on the other hand brad allen
An oft-repeated bit of conventional wisdom proclaims the Twin Cities home to more live theater seats per capita than any U.S. metropolitan area outside of New York City. Long used as a selling point by corporate recruiters here, that comforting bromide has felt threatened in recent years.
Nationwide, charitable contributions to the arts fell precipitously during the Great Recession and have not quite returned to pre-recession levels, according to the Giving USA Foundation's Annual report for 2013. In addition, corporate and foundation support is focused less on the arts, putting greater emphasis on individual giving.
While some smaller and midsize theaters locally were forced to close, cut back programming and lay off staff over the past few years, the nearly 90 independent theater organizations who still call the metro area home compete for a finite audience and limited dollars. The approach each takes to open wallets and calendars of theater patrons is fine-tuned to their particular place in the Twin Cities theater ecosystem.
Damon Runnals was the sole employee to survive a funding crisis that forced the Southern Theater to halt all production in 2011. As executive director, Runnals focused on developing a new business model for the Southern while the theater retreated to the role of landlord, renting out its cavernous 100-year-old building in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood for events.
Instead of joining what he viewed as a saturated market of live music, theater and dance events, seeking audiences for a particular production, in January he launched what he describes as a "Netflix model." For $18 a month, subscribers can attend as many performances as often as they like, put on by 15 small theater companies while the theater provides a stage and production support.
Runnals equates the Southern's nurturing emerging artists to the "buy local" appeal of community-supported agriculture.
When Park Square Theatre in St. Paul appealed to longtime supporter and former board chairwoman Robyn Hansen for a donation backing the regional premiere of a new Sherlock Holmes play in 2013, she and her husband, John Clarey, accepted the challenge but added a twist. They created the Mystery Writers Producers Club, inviting friends and friends-of-friends to gather socially throughout the year and observe how the production took shape. At the kickoff, prospective members met the playwright and director who discussed the process of bringing a new work to the stage. Twenty couples joined, committing $1,000 with the promise to get together several times throughout the year. "It's more fun for us to do things with friends than just write a big check," Hansen explained.
Now in their third season, members recently gathered at the University of Minnesota to view its collection of Sherlock Holmes material, in anticipation of the upcoming production of "Sherlock Holmes & the Ice Palace Murders."
The club provides "a really deep dive into how a brand new work makes it to the stage," explained Michael-jon Pease, executive director of Park Square. The Producers Club has been so successful that Park Square is exploring three similar clubs with diverse missions: bringing new works to the Twin Cities; supporting music-focused productions; and expanding the theater's educational programs for middle and high school students.
The Guthrie Theater dominates the regional theater scene the same way its five-level three-stage black behemoth and cantilevered Endless Bridge observation deck dominate Minneapolis' Mississippi riverfront.
The Guthrie moved into its new $125 million home in 2006, just ahead of the recession. Backed by a "ridiculously generous" board, the theater emerged financially healthy, and today sits on a $54 million endowment with only $16 million in debt, according to Danielle St. Germain-Gordon, the theater's director of development.
Even with its fundraising prowess and nearly 2,000 theater seats, the Guthrie is "taking the long view" she said, focusing on the next generation of theater patrons. Last year, at the urging of one board member, she relaunched a semi-dormant Open Call Club that targets millennials. The $125 individual or $200 per couple club "dues" buys tickets to four shows programmed especially to appeal to those in their 20s and 30s. Club members meet with the cast and peers, post-performance, over wine and beer.
Down the road, St. Germain-Gordon is discussing collaboration with other major arts institutions — the Walker and Minneapolis Institute of Art — to create "one professional network" of younger arts patrons in the Twin Cities by hosting a progressive party that would move from cocktails to dinner and then a play.