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Shakeup at the Southern Theater

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Southern Theater
Southern Theater in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Back in 2006 the board of the Southern Theater hired consultant Steve Barberio to help them address a budget deficit. They had just refurbished the West Bank theater and owed more than $400,000. 

Two years later the theater has a completely new board, created the new position of CEO and has let go of its long time artistic director Jeff Bartlett. 

Jeff Bartlett
Jeff Bartlett.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

The only manager still at the Southern is Steve Barberio, the man hired to save the theater. He's currently serving as interim Executive Director. 

Barberio did not return calls requesting an interview, but Board Vice Chair Bryan Fleming did. When asked if Jeff Bartlett's departure is the final step in an organizational takeover, Fleming responds emphatically in the negative. 

"Yeah, I would completely refute that, actually," said Fleming. "We understand that that erroneous perception may be lingering out there." 

Fleming said changes to the board in the past two years were made by a committee that included Jeff Bartlett. It was not one person's secret bid for power. 

The Southern Theater is one of the premiere locations in the Twin Cities for seeing performances of both dance and new music. For many years it was the home of the Walker Art Center's annual Out There series. 

Jeff Bartlett started working at the theater as a stage hand back in the 1970s when the space was known as Guthrie II. He is a lighting designer by trade, and he often lit the shows. Over the course of three decades, Bartlett has earned the respect and admiration of many performers.   

Board Vice Chair Bryan Fleming, citing legal concerns, will not answer questions specific to Bartlett's departure, and Bartlett is also keeping quiet on advice from his lawyer. 

But Bartlett's departure has generated an outcry throughout the Twin Cities art scene, particularly its dance community. 

Rani Ramaswamy, founder of Ragamala Dance and Music Theater in Minneapolis, was shocked by the news. Ramaswamy said there is no Southern without Jeff Bartlett, and the decision to get rid of him will harm its relationship with artists.

"I think they did an amazing amount of damage. You know I really have no interest in performing at the Southern if Jeff is not there," said Ramaswamy. "That's how Ragamala feels."

Ramaswamy said she knows other performers feel the same way. Ben Krywosz, Artistic Director of Nautilus Music-Theater, has known and worked with Jeff Bartlett for the past thirty years. He said it would be one thing if Bartlett had a bad reputation.

"But when you're dealing with a situation where the guy is so widely respected as an artist, and beloved as a human being," said Krywosz, "and the board does something like this and then doesn't explain why... then all sorts of red flags go up."

Krywosz said the board should explain its reasoning, so that artists and the general public can make an informed decision as to whether or not this was a good idea. Krywosz is planning on attending a community forum tonight with other artists to commiserate and brainstorm ways to support Bartlett. 

The Southern Theater's Bryan Fleming said he understands some artists may decide not to work with the Southern because of the change in leadership. 

"I think that at the end of the day, the artists will have to make that decision," said Fleming.  "We will do what we can, and I would just emphasize here that we are committed to providing, just as we always have been providing, great service to performing artists in our community." 

Fleming said the leadership of the Southern Theater is talking with all of those artists right now and telling them just that.