Backstage at the Reif
Peter Rothstein, Artistic Director of Theater Latté Da
Grand Rapids native, Peter Rothstein, founding Artistic Director of Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis may feel more remembered locally for his association with “a great hockey family” than for his accomplishments in musical theater, but his story – from the Reif stage to his own theater company – is no less than an inspiration. This home-town boy, nick-named “Mr Consistency” by Star Tribune, has earned respect statewide for his writing and directing, and it’s a pleasure to welcome his work to the Reif Center. Here’s more on the man behind All is Calm, Peter Rothstein.
Katie Benes, Reif Center: Do you remember when you fell in love with theater? What experience was the catalyst for that?
Peter: Mary Jo Jess directed Amahl and the Night Visitors for the Grand Rapids Players when I was in second or third grade, which is when it all started for me. So I fell in love with theater pretty early, but I didn’t take it seriously until high school. Diane Olson was running the drama program back then and in my three years of high school I did nine or ten musicals in Grand Rapids. It was all musical theater, so I really fell in love with musical theater. I didn’t actually do any non-musical theater until college.
What were some of the titles you remember?
Gosh! I think I did four or five musicals with drama club and another handful of shows with the Grand Rapids Players. Then I did Showboat for a couple of summers. In fact, I may have been in one of the first local productions at the Reif Center, which was the Grand Rapids Players production of Godspell. I was in tenth grade. Other shows I remember are Fiddler on the Roof and Carousel with the Grand Rapids Players and, with the high school, Man of La Mancha, Hello Dolly!, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, and Once Upon a Mattress.
You were at such a formative age when the Reif was being built. What do you remember about growing up with The Reif? How did it impact you?
You know, because I grew up there, I didn’t realize how lucky I had it! But, compared to most small communities, it’s unbelievable the amount of arts activity that goes on in Grand Rapids. I’m so thankful that I grew up in a town that did have a community theater, a high school drama program (at the time), a strong choir program, and a community orchestra (although I wasn’t part of it). Having access as both a participant and an audience member is what made me an artist. Exposure to those opportunities, as well as tours to the Cities with the drama program where we attended performances and met theater professionals, showed me that a career in theater was an option. I think a lot of kids coming from rural areas don’t see the arts as a feasible livelihood.
So how did your theater career really take off?
I moved to Minneapolis after graduate school to assist Garland Wright who was running the Guthrie Theater at the time. I did more acting than directing in those first few years because breaking-in as a director is quite tricky. Directors don’t get to audition; you need someone see your work, and you can only have someone see your work if are creating work. The acting I did built relationships with theaters in town and those theaters gave me my first jobs as a director. I worked quite a bit for Park Square and the Jungle Theater. I sang with Minnesota Opera for a number of years and ended up doing quite a bit of directing work for them. I also learned a lot by assisting some great directors.
Tell us about Theater Latté Da and how that started.
Theater Latté Da turns 20 this year! We really started because actors had approached Denise Prosek (Another Grand Rapids native. We were in high school drama club together.) and I about the lack of opportunities for adventurous musical theater in the Twin Cities. Minneapolis had been a great theater town for decades, but in the early 90s there wasn’t a lot of musical theater happening. So we put a show together, it was a Cabaret, and the people who came wanted more. We decided to do another one, and after a couple of years we decided to incorporate, form a board of directors and a non-profit, and that’s when Theater Latté Da was born. We knew that we would always do musical theater from the canon, but we also wanted to work with playwrights, composers, and lyricists to create new musicals. The dream was to really explore what the art form might do, seeking out new ways for music and story to intersect.
What personal productions or accomplishments in theater are you most proud of?
I always love what I’m working on the most. Actually, a number of theater critics in town have said to me, “You can’t say every show that it’s your favorite, Peter,” but I believe that you need to love what you’re working on to do it well. To be honest, I’m probably most proud of All is Calm. It’s a show that I gave birth to from the beginning and it was a historical event that I wanted the world to know about. I also felt like it could make a great piece of theater! It was a challenge because the climax of the story is the lack of conflict which doesn’t make for great traditional theater, so the show needed to take a non-traditional form. I wrote it eleven years ago, doing a lot of research for the piece in London, Brussels, various cities in Belgium, Dresden, Berlin, and Hamburg, and it’s been performed every year since. It’s become a huge part of my life, so I guess that’s the work I’m most proud of.
It is a beautiful story! Where did you first hear it?
I first heard about it in a folk song by John McCutcheon and thought, “Oh, what a lovely piece of fiction!” Then a book came out by Stanley Weintraub that really documented the Christmas Truce. I was equally compelled by why we didn’t know about this event as much as I was interested in the event itself. How could something so extraordinary happen and not make its way into history books! We tend to curate war by talking about strategy and the “military machine,” but I did not want to glorify the strategists and the military science of WWI. I really wanted to put a human face on war, to literally give voice to those soldiers who were part of the Christmas Truce but whose names never appeared in history books or documentary films. I wanted to make these foot soldiers the heroes of the story and have their names, in my small way, go down in history.
Do you care to mention the collaborators you worked with on that project?
Yes! Erick Lichte, Artistic Director of Cantus at the time, created most of the arrangements along with Timothy Takach, who was a singer in Cantus. They were my key collaborators. And Theater Latté Da partnered with Cantus, a wonderful male vocal ensemble based in the Twin Cities, to premier the project. Our first cast was eight singers from Cantus and three singer/actors. The production that will come to the Reif is with ten singer/actors. I directed a production in Vancouver with three professional actors and 75 men so it’s been done in all sorts of different ways.
What aspects of theater are most exciting to you?
The reason I became a director is because I love it all. I wanted to study design. I wanted to study history. I wanted to study acting. I started out with visual art as a huge focus. Reuben Patnaude had a huge influence on my life as a teenager and I loved visual art. I obviously loved music, we all played piano in the family and I sang in choirs. Being a director is where I get to bring all of those separate passions together into a whole.