by Julie Blaha
When I was a kid, what is now Lyric Arts was the movie theater and center of my adolescent arts scene. They played every cool popcorn movie–Jaws, Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark–perfect for a fun night out for a middleschooler.
Once in a while, however, we fourteen-year-olds would be treated to something more substantial. I remember the Friday night the theater showed The Outsiders. We’d settled in to our seats after a long walk catching up on the gossip of the week (the cool moms surreptitiously dropped us off five or six blocks away from the theater so we could walk in like adults).
We eleven, twelve, and thirteen year olds sat in the dark, laughing, crying and celebrating along with the hard luck kids on that screen. In the lobby, we discussed how cliques and class worked at our middle school. We wondered if our parents realized there was swearing and a couple adult themes in the film. Afterwards, we wandered looking for dad’s station wagon three streets over wiser and better people.
Today, I spend most of my entertainment dime in theaters in Minneapolis. I was happy that Lyric Arts opened in Anoka–mostly so I could say there are theaters in the suburbs to snobby hipsters in line at the Guthrie. I assumed the shows would be the typical saccharine sweet, b-squad performances that make a joke of the term “community theater.” I bragged it up, while privately planning to never actually see a show.
A friend asked me to see RENT and I was intrigued. The idea that a show with LGBT characters and challenging themes would play just blocks from one of the schools involved in the largest LGBT bullying lawsuit in U.S. history caught my attention. I knew a couple of the actors from shows in the Cities. I’d heard the performances and staging were terrific.
Most of all, I was struck by how showing RENT was exactly what a “real” theater intent on serving our entire community would do. When mine was the third to the last ticket for a Thursday night show, I realized how hungry our community is for substantial productions.
I walked into the lobby and was immediately greeted by a group of fellow teachers from my district. I ran into more neighbors at the snack bar. Chatting with the people in the seats around me I realized I was part of a real community. Apart from the wine we were drinking and better seat layout, it felt much the same as it did when I was kid.
The lights went down and I was lost in the show. The music is terrific, the play beautifully written and the performances were as good as I’ve seen anywhere. Our Anoka crowd was moved to laughter, tears, and a standing ovation.
Filing out, the audience talked about how far we’ve come, and not come, since the AIDS epidemic first hit. We wondered what hand wringing diatribes the usual suspects would write in the local paper. We appreciated the chance to see a show that mattered in our own community. We looked forward to using the show to buck the narrative that we are the backwards town portrayed in the press.
I walked back to my car, parked quite a ways away due to a sellout crowd, enjoying the afterglow of a great show, playing in just the right town at just the right time.
I’ll remember RENT as more than a wonderful play—it will always be the show that changed Lyric Arts from just a theater in my town to my town’s theater.
Julie Blaha is the former president of Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota and teaches at Jackson Middle School. She lives in Ramsey and serves on the boards for Education Minnesota and the Minnesota AFL-CIO.