More space for Woodbury school shows to go on

  • Article by: DON JACOBSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 12, 2012 - 10:48 PM

With help from an arts nonprofit and donors, Woodbury soon will have two adjacent stages.

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Young actors of the Woodbury Community Theater worked on a rehearsal of “The Wizard of Oz” Tuesday in the Loft Theater at Woodbury’s East Ridge High School. The 920-seat theater is one part of the Merrill Community Arts Center, which by next year will also have a 120-seat theater.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Shovels are in the ground this summer at East Ridge High School in Woodbury for a community arts center.

Weber Construction of North St. Paul broke ground last month on a $1.3 million addition to the high school that will house the 120-seat Black Box Theater, part of the Merrill Community Arts Center. 

The project is coming together under a 99-year agreement with South Washington County School District No. 833 in which a community nonprofit arts umbrella group is paying for its construction through donated funds, while the school district will own and maintain the new, high-ceilinged space. 

Under the plans, launched in 2005, the Black Box will be connected to East Ridge's 920-seat Loft Theater main stage -- which opened along with the new high school in 2009. The school district designed it so that when the arts group was ready to go forward with the addition, the Loft's backstage area could be easily hooked up to it.

Michelle Witte, operations director of the Merrill Community Arts Center, said that after five years of fundraising, the new theater space will complete the ultimate vision for the center: It will provide a small stage to complement the much larger existing venue, supplying a green room and rehearsal space for the big-scale productions at the popular Loft Stage.

Meanwhile, its more intimate space will also be used to host its own theater and music performances, as well as visual art displays and other community arts events that may be too modest for the big room.

"The Loft Theater was built with the intention that it would play a larger role in the collective community, not just Woodbury, but the whole school district -- Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park and Newport," Witte said while taking a breather during rehearsals for the Woodbury Community Theater's production of "The Wizard of Oz."

"And definitely that's what's happened. There's an intense demand for it -- it's the only 900-seat facility in the southeast metro, so we have a lot of challenges to get everybody where they need to be."

When the Black Box is completed next year, it will be the third and final element of the Merrill Community Arts Center, along with the Loft Theater itself and an 8,000-square-foot industrial condominium space that the nonprofit purchased last year in Woodbury's Rivertown Drive commercial complex.

That space already is being used for set design and building, costume and props production, storage, visual art design and display, administrative offices and meeting rooms for the St. Paul suburb's arts community.

Witte reflected on the long road to the project's fruition.

"We began the fundraising in 2007, right when the economy was starting to tank, which made it tough," she said. "We needed a prospect for a major gift and got one when Dorothy K. Merrill, a longtime Woodbury resident, put us in her bequest for $2.34 million."

Merrill, Witte said, was not a woman who came from wealth but a frugal saver who managed to amass a $10 million fortune.

"I'm always humbled by that frugal nature, and part of the spirit of Dorothy is that we have been able to accomplish our goals by sharing assets, such as with the South Washington County school district," she said. 

In its deal with the school district, Arts Connection -- the nonprofit formed to run the center -- has been granted sole tenant status for the Black Box and will have access to the Loft Stage for a trio of three-week periods each year. The district will receive $5,000 a year or 10 percent of the ticket revenue -- whichever is greater -- from community events held on the big stage. 

In return, South Washington County students will have access to the Black Box Theater during the school day as well as after school for nine one-week periods each year.

Don Jacobson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.

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