More curtain calls

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January 31, 2011
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch
// New theater companies move into Northeast //

Northeast wasn’t always an obvious place to catch a live theater show. But three new theater companies have arrived in recent months, and another is waiting in the wings.

Northeast is now hosting Broadway adaptations in a renovated warehouse, community plays in a high school auditorium and monthly guerilla-style dance parties in a new studio. New arrivals include the Nimbus Theatre, a nomadic company settling into a warehouse at 1617 Central Ave.; Morris Park Players, a 57-year-old community group that was ousted from the shuttered Folwell School in South Minneapolis; and Paper Moose Jumpsuit & Co., a group that recently lost its space at the Bedlam Theatre in Cedar Riverside and moved here about four months ago.

Minneapolis is the nation’s third-largest theater market. Only New York has more theater seats per capita, according to the Minneapolis Downtown Council. At the moment, most of those seats are concentrated in Downtown and South Minneapolis.

When the Ritz Theater opened in the spring of 2006, it was largely a performing arts island.

“This was something that had been missing for a really long time in Northeast Minneapolis,” said Mike Romens, managing director of the Ritz. The Ritz sat empty for 20 years before the city, the Sheridan Neighborhood Organization and Ballet of the Dolls found the money to reopen it.

To explain the recent crop of new theaters, Romens pointed to Northeast’s overall growth in the arts over the past decade. The Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association, for example, has grown 40 percent in the past five years to a total of 700 members.

“The arts feed off other arts,” Romens said. “Part of the reason the Ritz has been so well-supported by the neighborhood is because they thought it would re-energize the area and be an anchor for other businesses.”

The Ritz rents out rehearsal space seven days a week, primarily to dancers and aerialists.

The new Nimbus Theatre space on Central Avenue will also be available to outside theater groups, and when its renovation is finished, it will boast amenities like a green room, dressing rooms, a scene shop, new lighting and sound equipment, and a comfy lobby serving refreshments.

Nimbus’s first show, “The Balcony” by Jean Genet, is coming up fast on Feb. 11. The play is a commentary on image and power: it’s the story of revolution sending a European city into chaos, requiring mere clients in a brothel to impersonate leaders of the city.

After a long search, Nimbus landed in Northeast for the chance to open in a theater-starved market.

“There is the Ritz, but there is not really a resident theater company there now,” said board member Josh Cragun.

Affordability was also key for Nimbus coming to Northeast. Cragun said that because the economics of theater are always difficult, Nimbus wanted to spend most of its resources on its talent rather than its home.

The same motives brought Paper Moose to Northeast after searching for space in the West Bank and South Minneapolis.

“We happened to notice this amazing affordable art space,” said co-founder Savannah Reich. “It’s not [available] anywhere else in the city.”

If you missed Paper Moose’s New Year’s Day “Hangover Show” with puppet shows and Bloody Marys, or missed its Jan. 15 “Science Fair” with lectures on robots and the science of risk-taking, next up is a dance party in the studio slated for Feb. 12, featuring modern dance performances that pop up sporadically throughout the night.

Reich said the Paper Moose studio is also open to traveling theater companies, particular those that perform in nontraditional spaces like music halls and people’s basements.

The Upright Egg Theatre Company recently performed “VENUS” in a nontraditional space at the Firefighters Hall and Museum. Company member Ben Kutschied said they thought it would be fun to perform in the old firehouse, because the show was set on the planet Venus in a fire station where the characters met daily for pancake breakfasts. Upright Egg remains a nomadic theater company, however, so there is no guarantee the group will become a regular presence in Northeast.

The Morris Park Players are probably here to stay a while — it’s one of the oldest community theaters in the state, and it previously spent 27 years at Folwell Middle School.

A bit of lobbying brought it to the Edison High School auditorium this year. Chuck Dibble, a longtime member of the Morris Park Players who helped coordinate the move, said Edison Principal Carla Steinbach called them up and convinced them to come — she had been principal at Folwell before working at Edison.

“None of the other schools we talked to indicated such warmth and welcome,” Dibble said. “With Northeast becoming such an arts community, [Steinbach] said she would love to have a community theater.”

A couple of Edison students landed roles in the play, as well as Edison’s choir teacher.

“The whole community has embraced us, and it seems like a really good fit,” Dibble said. “We’re doing ‘Grease’ in the spring to entice more students to become involved.”

Yet another theater company, TheatreX, is working toward performing in Northeast, perhaps in 2011. TheatreX is the brainchild of Joe Hendren, an actor, director and playwright with strong ties to Northeast. He worked in Northeast for years, he grew up in Columbia Heights, and he even bought vintage Hollywood Theater seats during a city fundraiser last year.

Hendren said he’s glad to see new theaters moving in to the neighborhood.

“It’s still underserved,” he said. “It’s fantastic that they’re drawn to Northeast. … The fact that the visual arts community has grown so much in the last decade or more really speaks to the community and the people in the community being receptive to the arts. This is only a natural step.”