Penumbra faces its future

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2012 - 3:43 PM

COMMENTARY The Penumbra Theater is too important to let die, but it must get its house in order.

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Greta Oglesby in “The Amen Corner,” a Penumbra collaboration with the Guthrie.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Penumbra Theatre has found itself in a nail-biting drama.

After canceling its fall season, reducing its full-time staff from 16 to 10 and announcing that it needed to raise $340,000 by year's end, the St. Paul playhouse that is often praised as the nation's preeminent African-American company remains confident about its future.

But other, more dire, scenarios present themselves. If it is not successful, Penumbra may shrink to a shell as it tries to remake itself and grow again, like Minneapolis' Southern Theater, whose budget is now one-tenth of what it was just two years ago. Or Penumbra could go the way of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the Tony-winning troupe that closed permanently in 2008.

Any diminishment of Penumbra would be a tragedy, given the loss of black companies elsewhere in the country over the past few years and the fact that the theater has a sterling reputation, including for its interpretations of works by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson.

Superficially, the theater's money woes resemble those it has confronted intermittently over its 36 years. Officials have responded in the past by cutting staff and programming while reaching out to funders. Earlier this year, Penumbra canceled new plays by Kia Corthron and Pearl Cleage. While such stopgap measures have succeeded in preserving Penumbra, they tend in the long term to undermine patron confidence in any announced season.

The theater is trying to raise a daunting amount of money by year's end, given that over the past two years it has trimmed $1.3 million from a budget that is now at $1.9 million. And its cry for help comes at a time when funders are retrenching in a sluggish economy.

While Penumbra's high-caliber artistic output remains its calling card, it no longer has an exclusive claim to doing stellar work by and about African-Americans. Over the past two seasons, Pillsbury House Theatre and Mount Curve Company co-produced memorable stagings of Tarell McCraney's "The Brothers Size" and "In the Red and Brown Water," both presented in the Guthrie's studio theater.

On top of everything, Penumbra must address the transition to a new leader from founder and artistic director Lou Bellamy. That's a lot of moving parts, and any one of them could trip up the whole thing.

"They started looking at this new business model before this crisis, and it is a crisis, but I think the staff and board are acting responsibly," said Vickie Benson of the McKnight Foundation, referring to plans for the theater to broaden its income stream and educational engagement. "You don't ever want to cancel a season, but I think the board and leadership are not doing this blindly. You don't ever want to program yourself into the ground."

Strong foundation support

Foundations, corporate givers and individuals have been fervent in their support of Penumbra. Given that earned income from ticket sales, co-productions and its costume shop accounted for $1.3 million of its $2.3 million total income in 2012, that community buy-in is essential in helping the theater balance its budget.

Over the years, the management has been skilled at deploying relatively meager resources to accomplish great art. Still, they can be faulted for not detecting and arresting this problem sooner. Nagging questions remain about how this happened. Managing director Chris Widdess has said that it was a perfect storm of reduced grants and fundraising, and overly optimistic projections.

"What I've observed from these companies that have gotten into trouble is that it doesn't happen overnight," said Charles Dillingham, a California-based arts manager with more than 40 years' experience who is about to step down as interim executive director at the Pasadena Playhouse. That company recently went through bankruptcy. "Trouble builds up over a long period of time and is not dealt with until the crisis makes it unavoidable. That's a pattern that repeats itself," he said.

National eclat

Penumbra's work is celebrated and sometimes copied nationally, while its talent pool is much in demand. Founder Bellamy directs all over the country (and has been away during much of this crisis, although he said he speaks daily to his management team and board).

The actors and directors the company has showcased include Greta Oglesby, Lester Purry, James A. Williams, Marion McClinton and Austene Van. They in turn have burnished the reputation of the company that nurtured them, even if some grouse that they are undervalued at home.

(Actors/singers Van, Dennis Spears and the combination of Thomasina Petrus and Julius Collins III all have respective benefits planned at the theater during the holiday season.)

Some theaters have a natural life cycle. Penumbra's role is important not just in the Twin Cities, where it has collaborated with the Guthrie on such shows as "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "The Amen Corner," but nationally. While it is not doing the hottest new playwrights, including McCraney, Marcus Gardley and Lydia Diamond -- their works have been staged by Pillsbury House, the Playwrights' Center and Park Square Theatre -- it presents a repertoire that is a bedrock of African-American theater.

That history, plus its promise during a reinvigoration, makes it all the more important to seek a permanent and sustainable solution.

"The reality is that Penumbra is very brave to be so visibly doing what lots of other nonprofits are doing more quietly," Kate Barr, executive director of the Minnesota Nonprofit Assistance Fund, where Penumbra has been a client for 15 years, told me recently.

She is optimistic about its future. "They're changing their business model to adjust to the new realities while facing other challenges. If they were a business and doing that, they would get a shot of capital from shareholders. But nonprofits don't have that option, so they hold their breaths and do it organically."

The theater is too important to let wither, but it must work hard to get and keep its house in order in an environment with limited lifelines.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

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