Southern Theater survives, thanks to downsizing

Damon Runnals
For more than a year now, Damon Runnals has been the general manager and sole staff person at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.
MPR News/Chris Roberts

The days are gone when the Southern Theater had a full staff and performers constantly milled around.

Now emerging from a financial crisis that nearly killed it in 2011, the Southern Theater in Minneapolis survived collapse by stripping down to one staff person and becoming a rental facility for local arts groups.

Now, when sole staff member and general manager Damon Runnals punches in the electronic combination and walks through the main entrance, he is usually the only one there.

At night, the 102-year-old theater can be a little spooky.

"As the darkness just takes over more and more of the building, you just feel something at your back," he laughs.

The occasionally ghostly environment goes with a job Runnals essentially created for himself.

Years of chronic cash flow problems and a lack of financial oversight led to the Southern's financial collapse in 2011. The problem came to a head when the McKnight Foundation asked the Southern to return more than $350,000 in artist fellowship grants that were inappropriately used for general operating purposes.

ColliDe Theatrical Dance Company
The Southern Theater's new business model has worked out well for members of ColliDe Theatrical Dance Company, here rehearsing for their upcoming February show.
Photo courtesy of Regina Peluso

It sparked an uproar in the local art scene and the board struggled to find a way forward. To keep the Southern open, Runnals offered to run the theater as a rental facility.

"There were no other options, but to have one person try and manage this space, and that's just the way the numbers fell," he said.

In his new role, Runnals not only operates the theater, he consults artists and arts groups on how best to use the space.

"But without dictating what their piece should be or how it should function," he said.

That prescription has worked out well for members of ColliDe Theatrical Dance Company, here rehearsing for their upcoming February show. With its more than 200 seats, dramatic exposed walls and broad stage, ColliDe Founder Regina Peluso felt the Southern was a perfect space.

"We don't need elaborate sets," Peluso said. "We already have this beautiful scenery. Plus a prime Minneapolis location, and a relatively safe rental budget."

Thirty-eight Twin Cities artists and groups rented the Southern Theater in 2012. That allowed the theater to eliminate a $53,000 debt it owed to artists, vendors, ticket holders and independent contractors, Runnals said.

"To the people that are still harboring some resentment against what happened at the Southern, I would say the slate has been nearly wiped clean," he said.

But the Southern still owes the McKnight Foundation nearly $370,000. Board chair Gary Peterson said the theater has begun conversations with McKnight about repaying the money.

"I'm confident that over some period of time we can pay it back," Peterson said. "Whether that would be easy... it would be challenging."

In the meantime, the Southern Theater has invited the community to help it decide what it should become.

Pangea World Theatre staged one of its most successful productions ever, "House on Mango Street," at the Southern last spring. Having been on the Southern's schedule in previous years, Pangea Artistic Director Dipankar Mukherjee prefers being a renter. Mukherjee thinks it gives more groups access to a great facility.

"Everybody who's applying for the space has a fair shot at it," Mukherjee said. "And to me this is much more of a democratic, transparent, open procedure."

A dance concert at the Southern last fall went well, but St. Paul choreographer Penelope Freeh ended up burdened with all the things the Southern used to provide itself, including marketing, ticket sales, and refreshments.

"By the end of the run I really felt the loss of those services," Freeh said.

As the Southern Theater evolves, it is likely to move away from being merely a rental facility. However, it probably will not return to its former role as a programmer and presenter.

Runnals said one idea is for the Southern to house several performing arts groups, and then have something resembling a membership model.

"Where people pay a monthly access fee and they come see whatever's happening at the space," Runnals said.

But for at least another year, the Southern will remain a rental theater.

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