Layoffs, steep cuts and a dark stage for Penumbra Theatre

In the midst of a financial crisis, the Penumbra Theater in St. Paul is suspending plays and laying off staff to survive.


Penumbra Theater's production of The Amen Corner

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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Artistic Director Lou Bellamy told MPR's Morning Edition that the decision to forgo any shows this fall was a painful one.

We found ourselves in a cash flow crunch in an income shortfall, toward the end of July. And when that stuff happens - first of all it's paralyzing, surprising, all that sort of thing - but you control the things that you have direct influence over - that's your first impulse. So right away we began to cut and try to save money - try to stop the bleeding if you will. And we took some really Draconian measures - very painful things, so we were able to cut 800,000 off this year's budget.

The theater company has laid off six staff members, including Associate Director Dominic Taylor who oversaw new play development. Bellamy says Penumbra is not alone in suffering financially, but its small size makes it vulnerable.

It was almost a perfect storm. You've got the economy struggling along; it's almost a death by a thousand cuts. A grant that would normally come in at $75,000 comes in at $50,000. An income goal of $50,000 comes in at $45,000 or $40,000 and it begins to mount up and build up, and we didn't have systems that alerted us soon enough to deal with that.

Bellamy says many people have reached out offering help when they heard the news.

When you look at Penumbra being the largest black theater in the country, it's important to not only the Twin Cities but to people all over the country - and people are calling with concern and offering help. It's not the way to find out how well you're loved, but we are finding it out, and that's good.

Bellamy says the theater won't have any shows for the fall, but could put on a musical early next year if the theater hits its new fundraising goals. Bellamy says the theater needs to raise $340,000 by the end of December. But cutting shows also has a financial downside.

You see, when you start saving money on production, that's also your product, and the way dollars come into the organization. So it compounds itself.

Bellamy said that the company's educational offerings will still be staged.