The smell of fresh paint still lingers on the brightly colored walls of SteppingStone Theatre's new home.
From the outside the building resembles a county courthouse, with Greek columns and tall front steps. It was actually built in 1908 as a Methodist church. It sits just a couple blocks off St. Paul's historic Summit Ave., next to the William Mitchell College of Law.
After several months of renovation, the stately building contains a 430-seat theater. It's more than twice the size of SteppingStone's former home. Artistic Director Richard Hitchler says he's thrilled.
"We have an opportunity now to have young people work behind the scenes, to help build scenery, to help work on lighting, to help do sets, to help do costuming," says Hitchler. "This is now our equipment, and we can let them use it and we can help guide them and mentor them on how to use this."
At the start of a weeknight rehearsal, the young actors are bubbling over with enthusiasm. Brianna Peterson, 13, is working as an assistant stage manager, and loves it.
"I went to the last show at the other theater and I just felt claustrophobic in there because it's so small," says Peterson. "Here it's big and we can do a lot more stuff, and its way more professional and I think it looks way cooler."
SteppingStone has been looking for a new home for some time. Artistic Director Richard Hitchler says the company has been growing at an annual rate of 10 to 14 percent for years.
It considered taking over the Highland movie theater, until the neighbors protested. But when the company expressed interest in the old Methodist church, which had been standing empty for several years, Hitchler says leaders in the Summit-University neighborhood leapt to greet them.
"They went out and over a weekend got 225 signatures saying we want SteppingStone Theatre to move into this space," he says.
One of those community leaders is Mary Peterson, Brianna's mother. She and others had previously put a stop to a proposed demolition of the empty building that would have made way to a set of condos. She says the neighborhood is filled with families with young boys and girls who love the idea of a children's theater just a few blocks away.
"The community response has been fabulous," says Peterson. "People are excited. There are a few people who aren't excited, and they're very concerned about the parking issue because parking is a premium in the neighborhood. But the majority of people are highly supportive of them coming into the neighborhood."
Peterson says she hopes the theater will provide a safe space for kids, where they can develop both greater self-confidence and a stronger sense of community. And as a parent, she's thankful she no longer has to fight rush-hour traffic to get her child downtown for rehearsals.
In addition to the theater, the building features several classrooms, rehearsal space, dressing rooms and offices.
Artistic Director Richard Hitchler says he plans to rent out space for neighborhood groups as needed. SteppingStone Theatre's capital campaign goal to pay for its new home is $5.3 million. It still has just over $1 million to raise.
Hitchler hopes that with the new space will come new audience members. Hitchler says in the past, no matter how good the performances were, the fact that they performed in a basement lecture hall was an obstacle. He says the new space gives the theater a new sense of legitimacy.
"We've really been doing this for these young people, and what a gift to be able to give them," says Hitchler. "I sure wish I had something like this when I was growing up, because it would have made a big difference in my life. I know it's made a big difference with everyone who's participated with us in their lives."
SteppingStone alums include the movie star Josh Hartnett, and the Summit-University neighborhoods next city councilmember, Melvin Carter III.
SteppingStone Theatre will hold a community open house on Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. It's first show in its new home, "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," opens that night.