Photo by Caitlin Abrams
John Bueche had his doubts. The head of Bedlam Theatre had committed to moving his renegade enterprise from Minneapolis toSt. Paul’s Lowertown two years ago. Had he done the right thing? When he began to worry, he would go out back at the Lowertown site and stand in the alley. From there, he could see Mears Park one block to the north, the St. Paul Farmers’ Market two blocks east, and—through the building on the other side—Union Depot and the construction chaos that would eventually become the final stop of the Green Line LRT.
“From the alley, we could see it all coming together,” says Bueche, “and that we were at the heart of it—the revitalization of this whole area. But it took a while.”
Everything fell into place this summer. The building renovation was completed, the bar stocked, the restaurant opened, the Green Line started running, and now the new and improved Bedlam is back in business, doing what it does best: testing the boundaries of imagination, creativity, resourcefulness, and fun in a community that could use a healthy injection of each.
Though it does produce plays, calling Bedlam a mere theater doesn’t do it justice. Live music is just as important to its mission, and everything from ballet, hip-hop, and performance art to readings, comedy, and special events can be seen there in any given week. The plays come and go, and may or may not take place inside the building itself, because Bedlam sees the entire neighborhood as its stage.
“It’s all theater to me,” says Bueche—though he admits that he has a hard time classifying in a single phrase what Bedlam is and does. For a while, the moniker theater nightclub came close, but now Bedlam is open for lunch, so the “night” part doesn’t work anymore. For now, he’s calling it a performance club—a kind of cabaret/salon where “anything can happen at any time.”
The central idea behind Bedlam is an ambitious one: to serve as an incubator of ideas for an extraordinarily diverse network of artists, almost all of whom resist categorization. A full-time staff of 33 runs the bar/restaurant and programming aspects of the operation, and an extended network of roughly 150 artists performs or contributes in some way—sometimes many of them at once. While a band is playing upstairs, rehearsals for a play might be happening downstairs, a band of guerilla street performers might be doing something odd a couple of blocks away, a meeting for an upcoming event might be going on next door, and set-up details for a late-night DJ might be under discussion at the bar.
“A couple of weeks ago, a musician from Milwaukee walked in carrying a violin,” recalls Mohamed Samatar, one of Bedlam’s music curators. “His train was late and he had a layover of a few hours, so he stopped in to see if he could jam with someone. We put him together with that night’s DJ, and they made something happen.”
That anything goes spirit of inspired spontaneity, combined with a frenetic level of creative ferment, is what gives Bedlam its energy—a force the company has been harnessing and refining for more than 20 years. And now that its Lowertown location is finally open, Bueche expects Bedlam will soon be making precisely the sort of contribution to St. Paul’s cultural life that he and the city envisioned four years ago, when it was all just ideas on a napkin.
“One of the things that attracted me most to this location is that—with the Green Line, farmers’ market, resident artists, and everything else—this area represents a lot of good thinking about how to plan a vibrant urban environment,” says Bueche.
At the moment, all things seem possible. One of the most compelling ideas is coaxing artists from Milwaukee and Chicago to ride up on Amtrak to perform. “A band could ride up on the train, walk across the street and play, then head back home the same day,” says Justin “Rambo” Salinas, one of Bedlam’s other music curators. “It could be a beautiful thing.”
By design, Bedlam itself doesn’t always equate with beauty, but in this case the word fits nicely. Bedlam’s next act may be beautiful indeed, now that most of the chaos and disruption will be happening inside the building, not out.