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Richard Cook, artistic director of Park Square Theatre in downtown St. Paul, said its second stage will open “no later than next January.”

MARLIN LEVISON • mlevison@startribune.com,

A rendering of the Andy Boss Thrust Stage at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul.

Provided By Park Square Theatre,

Park Square will welcome three theaters to its new stage

  • Article by: Graydon Royce
  • Star Tribune
  • February 28, 2014 - 2:56 PM

After many years of talk, the second stage at Park Square Theatre is finally sounding real — it will open “no later than next January,” artistic director Richard Cook said.

Park Square’s selection last week of three small companies as producing partners signals how it wants to use this new $3.3 million theater, which holds significant promise for the company’s attendance, revenue and artistic capacity.

Theatre Pro Rata and Sandbox Theatre each will stage one show a season for three years, and Girl Friday Productions will put up a show once every other year in the 200-seat theater.

The new stage is the keystone of a $5.3 million development campaign. Park Square is within $500,000 of reaching that goal. Included in the 13,000-square-foot project is a downstairs lobby, new rehearsal hall, dressing rooms and backstage storage for the new stage and the existing 350-seat proscenium upstairs in the Hamm Building. Cook said he hopes to begin work in April.

“It’s important to move now,” he said in an interview. “Materials and labor are starting to escalate, and we made this promise to the community, so the board and leadership are anxious to start delivering.”

Park Square intends to produce or present 19 projects on both stages in the first year — a staggering number for a midsized company. Fourteen of those would be Park Square productions, including four remounts. By comparison, the Guthrie in 2012-13 produced 16 shows on its three stages, plus two World Stages presentations.

Park Square hopes to hit attendance of 90,000 by the end of 2015 — including about 35,000 students — up from 60,000 today. The annual budget is expected to rise from $2.3 million to well more than $3 million.

“Our hope is that a lot of people will crack our doors for the first time,” Cook said, “but this is not a ballooning type of market for subscription sales.”

Many different streams

Park Square’s brand has evolved under Cook’s careful stewardship to encompass Shakespeare, Broadway exports (“Stick Fly,” “Red”), new adaptations (the upcoming “Cyrano”) and original pieces (Carlyle Brown’s “American Family”). Cook has expanded his vision by relying on other directors to bring him projects. In April, for example, Leah Cooper will direct the regional premiere of “Behind the Eye,” playwright Carson Kreitzer’s take on acclaimed photographer Lee Miller.

The programming philosophy in the new downstairs theater will similarly be driven by diverse impulses. Each of the partners announced last week has a distinct aesthetic.

Pro Rata, headed by artistic director Carin Bratlie, favors such offbeat work as the current “Elephant’s Graveyard,” about a bizarre incident in which a circus elephant was hanged after killing a handler. Sandbox does original, ensemble-created work. Its “Beatnik Giselle,” which fused dance and beat poetry, is a good example. Girl Friday is perhaps the most traditional, with a reputation for big, sprawling Americana such as Elmer Rice’s “Street Scene.”

“We are not trying to be more mainstream,” Cook said. “We’re looking for the tributaries that are feeding the stream.”

All about next generation

Cook talks about the building project at Park Square in terms of succession. He described himself as a 20th-century theater artist who wants to build a 21st-century vision for his 39-year-old company. He has put infrastructure and scale above personality.

“I’ve watched theaters where leaders have stepped away and the theater closed,” he said. “It’s important that when I leave, Park Square is so embraced by the community that it won’t miss me.”

Cook admits there are pitfalls to the new project, but he and executive director C. Michael-jon Pease have built in fallbacks. They recently secured a new 20-year lease with the Hamm Building to lock in occupancy costs. By building the second stage and inviting other theaters to produce there, Park Square generates income.

If the company itself cannot afford to produce its own work there, Cook said, he’s confident Park Square could host other companies in the space. The three partners will be with Park Square for three years. Cook said he hopes the program will continue beyond that.

“I’d be surprised if we don’t continue it,” he said.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

© 2014 Star Tribune