The Peanut Butter Factory gives a new home to wayward theater pros

It’s a huge leap for an actor or director to go from working on other people’s productions to starting up his or her own company. And frankly, while putting on a show can be fun, there’s a lot of paperwork and bureaucracy that comes with running a company.

The Peanut Butter Factory is a new company in town that offers to take on the business side of theater, and leave the artists free to do what they do best – the art.

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Leigha Horton and Adam Whisner in The Peanut Butter Factory production “Gruesome Playground Injuries”

CREDIT: Richard Fleischmann Photography

According to co-founder Christopher Kehoe, The Peanut Butter Factory was actually the name of a stillborn improv team out of Brave New Institute.

One night in January 2010, we had a phenomenal set and swore right then and there that we were going to do a show for that year’s MN Fringe (applications were still open). Our name was drawn, but the enthusiasm fizzled out shortly thereafter. I had also been sitting on an idea for a solo performance piece for a while, so I decided to simply inherit our slot. Because the Fringe doesn’t allow the “Producer’s Name” field to change, the name of The Peanut Butter Factory stuck.

Kehoe4.jpgThen Kehoe collaborated with director Natalie Novacek on another show. They used The Peanut Butter Factory name because it was easier to market than “presented by Natalie Novacek and Christopher Kehoe.”

After a third production the name stuck, and Kehoe says they realized they had a sort of theater company, but it was more of a straw-man placeholder for whenever they were up to a full production. And what was wrong with that?

There’s an unwritten law in this town that having a theater company somehow legitimizes an artist’s work. I don’t want to dismantle that notion so much as challenge it. This model is really meant to cater to passionate, individual theater artists ready to self-produce their own work (there’s no way this administration could peacefully co-exist with another company’s administration). By partnering with The Peanut Butter Factory, a producing artist is no longer working in a vacuum; today’s project can benefit from yesterday’s inroads with the press, public, advertisers, local businesses, and also help pave the way for future producing artists.

Kehoe adds – and recognizes he could catch hell for saying it – that artists make lousy administrators:

Artists are historically bad at administrating themselves. As a freelance actor, I have been in many situations where the art has suffered from the “producer” (director, or playwright, or lead, or all three) wearing too many hats. With The Peanut Butter Factory, you have an administrative body saying to the producing artist “go make a show, only worry about the show, we’ll keep our hands out of your process” and then turning around and saying to the public “we’re excited to bring you the work of [Producing Artist]” That alone is a much more refreshing narrative than an artistic director begging: “come see MY show from MY theater company.”

Kehoe says this model allows artists to produce work without getting tied down to a long-term commitment. And he’s careful to insist that the staff of The Peanut Butter Factory are not there to critcize the work – they’re just there to smooth the bumps in the road on the way to getting it onstage an in front of an audience.

I’d like to think that no application would ever be rejected out of hand, only returned to its owner showing the areas that still need to be developed. I’m hoping that, by letting the artistic side develop without any administrative meddling, a subtle curation begins to float to the surface: confident theater that truly reflects the artists who are making it. Whether that theater is “good” or “bad” is decided entirely within the person who experiences it.

Kehoe points to the closing of Theatre de la Jeune Lune in 2008, which sent shockwaves through the theater community. Kehoe says while the closing was unfortunate, the fact is that nobody died, and almost all of those talented artists continue to work in the Twin Cities today.

I guess the best possible outcome would be if The Peanut Butter Factory could “future-proof” the Twin Cities theatre community. Theatre companies will come and go, business models can’t always predict the future, and public money can dry up in one election cycle. So, in the face of all that, here is an organization that cuts through companies and speaks to the needs of individual artists.

I’m not deluding myself in how little profit we’ll see. If self-produced work from already-talented artists can be better managed and promoted, that’s the far more precious “profit” in my book. If The Peanut Butter Factory can lift the tide for artists even a little bit, then everyone’s boat will benefit (mine included).

The Peanut Butter Factory’s latest production, “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” opens tomorrow night at Intermedia Arts and runs thru April 1.

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