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Bedlam Theatre to open space in St. Paul

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John Bueche, Lucas Koski
John Bueche, left, executive artistic director for Bedlam Theatre and Lucas Koski, Bedlam Lowertown general manager. The theater company is planning to open a "theater nightclub" in the Lowertown area of St. Paul.
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

A renegade theater company that grew into a multi-cultural destination in Minneapolis is coming to St. Paul. Bedlam Theatre will soon open what it calls a "theater nightclub" in the Lowertown neighborhood. 

Bedlam Theatre had to leave its much loved location in the Cedar Riverside area of Minneapolis nearly two years ago, when its landlord asked it to make way for a new mosque. 

After being courted by both Minneapolis and St. Paul, and heavily consulted by St. Paul officials, Bedlam decided it could and should be in both cities. 

The search for a permanent Minneapolis space continues, but Bedlam Executive Artistic Director John Bueche is thrilled to be moving into St. Paul's Lowertown.

"If you're looking for a flagship neighborhood to really anchor the Twin Cities identity of arts and culture and creativity, Lowertown is just begging to be that neighborhood," he said.

    Bedlam will be taking over the old Rumours & Innuendo nightclub, which has been vacant for nearly two years. It contains nearly 6,000  square feet of space. 

Bedlam Theatre
Bedlam Theatre is moving into a new space in the Lowertown area of St. Paul. The theater company has decided to have a home in both St. Paul and Minneapolis, but it's still looking for a permanent location in Minneapolis.
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

The location on 4th Street meets all of the theater's requirements, according to Bueche. It's at the very end of the Central Corridor light rail line, across the street from the Union Depot, a couple blocks away from the Farmer's Market, and connected by alleyway to Mears Park, which in recent years has become a downtown hotspot. 

It's also in the heart of a neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of working, resident artists in the country. 

Bueche envisions a destination which will serve Lowertown on a number of levels.  

"You can think of it as a nightclub theater or you can think of it as a social art space," he said. "Basically it's going to be a bar and a restaurant where art presentation and art creation happens." 

In fact, it will happen non-stop, according to Bueche. Bedlam Lowertown, its working name, will pick up where its old West Bank location left off. 

Bedlam is known in the non-profit theater world for creating new ways for theater companies to interact and intersect with audiences. And Bueche says the new space will continue that philosophy. 

It'll be an experimental, community-based theater guided by the principle of art needing to meet the audience where the audience is, and on the audience's terms, he says. 

Bueche sees it as a neighborhood gathering place during the day and a slightly more conventional theater in the early evening.  In the later hours, it will move in any number of even edgier directions -- whether it be dancing, music or more theater. 

Lucas Koski, the general manager of Bedlam Lowertown, says the proceeds from the bar and restaurant will pay the overhead, and tickets and other show-producing revenues will pay the artists, which means it won't have to depend so heavily on grants. 

"That is something that we were trying to do in Cedar Riverside, and we were getting there," said Koski. "I think with a reboot and a restructuring and a reorganization, that we will have a much better chance here in Lowertown, St. Paul."  

Joe Spencer, the director of arts and culture for the city of St. Paul, played a big role in recruiting Bedlam. Spencer says the company adds a more avante garde, emerging-artist dimension to St. Paul's theater scene, and gives Lowertown another unique nightlife option, which it needs. 

"Bedlam makes a really, really great addition into Lowertown, and really kind of solidifies and anchors this existing identity as an artist district well into the future, and really strengthens it and plays off of that," he said.  

Bedlam will rely on a $150,000 Cultural Star Grant from the city of St. Paul to get started, divided in half over two years. Grants from the McKnight, St. Paul, Bigelow and Mardag foundations are pending.

John Bueche admits that years ago, the notion of an experimental theater company opening a bar and restaurant in downtown St. Paul would have been suicidal. 

"I can remember back in the late '80s, coming to [Macalester College] in St. Paul and my first visit to downtown after hours," he recalled.  "There was a cardboard box blowing down the street, you know, kind of like the classic tumbleweed, St. Paul style." 

With Bedlam's help, St. Paul will continue to shed its sleepy, "everything closes at 5 p.m." image. 

Bedlam Lowertown will officially open when it gets its liquor licenses, which is expected by early October. Then the company will begin to roll out its vision for what it will become; but that vision will shaped by what the community wants it to be.