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How ARTshare took shape: a Q&A with Damon Runnals

Courtesy of the Southern Theater
Damon Runnals, now executive director of the Southern Theater, has been working to reboot a venue that has been part of the Twin Cities scene for more than a century.

The news broke last week about ARTshare, the Southern Theater’s new plan to bring the performing arts back to the historic theater, which suffered a financial crisis in 2011 that forced the layoffs of all but one employee and turned it from a presenter into a rental. That employee was Damon Runnals, now executive director, who has been working ever since to reboot a venue that has been part of the Twin Cities scene for more than a century.

ARTshare in a nutshell: The Southern will have 15 resident companies, all small theater and dance groups. Each will give 10 performances a year, in repertory, at the 200-seat theater beginning in January 2015. Starting today at 2 p.m., memberships will be sold to the public for $18/month, with a cap of 2,100 members, who can attend as many performances each month as they want. Each resident company will receive $11,000 per year from the Southern, with residencies lasting three years. They will pay production costs but no rental costs.

In a conversation Friday, Runnals took us behind the scenes of how ARTshare took shape, what he hopes to accomplish and how he made it through his darkest hour.

MinnPost: After more than three years, the performing arts are returning to the Southern. Congratulations.

Damon Runnals: Thank you very much. The response has been phenomenal. For a long time, in working on the program with some of the companies and my board, we all thought it was great, but we didn’t know what the response would be.

MP: Will you still rent the Southern at other times to other groups?

DR: Not really. The Momentum series will be happening here in 2015, and the Twin Cities Horror Festival, and that leaves almost no time for rentals. We have a couple of little things we’re going to try and slot in, but ultimately, renting out the Southern will not be an option in the future, certainly not in 2015. We’re not sure exactly where we’ll be in 2016. The schedule may change. The program may alter slightly.

MP: You’re a little like the Ordway, with several arts organizations sharing the same space. For a time before the Ordway’s Arts Partnership was formed, they had problems getting along. How will you handle conflicts that arise among your resident companies?

DR: We’ve tried to anticipate as many of the challenges as we can up front. We’ll be adding a staff member who will act as production director. That person will be the voice of the Southern in the space, and will help to mediate any challenges that companies working in repertory might run into. That’s one way we’re hopefully going to head off any major issues.

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I spent four years working in repertory at the Theatre at Monmouth in Maine, so I’m very familiar with how repertory can work well, and with some of the processes that need to be in place. Over the next six months, we’ll be holding meetings with the resident companies to talk and share best practices.

We’ll run into challenges, no doubt. But I think there’s been a real camaraderie amongst all the companies to make this work, and I think everybody is coming at it with a sense of patience that will lend itself to not jumping to conclusions and not trying to take an “it’s my show” attitude.

The values of collaboration and shared space have been baked into the program, and for lack of a better term, they’ve been hammered into the heads of the resident companies – that we’re either all going to succeed or we’re all going to fail, so the choices you make around this program affect everybody, and we need to constantly be vigilant on that front.

MP: Where did the idea for ARTshare come from? How did it happen?

DR: I had an idea in late 2009 or early 2010 to create a citywide program that was essentially Netflix Theater. I honestly cannot tell you where that spark came from, but I looked around and thought, We have so many performing arts, why can’t I just pay a flat fee every month and see anything I want? That should exist. That should be here.

I brought in a couple of folks – Noah Bremer and Joanna Harmon from Live Action Set – and a couple of other artists I work with, and we sat around in my living room and brainstormed how this could work. We talked about some of the benefits, we talked about some of the challenges, and at the end we all said, “Awesome idea, but a citywide program is just too big.”

I shelved that idea in early 2010, and then found myself a year and a half later in charge of the Southern, and when we started having conversations amongst the board of where we needed to go, knowing that the rental model was always going to be a short-term fix, I ended up pulling this idea back off the shelf and going, “Wait a minute – here’s a thought I had a couple years ago. We’ve got a space. We don’t make any art ourselves. We serve a bunch of groups that really need a space. What if we tried to figure out a way to make this work?”

Certain members of the board really liked the idea. Others were very skeptical. In September/October of 2011, it became a serious conversation at the Southern. At that point, I started taking it to colleagues who also run theater companies or dance companies, and saying, “Hey, what if this existed? What do you think?” Hours of conversation and input later, we got something on paper and started developing it. That was version #1. It went through three big versions before getting to the current iteration.

MP: So it took quite a while to develop.

DR: Yes. It’s been a two-and-a-half-year process. A solid two years have been very much behind the scenes. I would say that late fall/early winter of last year was when people started talking about it, and we started hearing the rumor and speculation going around. But we never officially announced it until this week.

MP: You’ve really created this model. You didn’t have anyplace in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago that you looked to, that had done this before you.

DR: I found out after I started brainstorming with some of the groups that Theater Wit in Chicago had started a similar model. And a theater in Portland or Seattle, I don’t remember exactly where, also has a membership model. But both of those organizations are producing organizations as well, like Park Square or the Jungle …

The Southern becomes unique in that we don’t make anything. We have always been a co-presentation facility. Where this model started to take shape was [when we asked], “How do we, like Northern Spark, become a platform for artists instead of absorbing a bunch of resources and becoming an institution?” There’s a lot to be said for traditional [institutions] – the Guthrie, the Cowles and the Walker are all fantastic organizations, but they have the resources to [do what they do]. The Southern is not in that position …

We are keeping a very flat, horizontal process. It’s much more like a co-op in operation, even though the resident companies do not own a piece of the program. They’ve had a large say and they will continue to have a large say in how we operate.

The Southern will not be adding tons of staff or resources. My goal is to think about an ecosystem and partnerships, and that’s why we’re working with TicketWorks as our front-of-house vendor. It’s why we’re working with Arts ink as our marketing and PR team. That keeps the Southern in position to be flexible, because … weathering events like [the 2008 recession] requires a vast amount of flexibility and adaptability, especially when you’re small. I’m terrified of creating too much permanent infrastructure in the face of the fact that things are constantly changing nowadays.

MP: How were the resident companies chosen?

DR: A lot of them came from my own personal network – people I’d worked with before who I felt were in a position to take a risk, as this program certainly is, and who maybe had reached a point in their business organizational career where they had hit a glass ceiling. Many of these groups can’t qualify for larger funding because they’re not big enough yet, but they can’t get bigger without some kind of investment. Almost all of them live project-to-project, and I wanted to help change that dynamic.

We thought about a mix of the groups that we’ve served in the past – movement, dance, theater, student work – and having a diverse representation. Main Street School of Performing Arts and Blue Water Theatre Company are both student groups. The last group that came on was the Independent Movement Group. Four independent choreographers … will be working together as a group.

MP: Did they all have to keep this under wraps until a certain time?

DR: Officially, yes, but we encouraged them to talk to people about it. We just asked that nothing go in writing or in digital form until we gave the OK.

MP: Will BALLS Cabaret continue on Saturday nights?

DR: Of course.

MP: Are you still the sole employee?

DR: Yes. We will add for sure one person in the production department next year. We are hoping, if we get to 2,100 members before January first, that we can add an additional part-time person to support my position.

MP: You’ve been holding down the fort for a long time. What was your darkest hour?

DR: In all honesty, my darkest hour was in mid-April [2011], after the $400,000 ask went out [the Southern announced that it needed to raise $400,000 by April 30 or close] and before we knew what we were going to do. I was thoroughly convinced that I wanted to be laid off like the rest of the staff and just be done with it – be done with the drama, be done with the challenge. I had already been there for three years, and there was constant talk about how we didn’t have any money, constant talk about furloughs, and I was exhausted.

I was going through the J.P. Shannon Leadership Institute program at the time, and I was coming home from our Thursday night session, and I had this revelation. I thought to myself, “If you can put a plan together to lay everyone off, which is going to happen anyway, but you stay on and run the theater and somehow get it out of debt, you essentially get a theater. You get a whole clean slate to work with. You get a really beautiful, amazing, historical, magical, spiritual place, and you get to be the steward.”

And I got home and told my wife I didn’t want to be laid off anymore. She was very happy, because we had just bought a house a month before and we were terrified of what was going to happen, and she said, “Go for it. Quick, give them a plan!”

It’s been three years since that moment. In April, I hit that three-year mark, and July 1 of 2011 is when I officially started with no staff left. Since then I’ve had challenges, but I’ve always felt we were going to re-emerge. I was confident that we were going to find a way to take care of our debts, work with McKnight to find a resolution, and then we were going to come back with a vengeance.

It’s been an uphill battle, but I could not have done it without the performing arts community. I couldn’t have done it without these companies that have helped us build this program.

Most people don’t realize it, but the Southern has existed for three years on 80 percent of its budget through rental money, 20 percent through individual contributions of less than $3,000, and zero grants and zero foundation dollars. So every artist that booked the Southern in the last three years kept us open. This community has chosen to keep the Southern around.

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ARTshare memberships will go on sale at 2 p.m. today on the Southern’s website and in person at the Town Hall Brewery. Members will be asked to make a 12-month commitment of $18/month. 

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