Capital Drama

Penumbra director Lou Bellamy, in a 1991 stage role, could only look more perplexed after losing $1 million in state funding for a new theater

IN WARREN LEIGHT'S Side Man, which opened this past Wednesday at the Guthrie Lab, one of the characters explains that the bureau of unemployment acts as unofficial government funder for jazz musicians. An ironic one-liner, debuting on the same day that official funding for the dramatic arts ended in much melodrama--or tragedy, depending on where you're sitting. In a grueling all-night session that ended just before 7:00 a.m., the Legislature pushed through 32 bills, including a bonding plan allotting only $3 million to the Guthrie Theater to put toward the building of their new complex. (This despite a recent high-profile touring program behind A Midsummer Night's Dream to help establish the statewide import of the company--a new requirement for all state bonding proposals.) The theater had sought $25 million, a third of the estimated total cost of the structure.

Other losers included the Shubert Theater, which received no funding for a $22.5 million plan to renovate their empty structure, and the Penumbra Theatre Company, who actually had $1 million removed from a previous bonding allotment.

Despite their seeming bad fortune, officials at the Guthrie managed to remain upbeat--in fact so upbeat as to sound practically sarcastic. In a press release, artistic director Joe Dowling said, "This tremendous outpouring ensures the continuance of world-class theater, education, and quality of life for the entire region," words echoed by director of communications James Morrison.

"It's quite encouraging," Morrison told City Pages, noting that the $3 million bond is a "clear indication that there is a commitment on the part of the state" to helping the Guthrie build their new complex. Could this be the sound of a future bonding proposal in the works? "We may go back in two years and try to get further funds," Morrison says.

Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre, was not as thrilled by the session. "I'm flabbergasted," he said. "The rug was pulled out from under us." The $1 million withdrawn by the Legislature was intended to help establish a permanent facility for Penumbra on Dale and University, and according to Bellamy, "this puts the entire project in jeopardy." The company, Bellamy reports, just emerged from red ink, and was beginning to move forward with fundraising efforts.

"It is surprising to me--as a taxpayer, mind you--that in a year when we have surpluses, this administration finds it necessary to balance the budget by going back and redefining [previous bonding bills]," Bellamy added bitterly. "How is it possible to plan in this sort of environment?"

With only $1.25 million in state money left, one of the most esteemed black theaters in the nation barely edged out this season's theatrical winner: the Commonweal Theatre in tiny Lanesboro (population: 858) which collected $1 million, along with an attached arts organization, to build a new theater and facilities. This year's bonding bill may have drawn boos in the city, but it should receive a standing ovation when it plays in the sticks.

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