Bain Boehlke, the founder and artistic director of The Jungle was given the 2009 Distinguished Artist Award by the McKnight Foundation. This past week there was a celebratory dinner with him and his closest couple hundred friends gathering near downtown. I was fortunate enough to tag along, too.
The award is granted yearly, honoring a Minnesota artist whose work has inspired and influenced other artists and their own communities in significant ways. (It’s like a life-time achievement thing, but not really for a body of work.) Bain certainly more than qualifies. His roots are strongly planted in the state, both personally and artistically, and his influence is unquestioning. Not only was he instrumental in the development of the Children’s Theatre Company, his own Jungle Theatre is a top-rated company which has transformed its Lyn-Lake neighborhood and become a shining centerpiece with highly successful productions.
But that’s not what struck me about Monday’s dinner. That’s all the stuff I already knew, and had experienced. I’ve watched his theatre grow from its early days. No, what struck me was his friends, his connections, his emotion. Many stories were told of his early days and collaborations. A number of theatre artists “grew up” alongside him, and thus there were more than a few local icons in the room, and we were regaled with tales of Minneapolis’ early growth and development of theatres, and of the part Bain played in some of that.
Wendy Lehr was a huge hit as a key speaker, telling stories of their travels with a nomadic, young company in the 60s, and retelling some of Bain’s antics. She was funny and charming and sweet and entertaining. And she was so proud of her friend. They clearly have a tight bond that has lasted many, many years, and are dear friends.
What may have struck me most was Bain’s emotional gratitude. He’s an interesting fellow, this Boehlke guy. Always has an distinctive way of looking at things, and you’re never quite sure sometimes what he’s thinking or where’s he’s going, and he’s got a wicked and dry sense of humor. He told a few tales of growing up, loving dance and learning theatre. But it was when he spoke of the people he had worked beside, as young theatre artists, that was so endearing. To speak of Wendy Lehr’s or John Clark Donahue’s friendship and collaboration, or of George Sutton’s contribution to founding The Jungle….was a beautiful tribute to not only these long-lasting friendships, but to the collaborative and essential element of the process of creating theatre.
It was a very moving moment. A moving and beautiful moment. Listening to him closely, and waiting quietly with the room full of supporters and friends as he tried to find his voice when he was overcome, I was suddenly very happy for this talented and charming man. I was touched by his deep emotion. And I began thinking of the parallels in my own life. While I wouldn’t be so bold as to compare myself to him or his career, I felt sure that some day I too might be able to reflect back on decades’ worth of friendship and collaboration. I might be able to have a body of work in which to be proud. I might have a large room full of friends.
And I already know who my own Wendy Lehr will be.
Congratulations, Bain. On your award, your work and your abundance of friends.