Jack Reuler is the accidental theater founder who became an elder statesman in the field.
In 1976, when he was a mere 22, he founded Mixed Blood Theatre. And it has been his only job since. After 46 years at the helm and 746 openings, he has handed the reins over to playwright, director and former resident artist Mark Valdez, who starts the job full time Wednesday.
The son of a military man who became a middle manager at Lane Bryant and a mother who worked as a seasonal clerk in department stores, Reuler grew up in the Twin Cities loving sports and animals.
"I either wanted to be the Twins shortstop or a veterinarian," said Reuler. "I was very mono-focused in life."
He has a historical sweep of the field that has gone through iterations over generations. But, Reuler said, nothing has been impactful like the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd.
"The way theater is made, who it's for and what its purpose is, will be strongly influenced by those two things," said Reuler. "Those [companies] that don't change their programming and business model and purpose may perish."
We caught up with the Macalester College grad about the birth of Mixed Blood, what he is unearthing as he cleans out his office and his regrets. The Q&A has been edited for context and length.
Q: You have a degree in zoology. How did theater even come into play?
A: It was much more that I was an activist [who] found a voice than I was a theater person [who] had something to say. In those college years, I was with a group called Committee Against Racism. Then I worked for the Center for Community Action. [Minneapolis mayor] Sharon Sayles Belton's in-laws saw the community organizer in me, and they sent me to Boston to cut my teeth during the busing crisis. So, I did some organizing.
Q: How was Mixed Blood founded?
A: In 1975, Theatre in the Round's production of "The Great White Hope" with Ernie Hudson caused some controversy because he wasn't being paid and it also exposed that there were fewer opportunities for people of color in the Twin Cities. That led me to propose a summer project to the Center for Community Action. It was strictly supposed to be from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But it became a summer project that ran amok. We got some money from the Bicentennial Commission to present America's ideals on the American stage, and from the Jerome Foundation to do some new plays. And a grant from the government.
Q: When did your vision of activism shift more toward art?
A: We did six shows at Mixed Blood in 1976, and they went so well, I thought, "I'm gonna keep doing this." My vet school was delayed, and then never happened.
Q: Because of your background, did people look at you askance for not being a real artist?
A: It hasn't happened since ... yesterday. Yes, they did. And, I also looked at myself that way. The first day when I decided to do this, I went over to talk with the head of performing arts at the Walker [Art Center], about where should I do this. She said, "Oh, there's this firehouse over in Cedar-Riverside." And that was where my office was. Eventually, the building was supposed to be demolished, and we were able to buy it.
Q: What was that first year like?
A: We had an ensemble of 23 full-time employees — six Native Americans, 10 African Americans, seven whites. We worked 9 to 12, 1 to 5 and 7 to 12. If you weren't rehearsing a show, you were doing something else. Everybody had a task. I had no idea what we were doing. Interestingly, we offered free child care, free transportation from central locations and $1 admission for those on public assistance. Lou Bellamy directed "Dutchman," which we took around. At the same time, we did classes and comedy.
Q: Mixed Blood was quite diverse.
A: At a time when the melting pot theory prevailed, Mixed Blood was offering the opposite of that. We were a celebration of diversity and difference. For the first years, difference meant race, and we did not want to create that whitewashed, colorblind milquetoast that the melting pot suggested. It was an identity-conscious organization.
Q: And also one that had strong craft?
A: To be taken seriously, we knew we had to be as good or better than other theaters. We didn't want to be marginalized as a good experimental theater. We wanted to be good by any standards, and be taken seriously.
Q: Some big names have come through your doors.
A: Carl Lumbly, Sally Wingert, Don Cheadle — a lot of talent, yes. But how does one know who is going to combust?
Q: As you clean out your office now, what are you finding?
A: [Playwright] August Wilson had given me a script that he'd written at the Science Museum as an example of his writing. [Poet and playwright] Ntozake Shange had given me a poem she wrote on handmade paper. There are all sorts of little gems.
Q: Looking back, do you have any regrets?
A: Lots! Where should I start? When I was 21, I was the token young person on a committee to help pick bands to play in the Minneapolis parks. This one woman, Bernadette Anderson, from the North Side, said, "You've got to come see my kids. They're great." So, I went to the tennis courts at North Commons Park and saw these 16- and 17-year-olds playing. It was Prince and Jesse Johnson and Andre Cymone, and I was like, nah, too young. Shows what I know.