Shadow and Act

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

There is a spot in the men's dressing room backstage at Penumbra Theatre where actors make their mark. Along with a collage of risqué aphorisms, the cinder-block walls are covered with long parallel rows of red and black dashes that stretch around the room above a makeup table. Each mark, explains production coordinator James Craven, represents one standing ovation--"and not where just a few people are up," he adds emphatically, "but a full ovation with everyone on their feet."

After 22 seasons in the Hallie Q. Brown-Martin Luther King Community Center in St. Paul's Selby-Dale neighborhood, Penumbra boasts an informal tally of accolades that fills most of one wall and wraps around to the next. Scanning the chronicle of glories past, Craven picks out a 1998 production of August Wilson's Seven Guitars. "It was so hot for this one," he recalls. "They had the heat on in here and everyone was sweating. We just couldn't keep it cool backstage.

"But we keep going," he continues, motioning at a troublesome patch of ceiling where water dribbles in during inclement weather. "Even if it's raining onstage, we keep going. We want our 40 acres and our mule and we're going to beat the ass off anyone who tries to keep it from us. We're here to stay."

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.

Craven's declaration is the party line at Penumbra these days. It is a telling sentiment as well, for while asserting the company's health, it also presupposes that that health is in question. Penumbra may be here to stay, in other words, but there may also be stormy weather ahead for what is among the most important African-American theaters in the nation.

Lou Bellamy, the company's founder and artistic director, works down the hall in an office slightly larger than a broom closet. Like the rest of Penumbra's staff, he has learned to deal with the limitations of the space: aging office equipment, sporadic hot and cold running water, and an auditorium with the sightlines and acoustical properties of a high school assembly hall. Although the company now leases the space from Hallie Q. Brown's administration, the theater and community center have a long and symbiotic relationship. In 1976 the center's director hired Bellamy, who had grown up only a few blocks away, as a cultural arts director.

Bellamy moved from Mixed Blood Theatre, where he had directed that company's inaugural production of Leroi Jones's Dutchman--then, as now, a litmus test for race relations in America. Frustrated with Mixed Blood's budding multicultural program, which he believed sold short the needs of black artists and audiences, Bellamy set out on his own. With $125,000 from an unusual source--the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act--Bellamy hired 20 company members, bought 8 house lights, and opened his 260-seat theater, with the raison d'être of producing plays from and about the African-American experience.

At the beginning Penumbra was indisputably Bellamy's show, as he managed the company's finances as well as its artistic endeavors. Then in 1977 a playwright named August Wilson arrived; suddenly the scrappy upstart had cash, a national reputation, and a Pulitzer Prize winner as an advocate. The dusty warrens at the back of a community center, Bellamy decided, no longer befitted the company's stature. And so he started dreaming.

A decade later, Bellamy and Penumbra are planning an ambitious new home--a sprawling $11 million African-American Performing Arts Center in the Selby-Dale area. It is, for Bellamy, an indication that his theater has finally arrived as a cultural institution. Yet between the dream and reality comes the moment of waking; Penumbra announced last month that a $260,000 operating deficit--a considerable sum given Penumbra's annual $1.7 million budget--would require the abbreviation of the coming season from six plays to four, including only two new plays of the sort that have traditionally made Penumbra's reputation. And while both Bellamy and managing director Jayne Khalifa subsequently painted the move as a disagreeable but fiscally prudent decision, it is also indicative of a larger institutional dilemma: Can Penumbra maintain financial viability while simultaneously embarking upon a major expansion project, and producing challenging work?

Mixed Blood artistic director Jack Reuler sees the chronic cash-flow fluctuations as common among nonprofit arts organizations. At Mixed Blood, he explains, he has used touring and corporate shows to alleviate the pressure caused by low box-office returns. "If it were the first time this happened with Penumbra, I'd be more worried," he says. "They seem to have periods of financial strain followed by periods of success."

And although members of Penumbra's board of directors echo Reuler's assessment that the deficit is a small and not-unexpected hurdle, there are also distant rumblings. James Stronge, a retired vice president at 3M who left the board in January after eight years of service, suggests that the company's position might be more tenuous than anyone is letting on. "Funding can be unreliable," he says. "Maybe a play doesn't go as well as it should. Or there's a problem with the location. It's a so-so neighborhood, so maybe people don't want to go down there because of that. The new facility is very ambitious. I think it's probably possible. But getting there is going to be awfully hard."

 

 

One typical workday finds Lou Bellamy perched in a chair in the theater's narrow atrium tapping at a laptop computer and fielding phone messages. With his solid build and mustachioed, leading-man face, Bellamy looks outsize in his modest surroundings. He is fresh and animated, despite having jetted in a mere 24 hours earlier from the London premiere of Rita Dove's The Darker Face of the Earth, which Penumbra will co-produce with the Guthrie in March 2000. While speaking candidly about the decision to trim the 1999 season, Bellamy also downplays the company's financial situation. "When you talk about cutting," he begins, "that presumes that there was something to cut from. So one might argue that this is the season that was offered that's just somewhat abbreviated. There was no publicity that went out that said, 'This is the season, now we're going to cut it.' Now, that's one perception."

The other perception, he explains, is that Penumbra must demonstrate its liquidity before beginning the massive fundraising effort for a new facility. The company's situation is somewhat urgent, as well, since the $2.25 million appropriation that Bellamy and longtime company member and Penumbra booster August Wilson secured from the state Legislature in 1998 must be used within five years. Penumbra, which had hoped for $8 million in state funding for what was originally to be a $26 million "multi-arts" facility, must also match the state's contribution with funding from other sources--an enormous task for any theater company, but especially challenging for Penumbra because, Bellamy says, the company has not traditionally enjoyed close connections to the local corporate community.

On this matter, however, Penumbra's board of directors does not necessarily defer to Bellamy's judgment. According to board member Earl F. Kyle, "There may be those who in a perfect world would wish for more support, but it's not accurate or fair to say that corporations haven't been there for us." And indeed of the $1.25 million in support that Penumbra secured in 1998, 40 percent came from the local private sector, including grants of about $35,000 apiece from the General Mills Foundation and the 3M Foundation. So if corporate indifference is not the root cause of Penumbra's penury problem, what could it be?

The financial travails that result from shrinking audiences and cash-flow fluctuations are endemic to all nonprofit theaters. Yet in recent years, foundation grants, the lifeblood of many small theater companies, have sometimes compounded these problems by shifting from unrestricted donations to funds earmarked for specific purposes such as "audience development." For instance, the $350,000 Ford Foundation "capacity building" grant that Penumbra received this year, is intended specifically for developing infrastructure such as computer systems--and cannot be used to pay down operating deficits. Two-thirds of Penumbra's annual budget comes from outside funding, and most of that comes from private sources such as the McKnight Foundation, the St. Paul Companies, and the Bush Foundation. The company also gets regular support from the State Arts Board ($90,000 in 1998).

In a larger context, the irony of the current funding situation is that it is often more cost effective for small theaters not to produce any work at all, since plays rarely pay for themselves through box-office returns. This is especially true at Penumbra, which, according to Bellamy, spends very little on marketing and advertising, puts a great deal of money into every production, and pays its actors well above union minimums. "We're almost there, but we don't yet have that stability," he says. "And that has to do by and large with the community, the business community, the corporate community....It's interesting because they see great worth in marketing to us and our community, but they might not see the worth in supporting an endeavor like this. We have to show them how worthwhile that is."

In an atmosphere that ostensibly values multiculturalism as both a goal and an aesthetic, however, it may actually be getting harder for theaters like Penumbra to demonstrate their worth to funders. Marion McClinton, a nationally renowned director and playwright who worked extensively with Penumbra in the 1980s explains: "What they're asking to do is not really that expensive when you look at what people will do if, say, Orchestra Hall needs to be rebuilt. They'll drop millions and millions of dollars into something like that. It's this disparity between what society values and what the gatekeepers think they value.

"Money that could have gone to Penumbra or Crossroads [Theatre, in New Jersey] is going to places that were barring their doors to begin with. It's a curious way of rewarding people who are avoiding a certain kind of work and punishing people who have been doing it for years."

The opinion that large, established, and white theaters may be getting funding for cultural work that should be going to culturally specific institutions is now common among African-American theater artists. "Any time that money is going to an institution that produces African-American theater instead of to an African-American theater, that's a problem," explains Jackie Taylor, executive producer of Chicago's Black Ensemble Theatre Company.

Bellamy agrees that funding which should rightfully go to African-American theaters often gets channeled to theaters less sensitive to the intricacies of this specific cultural experience. The danger, he has consistently maintained, is that large regional theaters will siphon off talent and literature developed in the African-American artistic community, and theaters like Penumbra will slowly starve.

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.

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.

Then the economy took a turn for the worse and grant money began to trickle rather than flow. Crossroads now had four times as many seats to fill and less money to do it with, along with a crippling operating deficit of $1.6 million. "We downsized everything," explains Robinson. "The budget change came right when we moved into the new building and we needed $14,000 a month to run it as opposed to $14,000 a year for the old theater. We ran through our cash reserves very quickly. Corporations weren't supporting us the same. The work suffered. Everyone was second-guessing each other about what's going to be a hit instead of pushing the outer edge of the envelope."

Two years later, the company was left with empty seats, an unmanageable deficit, a building that cost $100,000 a year to maintain, and hard choices about cutting staff, compromising artistically, and even closing their doors for good. After what was essentially a bailout by the state of New Jersey and local corporations, the company is only now beginning to regain its stature as a major national stage (the company won this year's Tony Award for outstanding regional theater).

This, explains Robinson, is the crossroads at which Penumbra now stands. "If anyone can do it, they can," he says. "But it sure isn't easy. We'll say a prayer for them."

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