With new digs, Nimbus Theatre plans to create a community

Liz Neerland and Josh Cragun plan to share Nimbus’ space with others crews. Photo by Mathieu Lindquist

Liz Neerland and Josh Cragun plan to share Nimbus’ space with others crews. Photo by Mathieu Lindquist

A yellow five-ton gantry crane looms over one end of the big, bright space that’s soon to become the new home of Nimbus Theatre. The crane doesn’t work anymore, says Liz Neerland, one of the company’s two artistic directors. “It’s just going to be in the middle of the lobby and be fabulous.”

The 7,000-square-foot space — a 1953 addition to a 1923 building, originally a shipping center for a Westinghouse appliance factory and more recently a mattress-storage facility — has now been leased by Nimbus, a 15-year-old company that recently vacated its home of half a decade.

Theatergoers who were disappointed when rising rents spurred the respected company to leave its location on Central Avenue Northeast (a space that now operates as Minnsky Theatre) will be gratified to learn that the new location at 2303 Kennedy St. NE isn’t just a replacement: It’s an expansion that dramatically increases the company’s capacity.

“This building will not be called the Nimbus Theatre,” says Josh Cragun, the company’s other artistic director. The previous venue was named after their organization, which led to audience confusion about who actually produced each of the various shows staged there by different companies. Neerland and Cragun plan to announce the new space’s name soon, and launch a crowdfunding campaign to cover the cost of construction.

For now, the new spot is just a big empty box, waiting to be transformed into what the company is thinking of as “Nimbus 3.0.”

“It’s just a gorgeous space,” says Cragun. “I can’t wait to put some art in it.” Light streams in through the tall windows, giving the reclaimed room, with its whitewashed brick walls and 30-foot ceilings, the feeling of a post-industrial church.

The crane is part of the new space’s ambiance. Photo by Mathieu Lindquist

The crane is part of the new space’s ambiance. Photo by Mathieu Lindquist

“Whatever we use to cover the windows will be removable,” says Neerland. They’ll need to be able to create a blackout on demand, though, because the new location will contain not one but two theater spaces: a permanent proscenium stage and a flexible black-box space.

Plans call for both stages to be able to function simultaneously. “I see us almost like the First Avenue of theater,” says Neerland, “in that you’ve got the 7th St. Entry and the Mainroom. Sometimes the big guys play the little room to try out something new, sometimes the small room is for somebody to step up toward getting to the Mainroom. Having things happen simultaneously means your audiences can discover each other.”

The proscenium space, with fixed seating (“Nobody ever actually wants to move their seating risers, even if you can,” says Neerland), will allow for just over 100 people. Capacity for the black box will hover around 50. A lobby will feature refreshments and a “hangout” area, with a patio where Cragun and Neerland envision audiences congregating after performances to talk about what they’ve seen.

“We want to create a space that enables artists to create new work,” says Cragun, “and we think that could go beyond simply having a stage.” They’ve been asking local companies what resources they could use. “Do you want to host readings of work in progress? Do you want access to our shop? Is a shared property library something that might be helpful?”

The company hopes to realize the first stage of that vision by early 2017. In the meantime, the new location will open to audiences this fall with two successive productions designed for the space as it currently exists: an open warehouse room. Nimbus’ adaptation of the Finnish epic The Kalevala is scheduled for October, and Theatre Pro Rata will stage Henry V in the space the following month.

Along with the likes of Walking Shadow Theatre Company and New Epic Theater, Nimbus is one of a generation of midsized local companies birthed from the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Their inaugural production was a 2001 Fringe show called Third and Long, a collaboration between Cragun and writer Kevin Cochran.

“The tag line was ‘Jesus fighting Satan for a woman’s soul using standard NFL rules of play,’” says Cragun, a Duluth native who had been living in Iowa since graduating from college in 1997. “Buddha and Mohammed played a round of golf through at one point. It was just a goofy Fringe show, and it was a lot of fun.”

At that early point, Neerland hadn’t met Cragun yet, but as a recent college graduate she was active on the local theater scene, working with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, among other companies. She caught Cragun’s Fringe show, and soon the two had embarked on a partnership that was simultaneously professional and personal. They married in 2008.

“It can be hard, as a married couple, to work together,” says Neerland, “but we don’t know how to function in any other way.”

Over the first decade of Nimbus’ history, the company built a reputation for top-notch shows, often produced at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, that bridged the gap between collaboratively created and conventionally scripted theater. Among the signal productions of the company’s early years: Beautiful Things (2004), about a violent confrontation at a seaside resort; and the Oresteia (2007), the first in what became a series of adaptations.

“What we’ve been working toward,” explains Cragun, “is, how do you create devised, ensemble, collaborative work with a playwright in the room?” He elaborates: “We say that actors are subject-matter experts in the creation of character. As a writer, if you listen to their take on the character, you can get a perspective you might not have had.”

“It’s great to have a lot of voices in the room,” agrees Neerland. “Where a lot of collaborative work stumbles is that there isn’t actually a leader. Ultimately, you need a person whose job it is to make decisions.”

By 2011, Nimbus was ready to grow, so they signed a lease at 1517 Central Ave. Having spent 10 years learning what itinerant companies need to successfully stage shows in a space, they built a flexible theater that quickly became a popular rental spot.

“We found ourselves in the position of having a community resource,” says Cragun, “and we really enjoyed the community that was there.”

“We did not at all expect how important it would become to other people,” explains Neerland. “It meant a lot to us that we had friends that got married there, and we hosted memorial services there.”

Cragun and Neerland were already mulling over an expansion when their lease ended and, with the Broadway-Central nexus having taken off as a destination neighborhood, their rent was set to increase significantly. Saying goodbye to Central, they started looking for a new, larger, home.

As soon as they walked into the tantalizing space on Kennedy, full of promise and character, they knew they’d found their next theater. “When we walked in here, we were just like, ‘Yup,’” says Neerland. “This is it.”

In a metro area that constantly brags about all of its theater seats, is Minneapolis ready for even more? Absolutely, say Neerland and Cragun.

“When you’re a small company that’s done one or two Fringe shows and you’re ready to produce something outside of the festival, but suddenly a venue costs $1,500 a week to rent and you’re not ready to fill a hundred-seat house,” says Neerland, “there’s nothing out there for that size production.”

Nimbus 3.0 will have the black-box space for those shows, as well as the larger space to meet the needs of more established companies whose options are also limited — and might become even more so in the near future.

“I’m not sure how long we’re going to have the Theatre Garage,” says Cragun, “because there’s development at play there. We lost the People’s Center. At the same time, the amount of independent theater in this town has started to blossom. Theater is growing in this town.”

It was important to Nimbus to stay in Northeast, where a theater space can be part of an expanding cultural hub. The First Avenue analogy isn’t just about having two stages, it’s about setting an inviting atmosphere. Cragun and Neerland say they hope the new space can help people experience theater as routine, low-barrier entertainment.

“We would like to provide an infrastructure for growing the community,” says Cragun, “for convincing people that theater is something they can do every week, not once every three months.”

The Kalevala
Nimbus Theatre
October 8-30
2303 Kennedy St. NE, Minneapolis