The Southern Theater's future hinges on bold new planby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The Southern Theater is taking drastic steps to restore stability after a financial crisis nearly forced it to close. The theater laid off all staff except one, and will become primarily a rental space for the foreseeable future.
The sole paid staff person leading the Southern into the future is its new general manager Damon Runnals. Runnals served for two years as the theater's production and operations manager. To him, the Southern has pressed the reset button, and he said he and the board have given out as much information as legally possible.
"The financial mess that the Southern got into, is a combination of so many factors," Runnals said. "I don't know that the whole story will ever be completely available. I don't know that anyone knows the whole story."
The part that is known is that after suffering chronic cash flow problems for years, the Southern went into a financial tailspin in April when the McKnight Foundation asked it to return $300,000 in mismanaged artist grants. The news hit the local art scene really hard, especially the groups and artists who've called the Southern home for, in some cases, decades. Linda Andrews, founder and artistic director of Zenon Dance Company, said her first reaction was sadness.
"And then I started thinking about it, and I really felt sort of let down, maybe even betrayed," Andrews said.
Using the McKnight's artist fellowship money for general fund purposes is a number one sin, according to Andrews. She's worried the Southern's transgressions will taint other arts groups. Andrews doesn't think the Southern has communicated well and still needs to give a full accounting of what happened.
Andrews called the theater's new business plan of reducing the staff to one general manager and renting the space on a first-year budget of just over $165,000 a desperate move.
"I don't think very favorably about it," she said.
Equally skeptical is Robin Gillette, executive director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, which stages several of its shows at the Southern every year.
"To go from a building that took a million dollars and nine people to run and say that's it's runnable on a tenth of that budget and one person, something's screwy in that equation," Gillette said.
As far as Gillette can figure, a budget that slim would only allow the Southern to be what's called a "turn key" house. Artists and groups would rent only the space, without the technical support and creative consultation the Southern provided in the past.
"Then that opens up the question, if they're not providing support, how are they different than the 'Theater Garage,' which is just building that you rent?" she said. "It's not a non-profit organization that is supported with charitable contributions."
And if that's the case, Gillette said, the Southern's intention to make the theater more accessible and affordable to a broader range of artists might be hard to achieve.
Not everyone is displeased with the Southern's new direction.
"It felt to me that they're doing the right thing by pulling back a little bit in terms of their total activity, and trying to re-connect with the community," said Ben Krywohz, executive director of Nautilus Music Theater in St. Paul. "It seems like that's exactly the direction that they need to be going in and I felt really heartened."
The Southern's general manager Damon Runnals said he will consult with artists and arts groups on the best ways to use the facility. The theater will also provide a roster of lighting designers, electricians, and mix engineers who can be hired at free market rates.
Runnals said the Southern's new business plan is designed to keep the building open, pay his salary, and buy time for the organization to re-imagine itself. He envisions the Southern becoming a space geared toward mid-career artists trying to take their work to the next level. But will the Southern of old ever return?
"No," Runnals said. "I don't think the same Southern exists. I think the building will, but I honestly believe a new Southern is emerging."
What that new Southern becomes, Runnals said, is for its board and the community to decide.
- Morning Edition, 06/21/2011, 8:25 a.m.