Theatre in the Round's trippy new murals add to the West Bank skyline

The new mural adds a new element to the West Bank skyline.

The new mural adds a new element to the West Bank skyline. Sheila Regan

In celebration of 50 years on the West Bank, the exterior of Theatre in the Round has a bold new look.

The community theater, the longest-running theater in Minneapolis having incorporated in 1952, is bursting with art thanks to a “trompe l'oeil” (trick of the eye) mural created by California-based artist John Pugh.

“I like using trompe l'oeil because no matter who the person in the audience is, even if they don't have an art background, they appreciate being tricked,” Pugh says. “My experience is that when people get fooled by it, they kind of bond with it and they also feel inspired by it. If something is well crafted and done in a way that is convincing, once they get bonded to the piece, they start thinking about what it means to them.”

Pugh has painted three sides of Theatre in the Round. On the building's south-facing wall, a giant globe, filled with actors, stage hands, and the theater’s late cat, Sammy, looks like it's being pushed out through the bricks into the streets.

The Cedar Avenue side, meanwhile, brings back elements of the building’s old blueprint mural, created in 1985 by Aloysius Wiederhold. That mural was painted over in 2017. The new design features the same notes from the original version.

Facing Seven Corners, viewers look in on an actor playing Cleopatra getting ready in her dressing room, as a wizard figure looks up from below.

One of Theatre in the Round's new murals.

One of Theatre in the Round's new murals. Sheila Regan

Pugh has been creating trompe l'oeil murals since he was a student at California State University, Chico, where he had a dream about making one on the side of the college's arts building.

“That ended up getting me a lot of international attention when I was young,” he says. His illusion-filled murals can be found in Mexico City, Canada, Honolulu, Santa Fe, Florida, and all over California, among other places.

Pugh says that TRP's executive director, Steven Antenucci, was looking for a mural that would be an attraction, and a placemaking project. So Pugh came up with the idea of creating a sphere for the south-facing wall.

“They are acting from all sorts of angles into the ball that is being pushed out into the greater ‘theater in the round,'” he says. “Symbolically, it's bringing the theater into the streets and exposing it to the city.”

Inside of the sphere, you see scenes from Romeo and Juliet and Blythe Spirit; local actors and friends of Pugh's from California are featured.

He also felt it was important to include Sammy the cat, who lived at the theater for 23 years (his ghost has been sighted in the theater since). Antenucci himself can be seen pushing the sphere through the bricks.

When you see the mural from a distance, it really does look like there are real bricks being pushed aside by the sphere somehow. You have to get quite close to see that it's all just a very skillful paint job.

Pugh's new design for TRP's exterior is part of a larger $475,000 renovation project, funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, allocated theater renovation funds, individual donations, and a grant.

Pugh has been working with the theater since 2017, and will complete his mural today.