If officials at the Southern Theater are nervous as Saturday's life-or-death deadline approaches, they are not showing it.

The Southern recently declared it was in a financial crisis and said it needed to raise $400,000 in contributions by April 30 or face shutting its doors.

On Thursday, Gary Peterson, the theater's executive director, was upbeat.

"Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I gotta believe," he said.

The Southern has received more than 250 individual gifts in the past week, he said, although he declined to disclose the total amount of the gifts. He added that the theater is in talks with foundation and individual donors that, if successful, would exceed the goal for survival. A previously planned fundraiser is set for Saturday evening at the Minneapolis performing arts venue.

"We've got a ways to go, but we're still in the thick of it," Peterson said.

The Southern has a $1 million budget and eight full-time employees. As the highest paid employee, Peterson took a pay cut from $64,000 to $56,000 a year.

Longstanding deficit

The Southern has had a substantial deficit for at least three years, according to board members.

The current financial crisis arose when word got out that individual dancers and choreographers had not received money promised to them as McKnight fellowship winners. The money, instead, had gone toward ongoing operations at the Southern.

In a communique posted to the Southern's website, the board said that "no embezzlement of funds occurred." A board shakeup at the theater resulted in the ouster of the former chair and the departure of six other members.

The McKnight this week transferred the administration of its large dance-fellowship program from the Southern to St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts.

The Southern owes the foundation $300,000, but it says McKnight officials are willing to work out a long-term repayment plan.

This week the Southern canceled four of its next six shows and concerts.

If the Southern does not reach its goal, it probably will not close altogether. "Instead, we will be required to terminate staff, maintaining only one or two critical positions," according to the website. "We will try to present 3-4 performances curated by a contracted curator, complemented by the establishment of a commercial and nonprofit rental for the Theater."

Added Peterson on Thursday: "We may well come up short on our initiatives, but as of yesterday and today, we have every reason to still feel hopeful."

He likened the saga of the Southern to a soap opera. "Tune in tomorrow," he said. "I'm sure it'll be exciting."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390