The Land of a Thousand Choirs

The Land of a Thousand Choirs

Minneapolis, so they say, is the land of 1,000 choirs. We haven’t met them all, but we’ve made a start. We are here for five weeks at the Guthrie and are working with 25 existing choirs, as well as forming one or two of our own.

Tonight we have the Minneapolis Gilbert and Sullivan taking to the stage. We’ve had all-female groups, all-male groups, church groups, university groups, theatre groups and pop-up choirs, singing everything from gospel to Carole King, from barbershop to Bach. One of my favourite musical moments of this trip was when Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’ burst unexpectedly from the middle of a 1930s close harmony number.

The brand-spanking-new Guthrie Staff Choir made its debut performance last week. Requiring a speedy turnaround, we held our first rehearsal on the Friday, and performed in the proscenium space on the Saturday night (with great aplomb). This group embodies so much of what community singing and The Events is about: the meeting of worlds, disparate people joining together with a common aim, and forming bonds through shared experience. The Head of Finance sang alongside Ushers, and Lead Carpenters arranged childcare so they could harmonise with Wigmasters. The Guthrie Staff Choir is a thing now - an event, if you will - and I hope it far outlasts my brief tenure.

Lots of them said at first, ‘well I recognise these faces but I couldn’t have told you their names’. And you can understand why they don’t all know each other, because this building is vast. In scale, it is comparable to our National Theatre, with three auditoriums, four bar/cafés, rehearsal rooms, class rooms, and much more besides. Our tour of the building on day one lasted an hour and a half (I kid ye not). It is a wonderful, cavernous, creative complex.

The sense of welcome and community is palpable here in Minneapolis. We’ve had more invitations to dinner, house stays, boat trips, and Hallowe’en parties than we could possibly ever take up. On Sunday we had home-made apple pie brought to us at the end of a post-show Q&A session.

The Events is not just about the cosiness of community get-togethers, though. It concerns what happens when that togetherness is violently disrupted, and what happens next. And in the US, you never have to wait too long for reminders of this sort of horror. We opened this show the night after a shooting in Oregon, in which a 26-year-old man fatally shot nine people, and injured nine others. An eight-year-old girl was shot last week by an 11-year-old boy in a row over a puppy. There were two campus shootings in a single day last week. The one in Texas was the fourth on that campus since August. The calculations vary but one states that there have been 1001 shootings in America since 2013. The scale of gun crime here is staggering, making it almost impossible to compute.

I never thought of this play as being about guns - tribes, alienation, and violence, yes, but not the weapons themselves - but this knotty, versatile play shapeshifts and gains layers and texture from each place it visits, and here it feels like an urgent call to action. One audience member said after the show on Sunday that she recognised many of the stages Claire goes through in the play - grief, anger, questioning, blaming, soul-searching - but that now when she hears of another shooting, she just skips right on to anger. And you can see why. Anger at the horror, and anger at the impotence of politicians and the population to do anything about it.

Joe Bunker