It’s easy for Clayton Gardner to describe the difference between Artistry’s origins as a community theater and its more professional present.
Five decades ago, he won prominent roles on stage. Now, he jokes, “I’m not good enough.”
Gardner, 88, once acted in “Mr. Roberts” and “Guys and Dolls” at the organization that was founded as Bloomington Civic Theatre in 1955 and changed its name to Artistry in 2015. He is thrilled its artistry has grown so significantly that there’s no way he’d be cast today.
“It’s a wonderful dream come true,” he says. “The quality of the shows and the actors is so much better.”
Artistry is a reminder that while Minneapolis and St. Paul are home to most of the Twin Cities area’s major theaters, there are hidden gems elsewhere. And some are taking steps in the direction of big guns such as Park Square Theatre and the Jungle Theater.
Lyric Arts Company of Anoka seems to be following the growth template set by Artistry — it even uses many of the same artists. In Osseo, Yellow Tree Theatre attracts top actors and directors, while New Prague’s Daleko Arts and White Bear Lake’s Lakeshore Players are making noise.
That shift — from being a playhouse where your dentist might portray Dolly Levi — is challenging. But there are models for success, including St. Paul’s Park Square, which began in 1975 as a tiny community theater but has long since gone pro, with an annual budget of $3.4 million.
“In Chicago, which is a real grass-roots theater community, a place like Steppenwolf [a Tony Award-winning national leader] started in somebody’s basement. These people said, ‘We want to make theater’ and then it turned out that they’re Gary Sinise and John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf,” said Teresa Eyring, a former Guthrie and Children’s Theatre executive who now runs the Theatre Communications Group in New York.
“It’s a natural evolution for these small companies to want to become more fully professional.”
One challenge is figuring out what to call themselves. At Artistry, housed in the Bloomington Center for the Arts, artistic director Ben McGovern and executive director Andrea Specht struggle with the notion that not being a “community theater” could imply that they’re turning their backs on the community.
“It’s hard to say what we are instead of a community theater. It’s more what we are in addition,” said McGovern, whose production of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Follies” debuts April 14.
“When I’m pressed,” Specht said, “I will characterize us as a professional theater, knowing that [also] raises questions: ‘Oh, but you’re not paying artists more.’ ”
Wingert: ‘I need to be paid’
Artistry’s semipro roots go back many years. It has used professional actors at least as far back as 2003, when former “All in the Family” actress Sally Struthers starred in director John Command’s production of “Hello, Dolly!” Hiring former Chanhassen Dinner Theatres music director Anita Ruth in 2005 was another signpost.
With a roughly $2 million annual budget, Artistry performs on two stages, runs a gallery and creates educational and community programming. Artists are paid, but it ranges from a living wage to gas money.
“We are striving to provide gainful employment to our actors and to our designers,” said McGovern, who was hired in 2015, in part because of the credibility and connections he brought to the theater. The budget line that has increased most is for actors, who have included such well-known (and union-salaried) performers as Bradley Greenwald, Angela Timberman and Sally Wingert.
Wingert’s appearance in last year’s “Wit” was a turning point for Artistry, and not just because it was the biggest hit to appear on the smaller of its two stages. Wingert also spoke to donors at a fundraising breakfast last November that was expected to raise $20,000 but soared to more than triple that in only an hour.
Her message: If you want to work with the best artists, pay them what they’re worth.
“If we collectively believe that artists of the caliber of Sally, who has invested years in her training and her career, can create experiences for our audience that are transcendental, then we can only engage them if we pay them. That was very, very clear,” Specht said. “Sally said to our audience, ‘I love this project and I would love to do it, but I need to be paid.’ ”
The success of “Wit,” a drama that sold out within a week of opening, also demonstrated that Artistry’s audiences will stretch beyond the musicals that have been its mainstay. (The only nonmusical on its larger stage was last winter’s “Noises Off.”)
“The response, almost immediately, was: ‘This was difficult. This was powerful. And we would like some more,’ ” said McGovern. Next season Artistry will present its first regional premiere, Mat Smart’s baseball-themed play “Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Permission to be ‘interesting’
Something similar happened at Lyric Arts in January, when the Anoka theater challenged audiences with the area premiere of Tracy Letts’ comedy/drama “Superior Donuts.”
“When our audience trusts us enough to present ‘The Laramie Project’ [in 2013] or ‘Superior Donuts,’ where we heard just fantastic things, it’s almost as though they are continuing to give us permission to make interesting choices,” said artistic director Laura Tahja Johnson.
Lyric Arts’ budget has quadrupled to about $1 million since Johnson started in 2004. “It’s taken many years to slowly break out of the traditional community-theater fare,” she said.
Founded in 1995 by Lin Schmidt and Phil Bologna, Lyric Arts — which opened the musical “She Loves Me” this weekend — has lots in common with Artistry. Elena Giannetti directed at both venues this season. Timberman will do the same, staging “Steel Magnolias” in June at Lyric Arts, then the musical “Legally Blonde” in July at Artistry (which also will do “She Loves Me” next season while Lyric Arts is planning its own “Legally Blonde”).
But unlike Artistry, Lyric Arts does not get corporate or foundation funding, doesn’t attract production sponsors and can’t afford to pay actors living wages yet.
“When Artistry started paying all of its actors for the first time, that’s when our actors starting asking, ‘Hey, when are you going to start paying us?’ ” Johnson said.
The answer is still to come for Lyric Arts, which performs in a former movie theater in downtown Anoka and began its shift toward being a professional theater at a 2009 retreat. It’ll never be the Guthrie, which has an annual budget of $28 million, but there is room for growth.
“We called ourselves a ‘professionally oriented community theater’ for a while, and then we started paying some stipends to our actors last season,” Johnson said. “We became eligible as an Ivey Award-participating theater, and that was when we said, ‘We can start to call ourselves a professional theater.’ ”
Julia Schmidt, daughter of co-founder Lin Schmidt and a former Lyric Arts actor and current board member, said she wants to see the theater continue to serve the community on stage, in summer youth programs and in schools: “I really want to make sure my mom’s legacy continues.”
Their real competition: TV
Longtime Artistry supporter Gardner says one secret weapon of suburban theaters is their ease: plenty of free parking, comfortable chairs and “a beautiful theater that doesn’t have a bad seat in it.”
Lyric Arts and Artistry do not consider each other competitors because they’re on opposite ends of the metro and their administrators say good theater breeds more good theater. When asked who their competition is for theatergoers’ attention, McGovern and Johnson have the same answer: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime.
“What is going to bring people to the theater instead of staying home to binge-watch ‘The Crown’? Or going to a high school basketball game?” Johnson said.
Looking toward the future, the challenge for both theaters — all theaters, really — is to answer those questions while balancing earned income from ticket sales with contributions from grants and other funders.
Both theaters bank on ticket sales. At Artistry, tickets account for about two-thirds of income. An increase in Minnesota State Arts Board funding last year helped Lyric Arts, but Johnson says it’s still too reliant on ticket sales, which make up 65 percent of its budget.
New York-based Eyring works as an advocate for nonprofit stages around the country.
“What I’m hearing is that making the leap from small to midsize theater is increasingly difficult because it’s difficult to find the funding and the earned revenue to make that happen,” she said. “So it probably makes a lot of sense to do as these theaters are doing: have a plan and be gradual.”
One step toward growth for Artistry is hiring its first marketing director, at an advertised salary of $65,000 to $70,000.
Gardner — who’s such a big fan that he and his wife, Sally, may cut short their annual Arizona trip next year so they don’t miss shows — is literally invested in the theater’s future. He pledged an estate gift, and Artistry’s giving program is named the Gardner Society in his honor.
“I was not looking for that. It’s just that I love the theater and I’ve loved watching it grow from a small, neighborhood theater,” he said. “It’s almost like watching a child. You’re so proud that it’s doing so well, and you just want to see it keep growing.”
5 shows to check out
“Follies” at Artistry in Bloomington: Stephen Sondheim’s and James Goldman’s glorious musical about two middle-aged couples reconnecting, disastrously, at a reunion of Ziegfeld-like showgirls is rarely done — it’s enormous, tricky to cast and, while funny, not exactly a pick-me-up. But this company was the first to stage a Twin Cities production, in 2005. (April 14-May 6, $12-$41)
“Godspell” at Daleko Arts in New Prague: Do “Wicked” lovers know composer Stephen Schwartz’s first show, based on an even more popular book, the Gospel of Matthew? Schwartz’s poppy songcraft was evident from the start, with such indelible tunes as “Day by Day” and “All for the Best.” (Sept. 28-Oct. 14, $12-$25, 952-314-9077, dalekoarts.com)
“Into the Woods” at Lakeshore Players in White Bear Lake: Audiences have had plenty of chances to see the fairy-tale-inspired musical, including the recent Meryl Streep movie version. But this is also the first chance to see a Lakeshore show in the new Hanifl Performing Arts Center. (April 26-May 20, $19-$25, 651-429-5674, lakeshoreplayers.org)
“Steel Magnolias” at Lyric Arts in Anoka: Half the cast of six will be making their Lyric Arts debuts, under the guidance of Twin Cities actor/director Angela Timberman, who’s also working there for the first time, on a show that seems right in her wheelhouse: Set in a Louisiana hair salon, it’s a bawdy comedy/drama about friendship. (June 8-24, $26-$30)
“Victor/Victoria” at Artistry: In 1995, Twin Cities audiences got the first look at the movie-based musical when its world premiere, starring Julie Andrews, was staged at the Orpheum. It had a rough time on Broadway the next year (Andrews famously declined her Tony Award nomination, saying it was humiliating that the show received no other nods) and has not been performed much since. It’ll be fun to see how it has held up. (April 6-May 5, 2019)