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Founder Lou Bellamy noted that Penumbra’s problems are endemic. It produces art with top-flight actors in a relatively small, 250-seat house. “Every show we do is a show that loses money,” he said.

Ariana Lindquist, New York Times

$359,000

amount raised for the Penumbra Theatre, which exceeded its goal and is enough for the St. Paul theater to resume programming

Strong fundraising ends Penumbra melodrama

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON
  • Star Tribune
  • January 7, 2013 - 8:11 PM

The Penumbra Theatre is out of intensive care.

In September, the renowned St. Paul company canceled its fall season and cut staff in response to a severe financial crisis. The theater said it needed to raise $340,000 by year's end to survive.

Penumbra announced Monday that it had exceeded its goal, taking in $359,000, enough to cover its expenses and resume programming in the spring.

"It was a near-death experience that we hope to never repeat," said managing director Chris Widdess. "It did reveal to us, though, that we have a family, that our work is deeply valued, and that people have faith in the theater."

News of the company's woes reverberated widely, and donations arrived from Minnesota and across the country.

"When the call came, I had to respond, and I wish I had Bill Gates' money to give them," said donor Benny Sato Ambush, senior distinguished producer in residence at Emerson (College) Stage in Boston.

"Penumbra is one of the longest-running black theater companies in the country," he said. "Their art is terrific, and they've nurtured and developed many artists in all categories through those decades. They also have a very special relationship with [Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright] August Wilson. All of those things make them a treasure in American theater."

Added Chuck Smith, resident director of Chicago's Goodman Theater and a longtime Penumbra season-ticket holder: "Losing them would've been horrible for everyone. Penumbra is the authentic voice of August Wilson in American theater."

Penumbra has had fiscal woes in the past and has cut shows and staff to meet fiscal goals. But this crisis, which the company laid to over-optimistic projections about both contributed and earned income, was its most severe in recent memory.

"It was touch-and-go for a bit there," said founder Lou Bellamy from Oregon, where he is preparing to direct Wilson's "Two Trains Running" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. "The emphasis is now on using savvy thinking and different kinds of revenue streams to make sure that we remain strong and viable to inspire future generations."

Bellamy noted that Penumbra's problems are endemic. It produces art at high quality with top-flight actors in a relatively small, 250-seat house. "Every show we do is a show that loses money," he said. "We have a scene shop that produces sets for theaters and opera companies around the world. We have to grow that business, so that it allows us to indulge our passion, which is the art."

Penumbra will announce a full 2013-14 season soon, Bellamy said. The theater also will produce "Spunk," the George C. Wolfe musical based on three stories by Zora Neale Hurston, in March. Broadway choreographer Patdro Harris ("A Raisin in the Sun") will direct the show, which will star Dennis Spears, Austene Van, Jevetta Steele and T. Mychael Rambo.

Penumbra's funding came from more than 1,400 individuals, corporations such as 3M and Ecolab, and foundations such as the McKnight, General Mills and Target. The list of contributors goes from small donors to such philanthropic stalwarts as members of the Cowles family and notable Twin Cities actors Greta Oglesby and Sally Wingert.

"The response was inspiring and humbling," said board chair Bill Stevens. "We are fortunate to have such a passionate family of supporters."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

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