When dancer and choreographer Alanna Morris-Van Tassel was searching for a space last year for her first big solo show, Twin Cities performing arts venues were the focus of grim news.
Intermedia Arts, a multiuse venue that hosted established and up-and-coming dance companies, had recently closed amid a financial crisis that forced it to sell its south Minneapolis building. Red Eye Theater was shuttered and torn down for an apartment building near Loring Park.
These in-demand venues joined a dust heap that includes the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, Bedlam Theater, Patrick’s Cabaret and, at least temporarily, the Soap Factory — all of them important outlets for performing artists. As a result, performers face a heightened competition for venues to present their work to the public.
Fortunately, Morris-Van Tassel was able to book her “Yam, Potatoe an Fish!” at the Off-Leash Art Box, a new venue in south Minneapolis near Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
“There’s definitely a space crunch now,” said Peter Christian Hansen, artistic director of Gremlin Theater in St. Paul.
That crunch is a good thing for Gremlin, which in 2017 opened a 120-seat theater in the Vandalia Tower complex, led by arts-oriented developers First & First. “We’re booked solid through this season,” said Hansen, whose space is available for rentals. “We haven’t opened up the next season yet, but we have demand to be booked solid.”
‘It’s a rough time’
Twin Cities artists are coping with a challenging scene that continues to deliver bad news.
In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre recently announced that it may cancel its annual May Day Parade because of funding shortages, a potential loss that may also have implications for the Minneapolis puppet venue itself.
“Ugh,” said Off-Leash Art Box co-founder Jennifer Ilse. “It’s a rough time.”
Opened last winter, the Art Box is a tiny space — it seats no more than 70 — but one that’s precious to cutting-edge performers with small audiences and a penchant for intimate works. It can be arranged to suit the users’ desires. The majority of its programming has been dance, but it also has hosted experimental performance.
The venue is an outgrowth of Off-Leash Area, a dance-theater troupe that has been around for 20 years.
“We grew up and got a building,” said Ilse, a dancer and choreographer who leads the company with her husband, actor/director/writer Paul Herwig. “Now that we’re older and able to mentor the next generation, Paul and I asked: What can we do to support others? We knew renting would mean that sometime in the future, as gentrification and other things happened, we’d be kicked out of our space. So, here we are.”
Of course, venues rise and fall as part of a natural cycle. And spaces are not the end-all and be-all of performance. In fact, companies and artists are increasingly breaking out of theater walls.
Last fall, Frank Theatre produced “The Visit” in the Minnesota Transportation Museum in St. Paul, a former railroad facility that lent a dark atmosphere to the play. In 2017, Mixed Blood Theatre staged the baseball-themed “Safe at Home” at St. Paul’s CHS Field. This spring, Mixed Blood will do a car-themed show at a parking ramp.
But Mixed Blood has its own theater on Minneapolis’ West Bank, where it regularly hosts other artists. Blackout Improv has performed there. So has Theatre Mu.
Nor is Mixed Blood alone in helping others. Moving a show to the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio is like an off-Broadway show moving to Broadway for smaller Twin Cities companies. The theater offers support and provides space. The companies, in turn, get exposure and new audiences.
That model also is being used by St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre, which opened its Andy Boss Thrust Stage in 2014. It collaborates with and hosts a raft of companies.
What’s left? What’s coming?
Still, some artists tire of the roller-coaster life. That’s true of the folks behind Open Eye Figure Theatre in Minneapolis and Dreamland Arts in St. Paul. Both are run by husband-and-wife teams. Both offer a model for stability and security.
Open Eye, a mecca for puppetry in the Twin Cities, produces its own shows and serves as an incubator for others. Michael Sommers and Susan Haas bought the building, which once housed Patrick’s Cabaret, in 2005 and opened two years later. It was a different strategy for the couple, after years of itinerant work at various spaces.
“Why should artists improve the building and get it rented out from under them?” Haas said.
Dreamland Arts, which hosts music, poetry, puppetry and even a film festival, also is owned by its artistic leaders, Zaraawar Mistry and Leslye Orr. “We’re essentially a mom-and-pop business,” Mistry said. “We have a small venue that’s available to individuals and artists to rent.”
Both Orr and Mistry do other work to subsidize their passion-driven venue.
Other venues include the Minnsky Theatre and Public Functionary gallery in northeast Minneapolis; the latter has hosted music and opera performances. In the North Loop, the Minnesota Opera has rehearsal space that it rents to other companies. Nearby, there’s the Lab Theater and Aria, former home of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which hosts occasional performances.
Firehouse Performing Arts is making a lot of noise in south Minneapolis. Its main space, the Hook & Ladder Theater, accommodates 120 seated patrons or 300 standing. It’s used mainly by music acts, but Firehouse soon will open a 100-capacity performance and gallery space, the Mission Room, in a building next door that once housed Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre, which just moved a few blocks down Minnehaha Avenue.
“We aspire to be like the Cedar Cultural Center,” said executive director Chris Mozena, nodding to the West Bank venue that offers a smorgasbord of music and global performance. “They’re international, but we’re local/regional.”
And in St. Paul’s Frogtown area, a group is renovating an old movie house into a flexible space that’s expected to open in 2020. The Victoria Theater Arts Center is on University Avenue, just a few steps from a light-rail station.
The venue is expected to have 120 seats. “Which is just right — not too large, not too small,” said executive director Julie Adams-Gerth. “It will be available for dance, music and live music.”
It also will be available to other nonprofits. “In that neighborhood, finding meeting space is horrible,” she said.
Community also can be lost
As artists grieve the loss of venues, others have seen organizations founder under the weight of financial demands — think Bedlam Theater, which shut down in 2016 after running out of money.
Some wonder: Are artists too tied to space?
“No,” said photographer and McKnight distinguished artist Wing Young Huie. “That need for space is never going to go away. But driven by their own interests and external forces like funding, people will find ways to do their art.”
Huie has served as a community builder with his Third Place Gallery, a multiuse venue in south Minneapolis that hosts readings, exhibits and music. While it’s important to address the needs of artists, Huie said, it’s important to also think about audiences. The loss of physical spaces is also about the people who gathered in them, he said.
“When I look at places like Intermedia and Patrick’s, these served many underserved populations where you could go and feel, ‘Hey, we belong,’ ” Huie said.
“Artists are scrappy. We will push, shove and fight our way to get to what we want. But the loss of spaces means the loss of community hubs. That’s the most important part, and that’s something that takes a long time to rebuild.”