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At the Foot of the Mountain Theater, Minneapolis

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At the Foot of the Mountain Theater company, 1983.

At the Foot of the Mountain Theater company, 1983. Photograph by Barrie.

The women's theater movement began in the early 1970s and continued until the mid–1980s. Echoing the second-wave feminism sweeping the country, it fostered the growth of more than 185 theaters, with an emphasis on women's issues. One of these, At the Foot of the Mountain Theater in Minneapolis, made a lasting mark on the Twin Cities.

Many of the women who created these theaters were involved in the radical politics of the 1960s. They had walked in the Civil Rights and peace movements, lived in communes, and created theater events that led their audiences shouting and singing into the streets.

In the spring of 1976, a small group of actors, directors, and playwrights—lesbians, bisexuals, and straight women—met in a tiny Minneapolis apartment. They pledged to work together to transform At the Foot of the Mountain Theater, founded in 1974 by three women and three men, into a full-time, professional women's company. They committed themselves to "honoring women's feelings and nurturing women's values as the source of health for our planet" and planned to produce plays by, for, and about women. They aimed to create an authentic art form from women's experiences —a unique concept. The company described itself as a theater both "of protest" and "of celebration."

Standing behind the banner of the second wave of the women’s movement, the theater’s founders believed that the personal is political. They shared stories from their lives and dreams for the future, then translated these testaments into movement, language, and song. This process gave an undercurrent of life to the acting style for which they became known: one that was documentary-like, with gripping realism. Committed to a nonhierarchical approach, the theater’s members worked on their plays collaboratively. They shared research duties, creating the ideas for the characters, improvising the scenes, and discussing the issues that formed the spine of the production.

As time went on, the theater’s members began to include the stories of people in the audience. They called on them to give testimony, often in the middle of a performance. They created a community of women with shared experiences who were no longer silent.

At the Foot of the Mountain moved into its permanent home in the Peoples’ Center, a multi-purpose community center, in 1979. There, the company enjoyed twelve years of success. It played to sold-out houses in the Twin Cities and earned national attention through touring productions and performances at theater festivals.

The company’s production budget, posted in the lobby, offered transparency to everyone, including the audience. A sliding scale of income-based ticket prices invited customers to choose a fair cost. An audience member who made less than $10,000 a year would pay five dollars for a ticket. Those with incomes of more than $40,000 paid fifteen dollars— a high price for avant garde theater in the 1970s. Most patrons were appreciative, supportive, and generous, and the theater never lost money.

All staff received the same basic salary: 175 dollars per week. Those who held jobs that took more time and responsibility—for example, the artistic and managing directors—received an extra fifteen to twenty-five dollars. Those with children received an allowance of five dollars per child. Those who had more than three years' service received an additional ten dollars per week.

The company’s members celebrated their political focus. An interest in the economics of power supported their organizational structure and underpinned many of their plays. For example, Raped (1976) looked at rape culture as the natural outcome of a capitalist system. Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down (1982) challenged Cold War policies of nuclear stockpiling. Antigone Too: Rights of Love and Defiance (1983) examined the contributions of North American women who were willing to commit civil disobedience for their beliefs. Las Gringas (1984) explicitly criticized the U.S. government’s policy in, and invasion of, Nicaragua.

Though the women's theater movement produced a substantial body of women's plays and rituals, it was short-lived. When At the Foot of the Mountain closed in 1991, it was the longest continuously operating women's theater in the country. Women have since taken leadership roles in a majority of regional theaters.

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Boesing, Martha, "Rushing Headlong into the Fire At the Foot of the Mountain." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 21, no. 4 (Fall 1996): 1011–1023.

Burke, Sally. Critical History of American Drama Series: American Feminist Playwrights. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Canning, Charlotte. Feminist Theatres in the U.S.A.: Staging Women's Experience. London: Routledge, 1995.

Chinoy, Helen Krich, and Linda Walsh Jenkins. Women in American Theatre. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1987.

Cless, Downing. "Eco-Theatre, USA." Drama Review 40, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 79–102.

Collins, Robert. "A Feminist Theatre in Transition." American Theatre 4, no. 11 (February 1988): 32–34.

Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1988.

Fliotsos, Anne, and Wendy Vierow. American Women Stage Directors of the Twentieth Century. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Flynn, Meredith. "The Feeling Circle, Company Collaboration & Ritual Drama: Three Conventions Developed by the Women's Theater ‘At the Foot of the Mountain.’" PhD thesis, University of Michigan, 1986.

Greeley, Lynne. Fearless Femininity by Women in American Theatre, 1910s to 2010s. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2015.

——— . "Martha Boesing: Playwright of Performance." Text and Performance Quarterly 9, no. 3 (July 1989): 207–215.

——— . "Spirits from the Matrix: The Feminist Plays of Martha Boesing." PhD diss., University of Maryland, 1987.

——— . “Whatever Happened to the Cultural Feminists? Martha Boesing and At the Foot of the Mountain.” Theatre Survey 46, no. 1 (May 2005): 49–65.

Harding, James M., and Cindy Rosenthal. Restaging the Sixties: Radical Theaters and Their Legacies. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2006.

Hostetter, R. D. "The American Nuclear Theatre: 1946–84." PhD diss., Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1985.

Leavitt, Diana Louise. Feminist Theatre Groups. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1980.

Roth, Martha, "Here Come the Sisters: A Profile of Martha Boesing." Sojourner (October 31, 1996): 29–31.

Stephens, Judith L. "Subverting the Demon–Angel Dichotomy: Innovation and Feminist Intervention in Twentieth-Century Drama." Text & Performance Quarterly 9, no. 1 (January 1989): 53–64.

Related Images

At the Foot of the Mountain Theater company, 1983.
At the Foot of the Mountain Theater company, 1983.
Production photograph from Antigone Too: Rights of Love and Defiance, 1983.
Production photograph from Antigone Too: Rights of Love and Defiance, 1983.
Color image of the At the Foot of the Mountain Theater logo, ca. 1976.
Color image of the At the Foot of the Mountain Theater logo, ca. 1976.
Poster for At the Foot of the Mountain Theatre’s production of Junkie!, 1981.
Poster for At the Foot of the Mountain Theatre’s production of Junkie!, 1981.
Cover of the program for the play Antigone Too: Rights of Love and Defiance, 1983.
Cover of the program for the play Antigone Too: Rights of Love and Defiance, 1983.
Program Cover, Nicaragua (Las Gringas), 1984.
Program Cover, Nicaragua (Las Gringas), 1984.
Performers in Junkie!, 1981.
Performers in Junkie!, 1981.
Production photograph of a scene from Junkie!. Photograph by Judith Niemi.
Production photograph of a scene from Junkie!. Photograph by Judith Niemi.
Ensemble cast of Story of a Mother, 1978.
Ensemble cast of Story of a Mother, 1978.
Production photograph from Nicaragua (Las Gringas), 1984.
Production photograph from Nicaragua (Las Gringas), 1984.

Turning Point

In 1976, a group of feminist artists collaborate to transform At the Foot of the Mountain Theater into a new company dedicated to producing plays by, for, and about women.

Chronology

1974

A group of three women and three men found At the Foot of the Mountain Theater.

1974

The theater opens with two plays written by founder Martha Boesing, The Gelding and Pimp.

1975

River Journal, written by Martha Boesing, opens.

1976

A consortium of women begins to transform the theater into a feminist company.

1978

The theater produces The Story of a Mother, written by Martha Boesing in collaboration with the theater's company.

1979

The theater produces The Life, written by Martha Roth in collaboration with the company.

1981

Martha Boesing's play Junkie! is produced.

1982

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down, a political play protesting U.S. Cold War policies, opens.

1983

The theater presents Antigone Too: Rights of Love and Defiance, a play exploring the efforts of women engaged in civil disobedience in support of their convictions.

1984

Founder and Artistic Director Martha Boesing resigns her position to pursue other projects.

1984

The theater produces Las Gringas in protest of U.S. government policy in Nicaragua.

1987

The Story of a Mother II, written by Martha Boesing in collaboration with the company, opens.

1988

The theater produces Woman to Woman.

1990

In its final season, the theater presents Cultural Crossroads, Mississippi Delta, and Legacy.

1991

At the Foot of the Mountain ends its run as the longest-running professional women's theater in the U.S.