Two St. Paul playhouses that faced challenges before the pandemic are joining forces in what could be a lifesaving arrangement.
SteppingStone Theatre for Youth and Park Square Theatre are becoming partners, with SteppingStone moving into Park Square’s downtown home in the historic Hamm Building on Oct. 1.
Both organizations will be under a single leader, at least temporarily. Mark Ferraro-Hauck, SteppingStone’s artistic and executive director for the past four years, will also become Park Square’s interim executive director on Sept. 1, replacing C. Michael-jon Pease, who is joining the Saint Paul Parks Conservancy as its executive director.
“I’ve been having conversations with foundations about ways in which bringing arts organizations together will strengthen the overall community,” Ferraro-Hauck said Tuesday. “As the saying goes, never waste a good crisis.”
Tuesday’s announcement comes as Twin Cities theaters and other arts organizations fight to survive amid the twin crucibles of coronavirus and the movement for racial justice following the death of George Floyd. Last week Penumbra Theatre announced that it was rebranding itself as the Penumbra Center for Racial Healing with a broadened mission to include racial equity.
Both Park Square and SteppingStone have faced hardships. Facing a budget crunch last fall, Park Square canceled two shows, then in January abruptly terminated artistic director Flordelino Lagundino, hired just 17 months before. The company, which added a second stage in the Hamm basement in 2014, revealed it was running multiyear deficits on its then-$3 million budget.
SteppingStone also has been working on eliminating its debt. It planned to sell its longtime home in a renovated church at 55 Victoria St., but the deal fell through as the pandemic hit.
Park Square, founded in 1972, and SteppingStone, founded in 1987, have been in talks for 20 months. Their partnership is a natural fit, according to their leaders.
“What excites me by joining forces is how together we truly become St. Paul’s theater for life for artists and audiences,” Pease said in a statement, noting he got his own start in youth theater. Together, the two organizations say they will serve an audience of 125,000, including more than 70,000 young people.
On a practical level, “theater spaces are very expensive and inefficient to operate in that their use tends to be for a limited amount of time,” Ferraro-Hauck said. “Since our programming is almost exclusively matinees, we could live side-by-side with an organization that produces in the evening. It’s a good way to use these spaces more efficiently.”
In Ferraro-Hauck, 56, Park Square gets a nimble leader with a varied background. He worked as a designer for companies such as Theater Latté Da and Eye of the Storm before joining his husband, Tim Ferraro-Hauck, in their residential and commercial remodeling firm, Bluestem Construction.
SteppingStone was in a period of crisis when he was hired four years ago. “The theater had nearly $750,000 in debts that was due immediately and $18,000 in the bank,” he said. “On top of that, the first week I was on the job, the verdict came down in the Philando Castile case. People were being tear-gassed outside the building where our kids were having summer camp.”
Ferraro-Hauck also is a co-founder of the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona. That community, he noted, feels a deep ownership of the event. “We want to build that here, so that people really know that this type of arts organization belongs to the community,” he said.
The two organizations will have a team of artistic associates — producer Kim Vasquez, Theater Mu co-founder Rick Shiomi and director Ellen Fenster — to broaden their leadership and be more responsive to community. Vasquez will also serve as producing director for Park Square’s main stage. A fourth associate is expected to be named soon.
For now, the organizations will maintain separate boards of directors, but they may merge in the future, Ferraro-Hauck said.
“That is the likely destination, but we really wanted to take our time and make sure that we get all the pieces worked out. … We have a memorandum of understanding that by next July, we’ll make some decision about that.”