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Dark & Stormy’s Sara Marsh: ‘To be ready is the key thing’

“Our industry is literally gone. It’s poof, it’s gone,” said Sara Marsh. “It’s hard to convey that it doesn’t exist right now. But that’s the truth of things at the moment.”

Sara Marsh
Sara Marsh: "This is the thing I’ve always done, this is the thing I know how to do, it’s the thing that I love. I believe in the worth, the vitality and the power of theater."
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp

On Tuesday, we shared news about the Guthrie, the largest theater in Minnesota. Today, we look at Dark & Stormy Productions, one of the smallest.

Theaters of all sizes have been hit hard by COVID-19. In the words of Dark & Stormy’s founding artistic director, Sara Marsh, “Our industry is literally gone. It’s poof, it’s gone. It’s hard to convey that it doesn’t exist right now. But that’s the truth of things at the moment.”

Marsh, an actress, started Dark & Stormy in 2012. Her plan: to present unconventional plays in unusual spaces for affordable ticket prices, attracting new theatergoers. She has also served as Dark & Stormy’s grant writer, a regular cast member, director (which included directing herself in Jean Genet’s “The Maids”), properties designer, set designer, assistant sound designer, producer, web designer, marketing person, box office manager and sometime floor mopper.

“The other day, I went into our space and cried for a little while and rearranged all the chairs,” she said. “I do basically everything. All the union negotiations, and the budgeting. I pretty much function as an artistic and executive director.”

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To support her theater habit, Marsh does voiceovers and has acted in other theaters, in films and a web series. Her latest acting role, at the Old Log, ended when COVID-19 came to town.

In the nine years since its founding, Dark & Stormy has presented 15 plays. Most were dark and, well, stormy. Sexual assault, murder for hire, suicide, greed and mental illness were among their themes. Many landed on critics’ annual Top Ten and Best-of-the-Year lists. In 2016, City Pages named Dark & Stormy Best Theater in the Twin Cities. Marsh gained a reputation for producing counter-holiday plays at Christmastime, like Harold Pinter’s bone-chilling “The Hothouse.”

Mark Benninghofen and Robert Dorfman in the 2014 production of Harold Pinter's "Hothouse."
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp
Mark Benninghofen and Robert Dorfman in the 2014 production of Harold Pinter's "Hothouse."
Dark & Stormy doesn’t have its own building and probably never will. For the past five years, its home has been a large studio in Artspace’s Grain Belt Warehouse, down the hall from where the New Standards and Dessa sometimes rehearse. An Equity theater since 2013, it has attracted top talent, including Sally Wingert, Mark Benninghofen, Robert Dorfman, Harry Waters Jr. Luverne Seifert and James Rodriguez.

Before COVID, Dark & Stormy was heading into its next production, John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt: A Parable.” That cast included Chloe Armao, most recently in “Significant Other” at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company; Mo Perry, an understudy in the Guthrie’s “Twelfth Night”; Dustin Bronson, who played pop star Robbie in Lauren Yee’s “The Song of Summer” at Mixed Blood; and Ashe Jaafaru, fresh off an indelible performance in Frank Theatre’s production of Danai Gurira’s “The Convert.” This would have been the first Dark & Stormy play in which Marsh didn’t have an acting role.

We spoke by phone on Thursday morning. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: What was your life like the week before everything shut down?

Sara Marsh: We were in full preproduction for “Doubt.” We hadn’t started rehearsals, but we were in the space – with Mary Shabatura, who designs our lights, and Matt Anderson, who’s directing – rearranging it and playing with lights. And I was doing five shows a week of “The Dixie Swim Club” at Old Log Theater. We opened there on February 27 and were scheduled to run through May 29, a lot of health insurance weeks. That was a really solid, great gig, with a great group of people.

Governor Walz’s press conference happened on March 16, the day I refer to as the apocalypse. In the space of an hour, everything was gone. Literally everything. Within 48 hours, I was not only laid off [from Old Log], but I had to turn around and lay off other people [at Dark & Stormy]. That was brutal.

MP: Weren’t you also moving to a new apartment?

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SM: I had just given notice on March 1. It seemed like a great time to move. [Laughs.] I got a new car, I had a long gig – two gigs! I had job security. That’s not something you have very often in this industry. When you do have it, you make decisions.

MP: What is your life like now?

SM: It’s a lot of waiting. I’m a very active person. I like to make decisions and act on them. So it’s difficult to not be able to do that. The best thing I can do right now is consider all the options as they rapidly appear and change, and the conditions, and talk to people involved with Dark & Stormy, and make sure that we are positioning ourselves in the best way possible to come back from this safely and successfully.

Sally Wingert in the 2013 production of Adam Bock's "The Receptionist."
Photo by Melissa Hesse
Sally Wingert in the 2013 production of Adam Bock's "The Receptionist."
It’s hard, and it’s scary, but I believe that we can, and we will. My job right now is to be positive and to do that difficult thing that I’m not great at, which is to wait, and to stifle that impulse to act. To be ready is the key thing.

MP: So you’re confident that Dark & Stormy will return?

SM: That’s how I have to operate. This is the thing I’ve always done, this is the thing I know how to do, it’s the thing that I love. I believe in the worth, the vitality and the power of theater. I believe in the necessity of bringing people together, and the necessity of community. I believe that Dark & Stormy has come to play an important role in that.

I had to call all of the patrons who had purchased tickets to “Doubt.” Talk about a tough time! Almost all of them donated their tickets back to the company. And they had such kind and generous things to say about the work we’ve done, how it has moved them and enriched their lives.

So yes. I have to believe that. I do believe that.

MP: What is the status of Dark & Stormy at this moment in time?

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SM: We’re in stasis right now. We’re solvent. We’re just waiting to see when it’s safe to do shows again. We’re small and nimble, and we operate with 50 people and under. We have movable seating and can do shows wherever. So who knows? We’re on hold, because that is the only thing we can do.

MP: Where have you gone for help to keep your theater alive?

SM: My board has been great. We have patrons and donors who have reached out to us – and I’ve reached out to them – who have supported and helped us. Other artists I’m close with have reached out. And friends in the business world as well, who are going through similar things in their own industries.

Sara Marsh and James Rodriguez in the 2017 production of Sam Shepard's "Fool For Love."
Photo by Rich Ryan
Sara Marsh and James Rodriguez in the 2017 production of Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love."
We’ll go back to earned income when we can generate it. For now, fundraising is the way to go. Fortunately, we have low overhead. Everything is low-cost with us. And we’ve always been nimble. We’re not tied to a season. We don’t feel the need to do a certain thing, except maybe a counter-holiday show.

MP: How are you keeping your own spirits up?

SM: Honestly, I have been so fortunate. I don’t want to sugarcoat things – there have been a lot of incredibly tough days, and brutal decisions, and more to come. But there have been good things. I’ve reconnected with people in my life who are incredibly important to me. That has brought me tremendous joy. Surprise and joy.

Things that were kind of everyday, like talking to a friend on the phone, going for a walk or recording a voiceover audition, are highlights of my day. I’m finding joy in simple things that are no longer simple. So that’s a silver lining for me. It’s something I want to carry forward.

There’s been a lot of introspection, too. I’ve done a lot of self-work. I’ll come out of this better, I think.

MP: What’s the first thing you’ll do when it’s safe to do whatever you want?

SM: I want to go sit in a bar and have a meal! I’ve been thinking about Dusty’s in Northeast, a dive bar up the street from the theater. We would sometimes go there after a performance. We went there often during [Sam Shepard’s play] “Fool for Love.” I miss that vibe, the natural camaraderie that happens when we’re all there together. I’m not even drinking – I just want to be in a bar!

I’m an extrovert. I don’t have to know people. They can be strangers. I’m at home with that. I like being around people in a shared space. That’s why I love the theater. Theater is even better, because you get to tell stories and share in a specific experience, and it’s ephemeral and it never happens again in just that way.

James Rodriguez and Luverne Seifert in the 2016 production of C. Denby Swanson's "The Norwegians."
Courtesy Dark & Stormy Productions
James Rodriguez and Luverne Seifert in the 2016 production of C. Denby Swanson's "The Norwegians."
I miss everybody. It’s been a lonely time. I look forward to starting to see what it looks like to ease things up, carefully.

MP: What is the most important thing people can do to help?

SM: Donate. In terms of keeping us afloat, or any theater afloat, it’s donate. In terms of keeping our spirits up, if you’re not able to donate and you just want to let us know you’re thinking about us, you can always post on Facebook or Instagram or send us an email. We know things are tough out there, and we know too well that people are losing jobs and income. I shut the theater phone down to save money. But send us an email and let us know what about our work impacts you the most, what show has impacted you the most. What do you love about what we do? That’s the kind of stuff that feeds the soul and keeps us going. Knowing there’s a need and a want for what we do.