Rehearsal and performance space a challenge for small theater companies

Do the Twin Cities need more small theater spaces?

This was the question I was left with after a recent discussion on the closing of the Loring Theater.

The question drew strong responses, from artists who have obviously been dealing with this situation for a long time.

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The Playwrights’ Center is one of the venues Twin Cities artists say is getting it right when it comes to providing rehearsal and performance space to local theater companies.

Frank Theater’s Wendy Knox offered a blunt, “No, there are not” (FYI, Frank Theater is known for performing in less traditional locations, occasionally including abandoned buildings).

Screenwriter Marvin Joel Rubin said it’s not just an issue of performance space, but rehearsal space as well. To which dancer Kenna Cottman added there’s also a need for spaces that can serve dance companies.

Robin Gillette runs the Minnesota Fringe Festival, and is very familiar with performance spaces all over Minneapolis. She immediately had this to offer:

Seems like you can’t just talk about numbers of venues – you have to factor in whether they’re affordable, well-equipped and maintained, and conveniently located.

She went on to say:

There are not enough 100-200 seat venues that are affordable, well-equipped and conveniently located. HOWEVER… I don’t think the answer is to run around creating new venues, necessarily. If there was a way to either improve existing venues or clear them off the deck so there’s demand/funding/staff/equipment for new ones, that’d be great. I don’t know that the *total* number of venues needs to improve, but some shifting in the pool might be useful.

With that in mind, I asked which venues out there are models for how best to serve performance artists.

Jennifer Ilse, one of the creative partners behind “Off-Leash Area,” a company that performs out of its, and other people’s, garages, had this to offer:

I’d vote for the Playwrights’ Center - really reasonably priced, maintained and equipped and efficient and straightforward to work with. Red Eye Theater is also great in providing inexpensive space and providing enormous room for artists to do what they want to create their vision. Rehearsal space – Patrick’s Cabaret is tough to beat. Great, efficient staff, very well priced, especially helpful having cheaper prices for off-peak hours, and the space is really well kept and getting better all the time.

But running a performance space for other companies to rent is not that easy. Actor/director Paul Reyburn shared this:

This has been a discussion for several years. I tried to open a space about ten yrs ago but couldn’t finance it. It’s an ongoing need, to be sure, but finding the money seems to be the biggest issue. I’d love to see a couple more in St. Paul.

Ben Heywood, director of The Soap Factory, a gallery which also hosts performances, added:

In terms of City code not to mention equipping costs theater spaces a very expensive to set up. With limited seating it’s then very hard to make them financially viable for anything other than stand up. Hence the popularity of the Fringe.

Liz Neerland, along with her husband Josh Cragun, runs Nimbus Theater. They recently moved into their own space in the Nordeast neighborhood, and rent it out to other companies. She echoed Heywood’s thoughts and elaborated on them.

Speaking as someone who just did it, it’s incredibly difficult to create new performance space. The city zoning/permitting/licensing process is a maze and there is no one to help figure it out. Funding is always an issue, and the amount of equipment needed to make a space desirable is a huge expense. Trying to balance – between needing to have a space that people want to work in, that is inviting to artists and audiences alike, and needing to pay the rent every month and keep the lights and heat on – it is a huge challenge. We may need more spaces, but we also need enough people to capably manage them.

And finally, actor and Minnesota Playlist staffer Levi Weinhagen had this to add:

In my humble opinion the real question is whether or not the Twin Cities can support more 100-200 seat performance spaces.

Artists of any stripe, whether writer, painter, actor, or wig-maker, do not have inherent value. Everyone should have the right and probably encouragement to make cool things and do their art but that doesn’t mean they’re entitled to an audience interested in consuming their art. By that same token, if theater spaces aren’t being created and thriving perhaps at times it’s an indication of management issues but most of the time the indication is that audiences aren’t spending their money to see shows in those spaces. If a venue can’t support itself with audiences & revenue, or find a behemoth corporate sponsor than what makes the space worth keeping open?

So what’s to be done? Does city management need to provide a process for helping small venues get up and running? Do current spaces need an injection of business training? Or is this simply the nature of market forces at work?

Share your thoughts in the comments section.

  • jpg

    “Finding the money seems to be the biggest issue.” No kidding!

    The problem is not one of poor management or lack of business training.

    It’s a no-brainer, really. All spaces have real costs. Somehow, those costs have to be paid. Is the art that an artist is creating worth it to enough people who will pay a high enough admission to cover those costs? If not, is there a contributed source that will make up the difference?

    Get 100 new spaces up and running if you want to, but they still must be maintained and operated over time. Why is that so difficult to understand?