Meet the neighbors, Part 3

Greater Minnesota

In Part 2 of this series, I wrote that I discovered some lessons from my trip to nine theaters around the state. For one, the performing arts can inspire a communal sense of identity and represent a community’s aspirations.

But idealism doesn’t pay the rent. I also observed a variety of different methods these organizations use to keep the curtain up and the stage busy:

In St. Cloud, in 1997, Dan and Mark Barth purchased the building where Pioneer Place on Fifth’s theater lives now. Built in 1913 as an Elks’ Club, it had been, in recent years, home to variety of community theaters in St. Cloud. When the city renovated and converted the Paramount Theatre into the Paramount Theatre and Visual Arts Center in the mid-90s, the old theater on Fifth Avenue was abandoned.

Dan and Mark Barth bought the building to house their video production company (Diversified Media Resources, Inc), intending to turn the theater in to a sound stage, when actor and Actors Theater of Minnesota managing director Bill Collins begged them not to destroy such a beautiful theater. He promised to bring some of his company’s shows up to St. Cloud – like an “out-of-town tryout” before the show opened in the Cities.

Now, after more than ten years, Pioneer Place on Fifth produces a seven show season, usually with five shows imported from the Twin Cities and two self-produced. It is the only space in St. Cloud regularly producing professional theater with 86 nights of live theater (and 90 nights of music). They have more than 400 season ticket holders for a season that usually contains two dramas, two comedies, a new work, and a Christmas show.

By the third year, the theater was surviving entirely on ticket sales and corporate sponsorship. It helped, Artistic Director Dan Barth said, that he and his brother didn’t need to take salaries from live theater (because they ran their other business out of another part of the building – and they built a wine bar in the building in 2005). They pressed on anyway because, in their video production work, they had developed an appreciation for actors. They wanted to help keep them working. They were amazed by the actors’ dedication to their craft, plus, Barth said, “There is nothing more gratifying than receiving emotional emails and comments” about the shows.

It’s taken time to build an understanding in the community that there is a difference between the community theater that used to be in the building and the professional theater that lives there now. It’s taken time to get the audience to trust shows when the titles are unfamiliar or the style is experimental. However, now, Barth said, more and more of the audience understands that this is about “live performance, not glitz. Once they got that, they get it.”

Lessons learned:

1) Building an audience for theater takes time, patience, and commitment — and being willing to subsidize the early years helps. If the quality is high, people will catch on — you just can’t be surprised that the unfamiliar is not familiar for awhile.

2) You should contact Dan Barth about bringing a show up to St. Cloud. A co-production sounds like a great deal, and they’re always looking for new, high-quality professional work that the culture-lovin’ people around St. Cloud would otherwise have to drive to the Twin Cities to see.


Something about this transition amuses me: While Pioneer Place is a for-profit theater that gets a kick out of introducing their audience to a play like Love & War from 3am productions, 141 driving miles south of St. Cloud, the Department of Theater and Dance at Minnesota State University Mankato produces shows like Miss Saigon and Hello, Dolly! that sell enough tickets to actually cover the salaries of six of their fifteen faculty members. They have 2000 subscribers to their mainstage productions and sell between 35,000 and 40,000 tickets a year. (Consider that 2000 U.S. Census said that the population of Mankato was 32,427.) A popular main stage show may be seen by as many as 8000 people in only two or three weeks.

Department Chair Paul Hustoles is unapologetic about the populist nature of his seasons. “We’re training our students to be in the plays that they’re actually going to be in” in their career. Every two years, he said, they survey their audience with a list of musical show titles, asking them to rank the titles first by whether they’re familiar with the show and then whether they want to see it or not. In this way they discovered, for example, that everyone had heard of I Do, I Do, but no one wanted to see it.

Lest you think there’s something wrong with this picture – “What is an academic theater doing “A Christmas Carol” for?” you ask – consider that ticket revenue and contributed income was also enough for the Department of Theatre and Dance at Mankato to build a 250-seat, entirely-flexible performance space without additional financial support from the University. In this blackbox space, they produce edgier shows like Urinetown, Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare and an entirely original work based on the Greek Iphigenia story called Virgin Territory.

So, while the University maintains the building, the department makes approx. $500,000 in ticket revenue and contributed income that they use to build, maintain, and subsidize their educational program and their theaters. (If the building's roof needs repair, the University does it; if the theater needs new seats, it comes out of the department’s budget.)

“What I don’t understand,” said Prof. Hustoles are “the universities — and there are many — who train their artists how not to be successful.”

Lessons learned:

1) Under certain circumstances, a theater might please all the people all the time.

2) Not having to maintain a building, to pay rent, or become an expert in real estate, frees performing arts organizations to use their revenue to make theater better.


Theatre du Mississippi in Winona doesn’t have a multi-use space like Pioneer Place or MSU Mankato; they don’t have a regular season like the Willmar Barn Theatre; and they don’t fill a high-profile production niche like The Great River Shakespeare Company (also in Winona).

What they do have is a passion for Winona. “We like where we live,” said board member Diane Stevens. “I like going to things. . . not to have to drive to them.” Board Chair Kathy Peterson added, “We’re very greedy. . . We want the whole package” here in Winona.

So, Theatre du Mississippi produces the Frozen River Film Festival every January on the Winona State University campus, focusing on movies with “a unique perspective on environmental issues, sustainable communities, extreme sports, adventure travel and diverse cultures, presenting issues not often covered in the local media.” Their board members volunteer at the Great River Shakespeare Festival and program the Prelude music concerts that warm up the GRSF crowds Friday and Saturday nights. And, they produce “Drops & Drama” at the Fest, where they show off the 100 year old Masonic scenic backdrops that they’re entrusted with in the performance space they rent in an old Masonic Temple.

As I headed back to my car, they even pressed a compact disc into my hand that they’d produced from the songs of the many musicians they had brought in Winona. The were recorded music producers too? It was something they sold to raise funds.

O, and, sometimes, they do plays.

Lesson learned:

A) Creative people will be creative. And, if your mission is community-focused, then maybe it can be accomplished with the skills of theater applied to things that aren’t conventionally thought of as theater. (Like the Vertigo Theater Factory gang who have enhanced their passion for live performance by putting it on youtube.)


Can these lessons be applied to the Twin Cities? Where the larger number of theater and cultural choices plus the higher cost of living create different, maybe greater, competitive pressures? I know that Commonweal Theatre Company believes that their artist-administrator model may be more workable everywhere than the hierarchal administrators-as-professional-nonactors model that we have come to accept in theater organizations. (Look for more on this in our issue On Ensembles. I just wanted to mention Commonweal again before I wrap this up.)

I also recognize that each of these organizations operate in circumstances that are unique to their community – and very much unlike the Twin Cities.

That is, in fact, my point.

I think.

Stuck in the Twin Cities, sometimes thinking that only in a urban area can theater thrive, do we isolate ourselves in our aesthetic, clique, preconceived notions, or foreign training about how theater is supposed to be done? Be it for-profit or not-for-profit, academic or populist, or not-even-always-live performance? When we look more broadly from St. Cloud to Mankato to Osseo to Red Wing to Whittier to North Minneapolis to St. Paul, can we learn to do things different enough from the way we thought it was supposed to be done, that we actually learn how to do it more right for the specific and unique place we live?

All I know for sure is that I’ve gotta get North as soon as I can. There are many more theaters to visit.

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