Sharing helps revive Minneapolis' Southern Theater

Dancers Gaylen Higgins and Kaleena Miller
Dancers Gaylen Higgins and Kaleena Miller place stage tape on the floor of the Southern Theater in Minneapolis during a tech rehearsal for Four Choreographers, a member of the theater's ARTshare program.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Things are looking up at the Southern Theater.

The Minneapolis theater, an old vaudeville house with walls and a proscenium arch that bear the scars of decades of shows, had a near-death experience a few years back because of financial mismanagement. Now an audience membership plan called "ARTshare" is turning things around.

ARTshare works like this: For an $18 per month membership, people can see as many shows at the Southern as they like. The companies, which range from dance groups to theater and comedy, perform in repertory. Each gets a little money and technical support for shows.

"The program works," said Damon Runnals, artistic director. "We have over 350 members in our first year."

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The Southern's annual budget is now about $230,000 but will soon grow to $300,000. Given the theater's financial turmoil over the last few years, including a time when it seemed close to folding.

"Are we stable? Yes," Runnals said. "Are we in the black month to month? Yes. Has my job changed from a firefighter and cleaning up challenges of old to someone who is managing a functioning stable business? Yes, definitely."

Runnals is learning about the Southern's new audience. The current season launched in January. So far ARTshare has offered 16 shows to members, including a couple of special events.

"Roughly 35 to 40 percent of our members have seen most everything at the Southern this year," said Runnals. "We then have another probably, maybe, 30 to 40 percent who have seen some stuff. And we have actually 15 to 20 percent of our members have seen maybe only one or two shows or no shows."

Runnals speculates members of that last group are using ARTshare as a way to support the arts.

The Southern Theater
The Southern Theater has long been a fixture in the Seven Corners area of Minneapolis, not far from the University of Minnesota West Bank campus.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Wearing fire engine red shirts and shorts, Kaleena Miller and Gaylen Higgins recently rehearsed lighting changes for a show at the Southern. Miller is a member of Four Choreographers, one of the 15 ARTshare companies. She feels the Southern is home.

"It gives us space for all the sort of projects and wild ideas that I've had over the last few years, a place for them to exist and take shape," she said.

One of the objectives of ARTshare was to share existing audiences. Lisa Channer, co-artistic director of Theatre Novi Most, says many new people came to its first ARTshare show, called "Rehearsing Failure."

"They seemed excited at what they were seeing and encountering," she said.

The Southern also sold 4,000 single tickets. One challenge is how to convert those ticket-buyers into members, Runnals said. Another: An ambitious repertory schedule sometimes gives companies little time to switch sets between shows.

Runnals also admits the Southern's calendar was complex. "We'll have a lot more consistency in when the resident companies are performing," he said. "Schedules will be easier to understand."

The Southern Theater
The Southern Theater in Minneapolis is considered a treasure by many local performers because of its intimate space and aged interior.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Over the weekend the Southern announced its 2016 season. Fourteen resident companies will each perform for three or four weeks. Ten guest residents will perform for one week.

The Southern aims to have 500 members by the end of the year.