Shadow and Act

Penumbra Theatre's campaign to build an ambitious new stage has the makings of an epic drama--or a nonprofit tragedy

In June 1996 August Wilson laid a cognitive framework for the discussion of cultural protocol in a now famous speech to the Theatre Communications Group conference. For African-American theaters to thrive, he argued, they needed facilities and funding independent of any stipulations on the art that they produced--a house of their own. It was the same argument Lou Bellamy had made for years. "Who cares whether I said it?" Bellamy asks with a bit of rhetorical bite. " I was a voice in the wilderness. But August says something like that and people go, 'Oh, we better listen. This is controversial. Let's have a debate.'"

During the next season, Penumbra staged Wilson's Fences as a collaborative production with the Guthrie (Bellamy had previously directed Big White Fog at the big, white house). The production was widely hailed as the end of a long-running rift--fueled in no small part by former Guthrie artistic director Garland Wright--between Minnesota's best, and most widely known, playwright and its biggest, and most widely attended, theater. Yet for Penumbra it was also a financial windfall. As with this past year, the 1995 season ended with an unwieldy operating deficit after low returns on the annual holiday cash cow, Black Nativity, and Penumbra was forced to trim its schedule in order to survive. Going to the Guthrie was, as it is now, a way to fill more seats and put Dowling's mighty public-relations machine to work.

Aside from being a potential economic boon, Penumbra's collaborations with the Guthrie are also a way of making sure that a mainstream production of a play like The Darker Face of the Earth gets a respectful artistic treatment. In previous collaborations, Bellamy has made a habit of taking control of casting and direction, and has used the Guthrie's virtually limitless resources for advertising and production design. According to some Guthrie insiders, the arrangement generated some tension. But the relationship between the two organizations is considerably less adversarial than it once was. Bellamy asserts, with a chuckle, that he has mellowed in his old age. The shift in tone certainly also has much to do with Joe Dowling, who, unlike his predecessor, seems to recognize intuitively the political value of an association with Penumbra.

Good Fences make good neighbors: Penumbra's Lou Bellamy, seen here in a Penumbra-Guthrie collaboration, seeks local corporate support.
Good Fences make good neighbors: Penumbra's Lou Bellamy, seen here in a Penumbra-Guthrie collaboration, seeks local corporate support.

But herein lies the rub. Even if Penumbra sells out the Guthrie's 1,300 seats with The Darker Face of the Earth, consistently fills the Fitzgerald's 900 seats for Black Nativity (which, according to Jayne Khalifa, accounts for a third of the company's earned revenue), and thereby reduces its operating deficit, the theater must still match the $2.25 million in state money before construction can begin. And if they do so, they will still be roughly $6.5 million short of the projected cost of a new facility. Which means that during the coming years, the company must not only avoid losing money on any production, but must also find a way to increase funding by about 30 percent to achieve the goals of the capital campaign. At present, the theater is inching toward square one, trying to raise money to hire a consultant to advise them on how to raise money for the project.

And if the new Performing Arts Center is built, the company will suddenly have 500 seats to fill, which will mean that they will have to spend considerably more than the current seven to ten percent of the annual budget on advertising and marketing. A new facility will also come with new costs: An independent analysis of the original plan for the Performing Arts Center commissioned by Penumbra determined that maintenance costs alone would be prohibitive. All of which means that this long-deferred dream could be a disaster.

Lou Bellamy is confident that the current cost projection represents an achievable goal. Yet it is also a gamble--on a continued strong economy, a wellspring of support from both foundations and corporate donors, and theatergoers who will fill the new theater to 80 percent capacity. He is betting also that his company is ready for the leap from local institution to national prototype for a successful African-American theater. "It's way more than just the art that's happening here," Bellamy says. "You walk down the street, and little kids come in here and see a black female managing director running a business well and talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because of integration, we don't get enough of that anymore, because [black managers] are not all in one spot. This is a good thing for lots of reasons. That's why we've got to succeed. That's why we've got to be prudent and make hard choices about damn seasons because it's got to survive. It's just got to."

In the early Nineties, the Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey made the same bet. After 15 years in a decrepit 60-seat warehouse space on what executive producer André Robinson Jr. describes as the "outskirts of the outskirts" of New Brunswick, New Jersey, Crossroads had developed both a national reputation for doing challenging new work and a loyal subscription base. Naturally, then, the theater's leadership believed it was time to move into a space befitting their artistic strength. With the help of the NEA and corporate benefactors, they moved into a new $6.7 million, 260-seat theater.

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