New theater collaboration organized around new Park Square space

Four Twin Cities theater companies announced a new production collaboration today, the like which may never have been seen before.

“I know it’s not duplicated in the Twin Cities. I don’t know of this happening quite this way in any community,” said Richard Cook, artistic director of St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre.

The idea is three itinerant companies, Theatre Pro Rata, Girl Friday Productions, and Sandbox Theatre, will all produce work on Park Square’s much anticipated Andy Boss Thrust Stage for the next three years.

Richard Cook, artistic director of Park Square Theatre. (Image courtesy Park Square)

Cook says the announcement is the result of an effort which began five or six years ago when Park Square began looking at installing a new stage in the basement of the Hamm Building under its current mainstage. He held meetings with many local theater companies without their own homes, and then put out questionnaires to 30 or so companies, in an effort to include every local theater that didn’t have a home. Cook said Pro Rata, Girl Friday, and Sandbox came through the process and said they were interested. The capital campaign to build the stage was somewhat waylaid by the economic crisis, and has taken a few years longer than expected. However, Cook says he hopes the new stage will open by September, and certainly by January when the production collaboration gets underway. He hopes to announce an opening date in coming weeks.

“The initial group of three are still here, even after all of these years where Park Square has been close to opening the thrust stage, but not opening the thrust stage. They have stayed on board with us,” he said.

Cook sees the arrangement as advantageous to all. For Park Square, already one of the most prolific companies in town, he sees an injection of artistic energy as the other companies take up residence.

“I just know it’s going to add confusion and energy,” he laughed, ” And kind of raise the bar for paying attention both for us and our audiences.”

“Park Square is basically doubling its programming,” he said with the addition of the stage. “We are already crazily ambitious. We are producing nine to 10 shows a year now. In the first 12 months of two theaters, we are going to be producing or presenting or hosting 19 or 20 projects. That’s a ton of work, and just on a practical basis we can’t do all of it with our core staff. And so we want our partners to flesh out the programming.”

While this is a three year project, Cook has his eye on the longer term. He wants the new larger Park Square to be a destination for young audiences. He recalls how in its early days Park Square was part of a younger scene in St. Paul, and he sees a need to recreate that era.

“I see the project as a kind of continuation of the whole idea of turning the theater over to the next generation both in leadership and artistry,” he said.

“I hope we will learn from each other,” he adds. ” They tend to have a younger audience than we do today, one that we covet. So we are very excited to host them. They also do very smart work though, each of these three companies in different ways and I think that my audience, which is core-boomers or near-boomers haven’t discovered these companies, I think they will enjoy discovering them.”

While Theater Pro Rata has a history of shows in St. Paul, Cook says the other two have been more Minneapolis-based. He believes the new stage, which will seat close to 200 people, will offer a lot to the three smaller companies.

“It’s going to be so professionally fresh and new and well-equipped,” Cook said. “It will also be the kind of venue that these companies deserve, but generally don’t have access to.”

Cook also sees the new arrangement as offering ever more options to the entertainment scene growing in downtown St. Paul.

Cook stresses this is a collaboration, and not an amalgamation. “It’s really important that the organizations retain their sense of self,” he said. “It’s really important that we don’t impose one group’s motives, style, process, policies on each other. Having said that, as we are working shoulder to shoulder, I think it’s inevitable that we will learn from each other.”