Open Window Theatre has vacated its North Loop home after five years, and its proprietors are taking their dispute with the building owners to court — as well as to the court of public opinion.
Ironically, the chain of events that led to the company leaving its space in the Metropolis Minneapolis building started because its shows had been so successful there.
Last year, the Open Window team decided to expand their footprint in the building, located at 1313 Chestnut Avenue, to accommodate their growing audiences. Having occupied a space there since 2011 (and having already added space there once), the theater company took the opportunity to rent an adjacent unit in the multi-tenant building when it became available.
"We actually expanded through a wall to expand our lobby," says Jeremy Stanbary, the company's artistic director, "and then we added a scene shop space. We were adding additional restrooms as well for our patrons."
The expansion added a couple dozen seats to the existing capacity of just under 100, and brought the company's occupation in the building to almost 7,500 square feet — triple the 2,500 they started with in 2011. "We took out building permits for all of that," says Stanbary, "which opened up this whole can of worms."
For starters, they discovered that the building wasn't properly zoned for use as a performance space. "That was one of the first things we did take upon ourselves on behalf of the landlords," says Stanbary. "We were successful in rezoning the property." They also discovered they needed a license to operate a theater, which they duly acquired.
Then, there were safety issues that Stanbary says Open Window was held solely responsible for addressing, though he asserts many of them should be the responsibility of the building's owner. For example, 1313 Chestnut lacks a fire sprinkler system.
"So the city is looking at all of this," remembers Stanbary, "and they're saying, 'This building is supposed to have a fire sprinkler system. Why doesn't it?' Our response is, well, it's not our building. We're one tenant among many there." The responsibility for such a system, says Stanbary, "falls squarely on the landlord's shoulders."
Stanbary also points out that the landlords — who are continuing to lease space in the building to other tenants, including a CrossFit studio "that sometimes has more people in there than we ever did" — never obtained a new certificate of occupancy when they took the building over and, in 2007, converted it from a warehouse to a multi-use commercial space. City records confirm that the most recent certificate of occupancy on file for the building dates from 1969, indicating use as a warehouse space.
Open Window did receive permits for construction, and completed the expansion work. The city "saw our good faith," says Stanbary, "in working to remedy all of this. The problem is, we were working to remedy this on behalf of the landlords." The more Open Window invested, the higher the stakes became, says Stanbary.
Facing the threat of a shutdown, the company approached the neighborhood's City Council representative, Blong Yang. "He was very sympathetic," says Stanbary. "It was very clear to him, right off the bat, that we were dealing with some really crummy landlords in an unfair situation."
Yang, says Stanbary, helped initiate negotiations with city inspectors. The negotiations resulted in permission for the theater to operate under a fire watch that "required us to pay for a fire inspector to be on hand for each of our performances," says Stanbary. "In case of a fire, they would simply direct people to the already well-lit exits."
That allowed Open Window to proceed with the company's spring production of Everyman. However, the cost of the fire watch — $260 per performance — was too much for the small company to bear. "Given how tight of a budget we operate on, and the fact that we had already spent thousands on this rezone, it just put us in such a financial pinch that we just couldn't do it again."
Canceling the last show of their 2015-16 season, Open Window notified the landlords that "we hold you in breach of our lease," via an open letter now posted to the theater company's website. Citing the charges paid for the fire watch as well as lost revenue from canceled performances, Open Window stopped paying rent. "They never had a right to be leasing it out the way that they are" without a valid certificate of occupancy, argues Stanbary.
In response, the landlords filed an eviction action against Open Window, and the theater company cleared out. A video the company created to rally support contrasts images of a sadly empty space with photos from productions of shows like Freud's Last Session.
The building owners, Metropolis Minneapolis LLC, declined an invitation to comment for this story. "My client is unable to address the matter at this time as the parties’ dispute is in litigation," wrote their attorney in an email. "Metropolis Minneapolis would be pleased to provide additional information once that litigation is resolved."
Open Window is now filing suit against the owners, seeking compensation for expenses and lost revenue as well as damages. Stanbary says the owners, meanwhile, are coming after Open Window for the rest of the rent specified in the lease, which still has a year to go. "We're at a legal standstill right now," he says.
While litigation continues, the theater company is circulating a petition addressed to the city of Minneapolis. Over 1,000 supporters have signed the petition, which asks the city to "inspect the building at 1313 Chestnut Avenue and investigate the multitude of potential code violations our inspectors have already identified."
The landlords' defense against Open Window's accusations, says Stanbary, is, "'Well, the city hasn't done anything against us! The city hasn't said we're not in compliance.' That's their only argument." To Stanbary, though, "it's obvious that this building is illegal in its current form."
Though Open Window likely won't be returning to the space, Stanbary hopes that action by the city helps the theater company's standing in court. "The city's coming down on us for all of these deficiencies," says Stanbary, "so why has the city refused to do anything to force the landlords into compliance...it was just a horrible double standard."
The petition is specifically addressed to Steve Poor, of the city's department of Community Planning and Economic Development. Neither Poor nor Yang have responded to requests for comment.
Stanbary says that he and his wife, Sarah Stanbary, an actor and dance instructor, founded Open Window because they saw a need for work that "addresses issues of faith and spirituality in a serious and thought-provoking way." That said, Stanbary emphasizes that the company claims no religious affiliation and produces work exploring a range of themes under a broadly "redemptive" vision.
The Stanbarys' company grew out of an earlier theater organization that made use of other performance spaces; the company took the name Open Window Theatre when it moved into the Metropolis Minneapolis building in 2011. Under the Open Window banner, the company has staged 19 plays including Mercy Unrelenting, The Jeweler's Shop, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Though they've had to lay off staff and cancel their entire 2016-17 season, Stanbary says the company is laying plans for a rebirth. "My wife and I are passionate about not calling it quits," he says. "We're trying to find a donor or a group of donors that can help us purchase our own space, so we never find ourselves in a situation like this again."