The two leaders of Pillsbury House + Theatre were discussing business in a conference area when a stranger wandered in. "Do you know how to attach a résumé to an e-mail?" asked the visitor, who was using the center's computer lab.
"Sure," Noël Raymond replied as she rose to help.
A few minutes later she resumed the conversation — centered on the work that she and Faye Price do for the 27,000 people who each year come through the doors of their south Minneapolis community center. That figure includes nearly 18,000 theatergoers who come to see top-flight professional productions, but also neighbors drawn by the day care, after-school programs, health clinic, free Wi-Fi and other services Pillsbury House offers.
"No day looks like any other day around here, and no day goes the way I expect it to," said Raymond. "There's such a diversity of activities and programs and people and partnerships and crises that come up."
Interruptions and challenges are welcome, said Price, because they present opportunities to grow and to be nimble. Besides, she added, it's gratifying to be of service.
Price and Raymond are known in the Twin Cities and beyond for their theater work. In a field where leadership has opened unevenly for women and people of color, they have held the reins at Pillsbury House for 18 years, producing and directing dynamic work in a 96-seat playhouse.
Lesser known but equally important is their work in running other activities at the center, which they took over during the 2008 financial crisis. It serves all ages, from toddlers to seniors. On any given weekday, professional actors cross paths with day-care kids or teenagers engaged in art activities.
Serving these "clients" and "consumers," in the lingo of social service agencies, is a bedrock mission for a place like Pillsbury House, which draws people from four economically and culturally mixed Minneapolis neighborhoods, including Central, where nearly half the residents speak a language other than English.
"The hardest thing is when funding gets cut for a program that's essential to someone's life," Price said.
Role models for the arts
Raymond and Price are doing the kind of work that many arts groups aspire to as they try to maintain their relevance at a time of demographic change.
Both the Guthrie Theater and Minneapolis Institute of Art, for example, have dedicated leadership positions to "engagement" — a buzz word for programs designed to bind their organizations more tightly to the communities they serve.
"What's so special about Faye and Noel is that they are fantastic artists who take that rigor, that questioning and approach, to everything else they do," said Vickie Benson, arts program director at the McKnight Foundation, which has funded Pillsbury House for decades. "They're role models not just for the arts, but for so effectively infusing artistic leadership and practices in a social service agency."
One of the state's oldest community centers, Pillsbury House Neighborhood Services grew out of the "settlement house" movement, an idea imported from England in the 1880s. The so-called Industrial Revolution brought an influx of immigrants and poor families to Britain's cities. Wealthy and middle-class benefactors set up centers to provide medical services, child care, language classes and other forms of help.
In Minneapolis, the Pillsbury family donated a portion of its flour-milling fortune for a center christened in 1906 in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, which even in those days was a magnet for immigrants. In 1980 it moved to its present location at 3501 Chicago Av. S., an open and welcoming space despite its concrete-bunker-like architecture.
Actor/director Ralph Remington established the theater in 1992, inspired in part by the success of Penumbra Theatre, housed in the Hallie Q. Brown/Martin Luther King Center in St. Paul's historically black Rondo neighborhood. Remington put Pillsbury House on the map with its second show, a nude, multiracial production of Athol Fugard's apartheid-themed "Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act."
A professional company, the theater has consistently hired top-flight talent and produced gripping work, such as Tarell Alvin McCraney's Brother/Sister trilogy. It also has earned national recognition including a Mellon playwriting award that resulted in a three-year residency by playwright Christina Ham.
Price, who has the title of co-artistic producing director, sits on a host of national panels and directed Park Square Theatre's 2016 premiere of Ham's "Nina Simone: Four Women," which has taken on a life of its own. Raymond, who is co-director of both the theater and community center, last year won an Ivey Award for directing "The Children," a human and puppet show that re-imagines "Antigone."
'Born for this'
The two leaders were, in Price's words, "born for this."
A Chicagoan who came to the Twin Cities to study psychology at Macalester College, Price grew up in a household that prized learning, the arts and health. Her mother was a social worker, which meant she had a library full of psychology books.
And as a girl, Price would dance and sing in front of the TV, aiming to do the moves she saw on the screen: "You know those Russian dancers who crouch down and kick their legs? I've tried to dance and kick like that but never could do it."
All this predisposed her to a life of service based in the arts. "It all makes sense now," Price said. "The 'entertaining' part is the base on which I stand. But it's about the people, about human relationships."
Raymond nodded and told her own story: Born in Greene, N.Y., a small town in the center of the state ("most people know it as a parking lot that you drive through"), she had a peripatetic childhood ("my parents were hippies").
But theater was a constant, and after finishing a conservatory training program at Ithaca College, she was accepted into the graduate acting program at the University of Minnesota. Before that, "Minnesota wasn't even on my radar," she said.
Theater founder Remington hired her in 1995. Price came aboard in 2000. Now the two leaders, both hardworking and self-effacing, constantly echo each other and even finish each other's sentences.
"My mother was always into psychology, and I was into theater, so putting these two halves together makes me feel really blessed," said Raymond.
Guides for artists
"Noël and Faye — they're my jam," said actor and teacher Jamila Anderson, who grew up near Pillsbury House and attended after-school programs there in the 1980s.
Raymond cast Anderson as the angel in a memorable production of "Angels in America" 18 years ago — the actor's first major gig. "I was with all these heavy-hitters, and I was sick and getting chemo, and they still cast me," she said. "I remember being so wowed by her trust."
Anderson has worked consistently with Pillsbury House since then, sometimes onstage but mostly as a teaching artist, passing along to younger people the empowering attention she once received. "As leaders, they trust you, which makes you rise to the level of their trust."
Actor Mikell Sapp, who won the Ivey Award for emerging artist 2½ years ago, doesn't know where he'd be without Price and Pillsbury House. She spotted the Alabama native's potential while judging a college theater competition and encouraged him to fly to Minneapolis for an audition. Price picked him up from the airport and he wound up making his professional debut in Pillsbury House's "Broke-ology" in 2011.
"Faye is everything to me," said Sapp, who has become a vital part of the Twin Cities acting community, appearing in shows at Children's Theatre, Penumbra, and others. "She recognized my talent, nurtured me and gave me a chance."
Sapp's enthusiasm, and gratitude, is representative of sentiments felt for Pillsbury House, whose impact is deep even though it flies under the radar.
"I had a woman tell me recently that seeing [Eisa Davis' Pulitzer finalist] 'Bulrusher' changed her life," Price said. "That's why we do what we do."