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If music is emotional, then Theo Langason probably loves it

Theo Langason is a multidisciplinary theatre artist, teaching artist, and musician.
Theo Langason is a multidisciplinary theatre artist, teaching artist, and musician.BUMP OPERA for MPR

by Marla Khan-Schwartz

February 15, 2023

As a child, Theo Langason knew playing football wasn’t for him. But his parents wanted him involved in some sort of activity, so they made a deal with him: He could quit football, but only if he picked up something else. 

Inspiration came shortly thereafter when Langason and his mother attended a performance of How the Grinch Stole Christmas at the Children’s Theatre Company. Towards the end of the performance, as the Grinch’s sled full of presents teetered on a cliff ready to fall, he grabbed his mother’s arm. Then he leaned over, and whispered, “I want to do that.” 

The next day, he was signed up for his first theater classes. 

The shift in Langason’s life began an artistic path that has since led to multiple experiences and opportunities in theater, music, education, and performance. An intersection of his work will culminate at the Cedar Commissions’ night two showcase on Saturday, Feb. 18. 

Since 2011, The Cedar Commissions has financially supported artists with grants provided by the Jerome Foundation. The funding gives artists the chance to create and perform new work. Langason joins five other artists — Sophia Deutsch, Cydi Yang, Aram Kavoossi, DJ Fawzi, and Emily Boyajian — featured in this year's two-day showcase event. 

“People need to continuously express themselves,” Langason says. “It doesn't necessarily need to be your profession. You still have value as a maker and as a human being expressing themselves. [The Cedar Commissions] is the kind of program that allows folks to do that.”

Langason’s creative evolution has had its twists and turns. When he started acting as a child, he put much of his time into performing shows at Stages and the Children’s Theatre Company — even traveling internationally to Germany to perform. 

He began high school at Minneapolis North, but wanted to go deeper into the arts. After his freshman year, one of his teachers suggested he check out Main Street School for the Performing Arts, now known as PiM Arts High School in Eden Prairie. Quickly realizing he could spend most of his school days learning about his passions, he transferred. “It was an opportunity to focus on theater, dig in, and get really good because I had dreams of doing the whole actor thing,” he says. 

As he became immersed in theater classes, a deeper interest in music emerged and Langason began mixing beats on GarageBand. By the time he graduated from high school, he had taken as many music classes as theater classes. For college, he moved to New Jersey to pursue theater arts at Rutgers University-Camden. During his freshman year, he bought his first guitar off Craigslist and taught himself how to play. “Eventually I did it more and more,” he says, “until I thought, ‘Maybe I can write a song.’”

As Langason finished his bachelor’s degree, he kept practicing guitar and creating beats on Garageband in his dorm room — and a few of his beats made it into some short documentaries produced by a Rutgers film professor.

After graduation, Langason moved to northeast Minneapolis, hoping to integrate into Minnesota’s culturally diverse theater community. He reconnected with friends and began making music and writing plays in a garage. “It was music, dance, theater, hybrid stuff,” he explains. “That's where that bug awakened when I came back from college.”

Theo Langason leans against a wall resting hands on guitar
Theo Langason is a multidisciplinary theatre artist, teaching artist, and musician.

That marriage of music and theater stuck with Langason, leading him to travel with Blackout Improv to Europe in 2019 and early 2020, before the pandemic took hold. Part of his work included performing in Amsterdam’s Improv Festival, but also scheduling time to play solo music shows of his own.

As he made his mark back home as a multidisciplinary artist, Langason became a co-director at Red Eye Theater, a member of Sandbox Theatre, and a teaching artist at the Guthrie, Penumbra Theatre, and Upstream Arts. He also has worked with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra writing original stories that accompany music to educate youth and families about instruments.

Alongside his artistic pursuits, he works full-time as camp director for Camp Bovey, a summer program he used to attend as a child. “I've also got a full-time job running a summer camp, and that pays the bills,” Langason says. “Then I get to just say ‘yes’ to the [other projects/art] that really bring me a lot of joy and fun.”

Musically, Langason has collaborated with artists across a wide spectrum of the local circuit. He’s opened for Kiss the Tiger, written songs with jazz artist Leslie Vincent, performed with composer Peter Morrow, sang back-up with R&B artist Eric Mayson, and was once even an extra in the Crunchy Kids’ “Homegirls” video that features both Lizzo and Tufawon.

These days, his musical style is influenced by folk-flavored artists such as Justin Vernon, Paul Simon, and Glen Hansard. “Anything that is emotional, I probably love it,” he says.

In 2019, Langason released his first EP, No Rehearsal - A Living Room Record. Indeed, the music was recorded in composer Peter Morrow’s living room all in one take.

His next EP project, New Year, was released in January 2020, just a few months before the pandemic. And it was that pause in the world that unraveled Langason’s own personal struggles, leading him on a mission to “make sense of it all.”

For the upcoming Cedar Commissions showcase, Langason created “Songs for Making Sense of it All.” “The last few years have been really difficult, not only pandemic-wise,” he explains. “The pandemic killed a lot of people, it changed everyone's lives. It was a global trauma that we all experienced, and it really has affected my life in ways that are really challenging.”

Some of those challenges are very personal, but he wants to allow himself to be vulnerable as he continues to unpack his thoughts in front of an audience. “I want to figure out how to make it through and how to keep on [going] when the difficulties feel relentless between the pandemic and being a Black person in America dealing with the struggles and constant onslaught of grief that has to exist in my body and in people who look like me.”

These challenges framed his current work because, “it was coming from a space of needing help, needing to figure out how to continue to not just survive, but how to thrive and make sense of all of these challenges that have been put before me and for so many people,” he says.

Up close look at Theo's hand playing a chord on acoustic guitar
Theo Langason is a multidisciplinary theatre artist, teaching artist, and musician.

This isn’t the first time Langason tells personal stories through music. Some of his music is inspired by happenstance experiences, with lyrics built around those meaningful encounters.  Meeting people like “Estelle” while traveling inspired a song about their day together while “reflecting on summer and the beauty of impermanence.”

And that reflection, along with Langason’s rhythmic acoustic guitar parts, allows him to tell stories that feel authentic while sensitively honoring the experiences that bring meaning to him.

Part of his Cedar Commissions performance will include audience participation. Without giving it away, Langason says he plans to ask the audience questions that will give them opportunities for self-reflection during the show.

For Langason, being vulnerable about his personal challenges with an audience is intentional. “Hopefully people feel encouraged to be vulnerable in their lives,” he says. “I think all the greatest things that have been achieved in mankind have been fixed to vulnerability in some way or another. The more we can really learn to be vulnerable with each other, and ourselves, the better the world will be.”

Theo Langason will perform for The Cedar Commissions at The Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis on Saturday, Feb. 18. Doors at 7 p.m., Show starts at 7:30 p.m. All ages.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.