About eight years ago, Damon Runnals, a jack-of-all-theater-trades, had a fanciful idea that he hoped would be a game-changer for performing arts in the Twin Cities. Is it possible, he wondered, to have a metrowide program through which patrons buy memberships that entitle them to see shows at any venue as often as they wished? It would be like Netflix for the performing arts.
“The beauty of it would be that it would be affordable, it would allow young people to binge on theater, and it would help everybody,” said Runnals, 36. “I knew it would be impractical, of course, because all these theaters have evolved independently and would have to collaborate in ways that they may consider crazy.”
Now, Runnals’ pipe dream is becoming a reality in a sharply scaled-down form.
A week ago Saturday, Runnals and his 10-year-old company, Swandive Theatre, opened a production of Jane Anderson’s “Defying Gravity” at the Southern Theater, where he has been executive director and the sole employee after the venue had a near-death experience several years ago.
The buzzy opening doubled as the launch of the ARTshare program, under which patrons pay $18 a month for membership at the Southern — entitling them to see works by 15 companies that now call the storied West Bank venue home. (Two to four companies present shows each month.)
The program has 300 subscribers — ahead of projections but only a quarter of the ideal number, Runnals said.
It’s a win-win, said director Lisa Channer, whose company, Theatre Novi Most, is an ARTshare member and opened a new work this weekend.
“These companies — most of us are small — get to have a place to call home,” she said. “We can plan three years out, which is a luxury for a small theater company. The Southern gets dedicated programming. And audiences get to sample works from all these creative companies. It’s like a yearlong theater festival under one roof.”
The two shows that launch ARTshare point to the program’s direction and ambition. “Defying Gravity,” which orbits the 1986 Challenger explosion, is a beautiful work about a national tragedy. Directed by Runnals and Meg DiSciorio, it is performed with a light touch and quirky verisimilitude by a cast that includes Maggie Scanlan and David Coral as a fussy, loving retired couple who have come to see the space shuttle launch.
Novi Most opened “Rehearsing Failure” on Saturday. A company-devised work, it will (like others in the program) spread 10 performances over a few weeks.
The music-infused play, about Bertolt Brecht and some of his most important female collaborators, is set in Los Angeles in summer 1947, when Brecht was rehearsing his play “The Life of Galileo.”
Brecht worked with writer Elisabeth Hauptmann, who reportedly crafted most of “Threepenny Opera”; director Ruth Berlau, who helped craft “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” and his wife, Helene Weigel, who often threatened divorce.
Brecht had an eyebrow-raising arrangement with these women, said Channer, who also teaches at the University of Minnesota.
“These women were all his lovers and ex-lovers, and they were living in the same house,” she said of the complicated Brecht. “But more importantly, they were his creative partners and equals. … And yet, at the end of the day, he didn’t want to share credit with them or pay them.”
Channer has assembled a rock band led by Annie Enneking for the production. And the director has cast some theater heavyweights in the play, including Barbra Berlovitz, Sara Richardson and Pearce Bunting as Brecht.
Going ‘to the next level’
Channer said ARTshare “will help us get to the next level as a company.”
While Runnals came up with ARTshare, the idea is not unique to the Southern. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has a membership program ($5 a month) for any regular performance. Nationally, theater companies in Chicago and Los Angeles have similar programs.
What’s different about the Southern is the scale and scope. It involves 15 companies signed to three-year terms. The theater roster includes Four Humors, the playwrights-driven Workhaus Collective and Live Action Set. The dance companies include Carl Flink’s Black Label Movement, Mathew Janczewski’s Arena Dances and Sossy Mechanics, led by the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers-like duo of Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan.
“What’s exciting is that it supports artists,” said David Pisa, a co-founder of Walking Shadow Theatre (which is not an ARTshare member). Pisa has the distinction of being the first ARTshare member.
This program has the potential to bind companies and audiences to the theater, Runnals said. It may also be a way to lure back funders to the venue that alienated many of its supporters when it nearly went out of business because of financial trouble in 2009.
“We believe that the future is a bright one,” Runnals said.