Each year, the National Endowment for the Arts puts out a list of top-notch American theater companies, including the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, and the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Here in Zenith City, our humble little classics company, Wise Fool Shakespeare, aspires to crack this list one day. “We’re hoping to become a non-profit next year,” says Wise Fool founder Chani Ninneman.
Ninneman is a visionary—and an optimist. She began Wise Fool in 2010, producing Hamlet at the Masonic Temple for their first show. Since then, Wise Fool has given us The Taming of the Shrew, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Next spring will bring Wise Fool’s sixth Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet, at Lincoln Park School.
Despite the company’s name, it’s not all The Bard. Last season, they began doing family shows with Anne of Green Gables, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and the holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol, which will run again this December at Teatro Zuccone, directed by Liz Larson.
Photo by Rob Larson/Wise Fool Shakespeare
Cora Godfrey as the Ghost of Christmas Past guides John Pokrzywinski as Scrooge in Wise Fool Shakespeare’s 2014 production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Wise Fool’s version of the Dickens classic is Ninneman’s own adaptation. “We don’t go in for a lot of special effects. We don’t try to make [the ghosts] into caricatures...We do some spooky stuff with sound and lights, but, really, we just try to stay out of their way.”
Casting Ebenezer Scrooge this year presents a challenge. Last year’s Scrooge, local favorite John Pokrzywinski, is in the Duluth Playhouse production of Ten November. So, this year, everybody’s favorite Christmas curmudgeon will be played by Andrew Kirov—and Ninneman admits it will take “a lot of makeup to make a 24-year-old look like an 80-year-old.”
Wise Fool is supported by other local theater companies, chiefly the Playhouse, and Ninneman is eager to reach the “promised land” of non-profit status, so she can begin fundraising more aggressively.
She is committed to hiring professional actors, which she sees as good for the company as well as for Twin Ports amateur actors. “Getting to work with someone better [at acting] than you makes you better.”
Even higher up on her wish list is the Holy Grail of a permanent home. The company has performed in five different venues as well as outdoor space downtown, but Ninneman would dearly love a place for props and sets. “There are pathways [in my house] from the living room to my bedroom, to the bathroom, and to the front door. The rest of the space is occupied by Wise Fool stuff.”
There’s palpable excitement in her voice when Ninneman brings up First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare. This first-ever collection of all of The Bard’s plays is making a stop in just one city in each state, and Minnesota’s stop is at UMD in October 2016.
Another remote but exciting possibility might be the return of actor James DeVita from the American Players. DeVita was here in 2013 with his one-man show, Life with Shakespeare, but a three-day blizzard hurt turnout.
While Ninneman continues to think about how to stretch the company’s funds, she remains proud of Wise Fool’s “Pay What You Can” Sunday matinées. “We will always do Pay What You Can. That will end over my dead body! It helps us reach people who haven’t experienced us before. Some people who come to our Sunday matinées tell me that they’ve never seen a play before.”
Ninneman is the truest of true believers about theater as a place, not just for entertainment, but for personal and communal growth. In just five years, Wise Fool has taken its place among a host of successful and popular theaters in the Twin Ports. Someday soon, it might just be on that magical list at the National Endowment for the Arts.