After a fiscally harrowing year that threatened its existence, Penumbra Theatre has made a strong turnaround.
The St. Paul troupe, regarded as the nation’s foremost African-American theater company, ended its recent fiscal year with a slim but significant $130,779 surplus after losing $1.15 million the year before.
That swing into the black is a “testament to the value the community places on this theater,” said board chair Bill Stevens. “[It] ensured Penumbra would continue its vital role in the nation’s theatrical landscape.”
Thirteen months ago the company canceled its fall season, cut its staff and pared its budget by $800,000 (to $2 million, compared with $3.4 million the year before).
It also told its story to the public, hoping to raise $340,000 to make its accounts current again. A series of fundraising concerts brought life back to the darkened stage in the Rondo neighborhood, the historic heart of St. Paul’s black community.
The appeal was successful. Foundations, corporations and individual donors, 1,400 of whom contributed, gave a total of $359,000 to Penumbra — $19,000 over its goal — allowing the theater to reopen in March with a stylish production of George C. Wolfe’s “Spunk,” a music-infused play that, fittingly, celebrated survival in the face of hardships.
Penumbra scheduled a full slate of productions for the current season, which began in August.
Meanwhile, the theater is working to ensure that it stays on track financially, said managing director Chris Widdess.
“It’s going to take a lot of discipline on our part and continued support from the community,” he said. “It’s humbling and inspiring at the same time.”
Founded in 1976 by Lou Bellamy, who remains its artistic director, Penumbra began the current fiscal year July 1 with a surplus, much of it from individual donors. That is a source the company has cultivated as it increasingly competes for foundation dollars against educational and human-services programs.
When Widdess came to the theater in 2005, about 9 percent of its contributed income came from individuals. “We now have 45 percent of our income from individual donors and that’s well on our way to our goal of 60 percent,” he said.
The theater just finished a festival of one-person plays dedicated to the late Claude Purdy, the actor and director who co-founded Penumbra and lured then-aspiring playwright August Wilson to the Twin Cities, where he made his name — and Penumbra’s. Up next on the main stage is the holiday musical “Black Nativity,” which runs Dec. 12-22.