Theatre B’s home is an 1880’s storefront on Main Avenue in Fargo
It’s hard enough for a start-up theater to take root and find a devoted audience in a bustling metropolis. So imagine trying to get a cutting-edge theater up and running in a mid-sized city in the middle of the Midwestern plains.
But that’s just what Theatre B has managed to do in Fargo-Moorhead.
Named “Theatre B” because of its mission to provide an alternative, or ‘flip side’ to mainstream theater, the company got its start in 2002 when four theatre professionals found themselves all living in the area, pursuing more ‘practical’ careers. As co-founder Carrie Wintersteen tells it, they realized they were aspiring artists in a city without a professional theater; if they wanted to pursue their craft, they were going to have to create their own opportunities.
Eight years later, what started with $500 in seed money has evolved into a professional theater with an annual budget of $94,000 and a four-show season that features such works as Fat Pig by Neil LaBute or The Seafarer by Conor McPherson (opening tonight).
We are attracted to stories that challenge people to think differently about the world around them, stories that invite the audience to walk in a character’s shoes for a while and reconsider their attitudes and assumptions about others. We also choose shows that can invigorate us as artists. Some scripts require virtuosity in acting, others present interesting design or technical challenges (particularly in our small space), while others address social issues that we want to discuss and work to resolve.
Co-founder Carrie Wintersteen sits in the intimate 75-seat home to Theatre B
When I met with Wintersteen she was proudly sporting a button that said “Tommy,” and was about to head off to cook for a potluck for kids performing in the high school musical, including her son. The fact that Theatre B is the only professional theater in town does not mean there’s no other theater to be had – quite the contrary.
There is a lot of theatre in Fargo Moorhead: children’s shows, multiple high schools, three college campuses, and a community theatre that doubles as a venue for other small groups. This is primarily a good thing – audiences are engaged on many levels. But it does mean that we not only compete for audience time and money, corporate support and media attention, we also compete for artists.
Wintersteen says with community and school theater programs already producing standards and classics, Theatre B sees its mission to present prize-winning new works that “rearrange the furniture of the mind.”
In addition, Theatre B works with the local performing arts school to produce what is called Second Stage, an opportunity for budding young talent to get some professional stage experience. As the only professional theater in town, Theatre B has to take an active role in recruiting and training talent.
Theatre B is not yet big enough to support artist salaries, but Wintersteen says the company has steadily grown over its eight-year history; that in itself is a huge success.
I am still awestruck to think that my desire to do meaningful work in my chosen field has translated into something others respond to and validate on a daily basis. We have created a new intimate venue in the Fargo-Moorhead area. We have helped stem the out-migration of young creative artists. We have collaborated with a wide range of organizations on meaningful projects addressing issues of social justice and community values. And we have generated tens of thousands of dollars in economic activity over the years.
Wintersteen says Theatre B may very well outgrow its space on Main Avenue sooner than anticipated; with audiences consistently over 70% capacity last season, the theater will soon have more sold-out shows than audiences will bear.
That’s a success story many big-city theaters can only dream of.
Theatre B presents Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer through December 25.