 1980, she taught high school English with an emphasis in writing and multimedia classes in Babbitt, Minnesota. She attended a ten-week summer course at the Bread Loaf School of English (part of the Middlebury College language arts summer institute) in the Program for Teachers of Rural Writing, which fed her passion for teaching, writing, and theater. Recent classes in Writing Memoir at The Loft enabled her to complete Running Uphill.

Childs interned at The Cricket Theater (in Stage Management) and the Guthrie Theater (as Assistant Director for Hedda Gabler). She served as the Artistic Director for the Lyric Theater from 1985 to 2000 and for the Jon Hassler Theater from 2000 to 2004. She played a pivotal role in forming the Writers’ Center in Plainview, Minnesota. Childs’ adaptation of Jon Hassler’s novel Dear James was produced by the Lyric, the Jon Hassler, and the Barn Theater in Willmar, Minnesota. In 2018, Childs acted as dramaturg for Grand Opening at Theatre in the Round in Minneapolis. Her adaptation of Hassler’s novel Rookery Blues was produced by the Jon Hassler Theater with funding from the NEA. She is a retired member of the Actors’ Equity Association.

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