If the beginning was hairy, the end will certainly be orderly.
After 43 years of working for Park Square Theatre, including the past 38 as its “accidental artistic director,” Richard Cook is stepping down.
He is scheduled to leave on the day he turns 70: Sept. 1.
“I’m very excited to be going public with this so that we can start to see who in town and around the country may be interested in the job,” Cook said. “My career has spanned the lifetime of Park Square. It’s time to pass the torch.”
Cook, who was trained as a director and designer, never planned on running the theater founded in 1975 by Paul Mathey, a military veteran who had a degenerative eye disease. As his eyesight got worse, he asked Cook whether he was interested in running the small, scrappy company that did classics and new work.
“He was going to close the theater for financial and personal health reasons,” said Cook. “He asked me to shadow him, and I thought I had a year to do it, but within a couple of months he was, like, ‘Here are the shoe boxes. It’s yours!’ ”
Those shoe boxes contained the theater’s records and history. In its first year, the company produced six shows on a budget of $6,723. Those productions, starting with the Moliere farce “The Doctor in Spite of Himself,” played to a total of 2,235 patrons.
“We had 74 performances of those six shows and our average price for seat filled was $1.50,” said Cook, laughing. “We even had a world premiere that first year, ‘The Life of Lady Godiva,’ and legend has it that somebody got naked.”
Cook himself was able to do theater because he had been working at Sawhill, a pipe factory in Minneapolis across the river from St. Paul. One of his co-workers was Steven Lockwood, his future husband and also a future executive director of Park Square.
“We thought it was a holdover gig, something we did part time to support theater, but we were gaining seniority and the pay was union, which was really good,” Cook said. “I realized that I was getting comfortable, and if I didn’t make the change, my life would’ve gone in a different direction than I’d envisioned.”
After taking the reins at the company in 1980, Cook oversaw all of its growth. He noted four stages in Park Square’s evolution.
“We began like a lot of small companies in town that attract emerging, pre-professional talent,” he said. “The first theater seated 80-something people and was basically an expanded living room environment.”
That was followed by a period he described as “community theater, in terms of actors,” he said. “They were all [unpaid] volunteers.”
The third phase, which lasted for about a decade until the late 1990s, was a loose repertory company. “Actors would audition for a group of seven or eight directors and everyone was at least stipended,” he said.
Then he “let the company dissolve and reopened the doors to all talent.”
The company he has built has two playing spaces — a 350-seat proscenium auditorium and the 200-seat Andy Boss Thrust Stage — and an annual budget of around $3.4 million. It draws 80,000 to 85,000 patrons a year, according to Cook, including about 30,000 students who come to its educational programs.
“We went from a struggling pre-professional stage to a full Equity [union scale] house seeking professional rights and competing as a regional theater,” he said. “In the last 15 years, there’s not only been an emphasis on new work, but a real consciousness to expand the storytelling and be truly diverse in terms of laying the groundwork for the future.”
That future includes the theater retaining its base while continuing to broaden its embrace to include the diverse populations that call the Twin Cities home.
Last fall, he said that Park Square, which has taken increased steps in the direction of equity and diversity, would look to people of color and women as it prepares a list of finalists to replace him.
The theater hopes to name a new artistic director by the summer. Robin Gillette, a Twin Cities-based arts manager and consultant who formerly headed the Minnesota Fringe Festival, is leading the search for a replacement through her company, Arts Progress, which helped both the Playwrights’ Center and Frank Theatre land managing directors.