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Penumbra Theatre set to reopen after donors step up

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Pearl and Susannah
A scene from Penumbra's production of "Black Pearl Sings" in 2010. The company announced Monday, Jan. 7, 2013 that it will resume productions in the spring after a temporary halt due to budget problems.
Image courtesy Penumbra Theatre (Photo: Anne Marsden)

The Penumbra Theatre Company says it's ready to raise the curtain once again.

Last August, the St. Paul theater company, facing a financial crisis, cut staff and suspended all programming indefinitely. Critics began writing its obituary.

On Monday, thanks to a massive outpouring of public support, Penumbra announced it will resume production in the spring. But the company still has some work to do to ensure its long-term future.

Penumbra is known as "one of the foremost, if not the foremost, African-American theater companies in the country," said Dominic Papatola, theater writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

He said there's little debate about Penumbra's artistic strength. What's often questioned, though, is the company's financial expertise.

"They've been on this roller coaster for a really long time," said Papatola.

Lou Bellamy
Lou Bellamy is founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.
MPR File Photo/Euan Kerr

The up-and-down nature of Penumbra's budget eventually collided with the downward spiral of the national economy and a steep drop in corporate donations. The result was one of the most severe cash crunches in the theater's 36-year history.

"We really had a financial comeuppance," said Lou Bellamy, Penumbra's founder and artistic director. "Most of the time we've been fortunate in that we were able to sort of change the flat tire as the car rolled down the road. This time we had to sort of stop."

The only option, said managing director Chris Widdess, was to completely halt production and direct all energy towards fundraising. The goal was $340,000.

"We would find out whether what everyone had said all these years about their passion for Penumbra and their commitment to who we are and what we do could really be translated into dollars," said Widdess.

Turns out, it could. More than 1,400 individuals, corporations and foundations donated $359,000 by Dec. 30, 2012.

Chris Widdess
Chris Widdess is managing director of Penumbra Theater in St. Paul.
MPR File Photo/Euan Kerr

"It was very invigorating. It was inspiring. Very humbling," said Widdess.

What it should also be, argues Papatola, is a wake-up call.

"The conversation that has to happen with whoever their funders are is: What are you going to do to make sure this doesn't happen in the future?" he said.

Penumbra's Bellamy admits things must change for the theater to be viable long term. The company is already in the process developing a new business plan to be released by the end of June.

Bellamy said Penumbra's artistic vision will remain the same. But everything else is up for discussion — from increasing the number of co-productions to maximizing revenue streams, like having the scene shop build more sets for other theaters.

"If anything, I've learned in the past few years is we need to start thinking about art as business," said Bellamy. "Not only do we have to cherish and take care of that art, we've got to raise all sorts of standards administratively in the organization, that means salaries, getting them to where we can afford the very best people to steward this company."

Bellamy is now 68. Penumbra's new business plan will also detail a succession strategy for when he retires. Whether the theater can continue without its esteemed founder has long been the talk of the theater community, said writer Papatola.

"There is no question. Penumbra Theatre is Lou Bellamy and Lou Bellamy is Penumbra Theatre. If you take Lou out of the equation, what do you have?" Papatola said.

Bellamy said the notion that there's no future for Penumbra without him is "sort of insulting."

"I've spent almost 40 years teaching people this stuff," he said "Now if there isn't one person who came out of that experience that is capable of understanding our mission, the nuance of the culture and the way to express that on stage, then I will have failed in more ways than one."

Bellamy is convinced Penumbra has at least three more decades in it. To those don't believe him, he has only this to say: "I would quote Mark Twain: 'The reports of our death are greatly, greatly exaggerated.' "

In fact, he looks at the success of Penumbra's recent fundraising campaign as a rebirth.