Despite its national profile as a theater center, Minnesota has lacked a service organization charged with galvanizing the industry. The newly formed Minnesota Theater Alliance hopes to fill that void.

Initially administered by Springboard for the Arts, the organization intends to be an independent nonprofit that provides audience development, marketing, scheduling and professional services for the 100-plus theater companies across Minnesota.

Presently, the Theater Alliance is funded by a $50,000 two-year grant from the McKnight Foundation. Leah Cooper, who headed the Minnesota Fringe Festival from 2001-2006, has been hired as program director. Once the McKnight grant expires, it’s expected that further fundraising and member fees will sustain the organization.

Several markets have theater service clearinghouses. In Chicago, the League of Chicago Theatres operates Hot Tix — which offers discounted tickets to member theaters — and publishes opening-night calendars. It also advocates on public policy and conducts professional training seminars for smaller theaters. Bay Area Theatre in San Francisco is the largest theater service organization in the country, with more than 300 participating companies spread over 11 counties.

Cooper said the Minnesota Alliance will offer some of the ideas that have worked in Chicago and San Francisco, specifically centralized ticketing and a stronger connection between the theater community and tourist convention centers. Also, a central web site would allow companies to see each other’s season lineups and avoid scheduling conflicts. At the same time, the groups in Chicago and San Francisco both provide services that currently exist here — such as award programs (the Iveys) and trade publications (MinnesotaPlaylist.com).

Hal Cropp, artistic director of Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, will chair the alliance’s board of directors, made up of representatives of seven theaters and Laura Zabel, Springboard’s executive director. Cropp said the group will study how to structure membership to be useful for large and small companies.

"Part of this is just bringing together theater companies and finding a collective voice," said Cooper.

Twin Cities-area theaters sell nearly 2.5 million tickets annually and represent annual budgets of more than $150 million.

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