Calyssa Hall is counting down the days until her theater group closes on the purchase of the old Minnesota Zephyr train depot in downtown Stillwater, bringing plans for an ambitious $6.5 million theater project one step closer to reality.
Hall said this week that her group, planning a 324-seat performing arts theater in the renovated and expanded former train station, expects to close on the building purchase July 1. The Zephyr Theatre capital campaign is raising money to buy the depot, renovate and expand it, and fund an endowment to help cover operating expenses.
“We’re working toward $1 million in pledges that will allow us to own the building,” Hall said. “And I am confident that the funding we need to complete the rest of the project will start falling into place. We’re getting pretty close.”
Count Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski as one of many area residents thrilled by the prospect of professional theater coming to the north end of Main Street. Last year, the Stillwater City Council voted to allow a height variance for construction of the theater.
“I’m not sure where they are at with their fundraising goal,” he said last week. “But I think everybody in town is excited with the prospect of it, the idea of it.”
Kozlowski’s daughters, ages 7 and 8, are taking after-school acting classes with the theater group in another building and were in a performance last week. Not only will the theater mean a new nightlife option for Stillwater, he said, but its work with students fills a void.
“Our schools don’t have funding for that kind of stuff anymore,” said the mayor, whose wife is an actor. “It’s so good for the kids, being on stage and being able to speak to an audience. It’s an important skill to have.”
The Zephyr Studio in Stillwater’s Brick Alley Building offers acting classes to students ages 4 to adult and worked with 54 acting students this past spring, Hall said. A production of “The Lion King Jr.,” to be staged at the high school in June, has 80 kids involved.
Hall said her company, Only a Dim Image Productions, started four years ago, rehearsing in Woodbury and performing in Minneapolis.
“But I grew up in Afton and when we started looking for our own space, it became clear we wanted to do professional theater on the east side of the metro area,” she said, pointing to the presence of the Old Log Theater in Excelsior and the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in the west.
Hall’s group became a nonprofit organization in April 2016, something that is common among larger theater companies that often rely on annual giving campaigns to adequately pay their artists and staff, she said. The theater has a 13-member board of directors and a 13-member advisory board.
Hitting a July 1 milestone for the depot purchase will help with additional fundraising, she said, as the theater becomes more tangible.
“I am thrilled by the amount of support we are getting in Stillwater and throughout the valley,” she said.
Running a busy theater school while also pouring energy into fundraising has made for hectic days and evenings, Hall said success is in sight.
“We are working all the time on this,” she said.