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Northrop’s Kari Schloner: ‘My crystal ball is broken’

On Sept. 29, Northrop will host its first live performance in more than six months when Katelyn Emerson plays the refurbished Aeolian-Skinner organ for a limited-capacity audience of 250 or fewer.

In a normal year, Northrop presents approximately 1,500 events serving about 270,000 people. This year, because of COVID-19, Northrop has been closed since mid-March.
In a normal year, Northrop presents approximately 1,500 events serving about 270,000 people. This year, because of COVID-19, Northrop has been closed since mid-March.
Courtesy of Northrop

Anchoring the northern end of a grassy mall, facing Coffman Union across Washington Avenue, Northrop is a commanding presence on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus.

Northrop opened on Oct. 22, 1929, with a performance by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, which called it home until 1974. Over the decades, Northrop hosted all kinds of events: dance, concerts, theater, lectures, comedy, graduations, and opera, including 42 summers of the Metropolitan Opera’s annual tour.

Starting in 2011, Northrop underwent a three-year, $88 million transformation that reduced the size of the main theater and vastly improved sightlines and acoustics. A second lobby was added, along with academic offices, student lounges, a seminar room, another smaller theater, more restrooms and a café. At the grand reopening in 2014, the American Ballet Theatre danced “Giselle.”

In a normal year, Northrop presents approximately 1,500 events serving about 270,000 people. This year, because of COVID-19, Northrop has been closed since mid-March. Events have been canceled, rescheduled or recast as virtual.

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On Tuesday, Sept. 29, Northrop will host its first live performance in more than six months when Katelyn Emerson plays the refurbished Aeolian-Skinner organ for a limited-capacity audience of 250 or fewer.

Kari Schloner has been director of Northrop since 2018, after two years as general manager. She oversees the vast venue’s operations, finances and strategic direction. Earning her BFA in technical theater and MFA in stage management, she has spent her life in the arts, stage managing Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa and an opera theater in Cedar Rapids, tour managing the State Ballet of Georgia, working as entertainment representative at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel and artist relationship manager for Hennepin Theatre Trust.

Kari Schloner
Photo by Tim Rummelhoff
Kari Schloner
Even today, she remembers her first experience with the arts. “In preschool, I played the Little Red Hen in ‘The Little Red Hen.’ That was my only time as an actor on stage.”

As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: What did 2020 look like for Northrop before mid-March?

Kari Schloner: We were standing on the edge of a really exciting time. We had hired a new director of programming the previous June [Kristen Brogdon], and we were ready to launch her first season in mid-April. We were two-thirds of the way through a strategic planning process with some new priorities for Northrop.

We were doing really well with the current dance season and music season. The performances were coming out beautifully, the audiences were fantastic, the sales were great. And we were coming up on hiring a couple of new positions.

MP: You mentioned new priorities for Northrop. Can you give an example?

KS: While we haven’t yet been able to finalize our strategic plan, the catalyst of COVID-19 has pushed us faster than we intended toward a couple of these. One thing we were talking about was planning for our hundredth anniversary. In anticipation of that, we were getting ready to launch a commissioning program. When COVID hit, we turned some cancellations into commissions. That’s something we were able to move forward sooner than we anticipated.

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MP: Northrop is at the University of Minnesota, and the University of Minnesota has a medical school. Were you getting early hints that trouble might be on the way?

KS: We do have some advantages, being part of the university. As you know, we have a new president [Joan Gabel], and she is so sharp, so on top of it and so communicative with the university community. Our leadership was communicating about COVID-19 well before we had to shut down. That gave me some lead time.

I was looking back at how this all started rolling for us. The first email I remember sending to my staff was in January. [It described] what our different scenarios might be if the pandemic came knocking on our door. So, yeah, we were thinking about it all the way until we were in it, and a lot of that is because of the communication we received from the university.

MP: A lot of people were taken by surprise, and many were saying in March, “We’ll be open in two weeks, maybe three.”

KS: I was right with them on that. I keep saying my crystal ball is broken, and the planning that I’m doing is based on what I see at the moment in that broken crystal ball.

Katelyn Emerson
Photo by Rosen-Jones Photography
Katelyn Emerson
In January, we were planning for what it would look like if our staff had to work from home part time or full time. We were thinking about event cancellations. But we certainly didn’t foresee months and months of closures.

On March 13, when we canceled the first round of events, we canceled through April 30. I was sure at the time that come May, we’d be back up and running.

As the weeks go by, we’re no longer talking about days and weeks. We’re talking about months and years.

MP: What was the last event you saw at Northrop before it closed?

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KS: It was [dancer and choreographer] Kyle Abraham [on Feb. 29]. It was fantastic. We were two days away from Shin Lim, the magician, and had to pull the plug on that. We had to pull the plug on Martha Graham’s EVE Project and the Minnesota Orchestra concert with Cameron Carpenter, and Paul Taylor. It’s heartbreaking to run through the list of cancellations.

MP: How does one go about closing a building the size and complexity of Northrop?

KS: That’s another place where we have an advantage and a lot of support through the university system. We have an entire facilities management team. We have HVAC professionals. These are very good resources for us as we care for our building.

MP: Because of Northrop’s recent renovation, you basically have a brand new building. Is your HVAC system up to the task?

KS: Our entire HVAC system was replaced during the renovation. It’s state-of-the-art. We’re very fortunate in that. Our university HVAC team has a group that is working with our specific HVAC team on increasing outdoor air ventilation. They are replacing filters with Merv-13 filters. I never thought I would know so much about HVAC.

MP: Is Northrop feeling safe to you?

KS: It is. It’s such a big space, and we have so many planning protocols in place. I feel very fortunate that here in the state of Minnesota, we have really good guidance from a Stay Safe plan that is specific to our seated venues.

Northrop has a reopening committee made up of 10 folks from across departments, and they have been scouring the Stay Safe Minnesota guidelines and the guidelines from the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health. We have industry resources such as the Event Safety Alliance guide to reopening venue. This team of people has put together what I think is a very impressive plan for reopening safely.

MP: How many people were working in Northrop on a normal day before the building closed?

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KS: Northrop itself has 32 full-time employees, and we have several hundred IATSE employees [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] who come and go. We have probably over 100 student employees who work with our production team, our box office staff and our front-of-house ushers. We have students in marketing and development.

Then there are the academic programs – the University Honors Program and the Institute for Advanced Study – and they have their own staffs. And then there’s the Surdyk’s Café staff.

MP: How many people did you have to furlough?

KS: With our full-time employees, we did not furlough anybody. Our event-facing staff pivoted to other types of work, as we have a very full calendar of digital events. We are using the university’s pay cut and furlough program, which has affected 40 percent of my full-time staff members. The university instituted a pay cut and furlough program that basically affects the top earners.

MP: Including you.

KS: Looking around my industry, I feel very fortunate to be working.

Kari Schloner: "In a 2,700-seat auditorium, you have a lot of room to spread out."
Courtesy of Northrop
Kari Schloner: "In a 2,700-seat auditorium, you have a lot of room to spread out."
MP: What has been lost in the past six months? What have you had to let go?

KS: I hate to think of anything being lost forever. When I think about things that are lost, I think about the K through 12 field trips that won’t happen this year. I think about the staff members I won’t be adding. I think about Kristen [Brogden’s] first season, which will never be what she wanted. But most of those things will be recovered in time.

MP: A little over two months after Northrop closed, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.

KS: It still takes my breath away to think about that day – May 25. That was two months after we had canceled our events. We felt like we had kind of gotten our feet back under us. And all of a sudden, the rug was ripped out again. It was really hard for my staff to watch the injustice.

We responded in several different ways, some internally facing and some externally facing. Some of our staff live in communities that were deeply affected. We gave them the opportunity to act and help.

When we look around Northrop, we are a primarily white organization. We know that change starts inside. Our IDEAS committee – for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access Squad – is focusing on hiring as a priority. Once the hiring freeze lifts, I’ll be very excited to implement hiring practices the committee is recommending.

We turned what would have been a summer music series into a fall music series and called it Amplifying Solidarity. We worked with four other university partners, Radio K, Multicultural Student Engagement, the School of Music and Weeks of Welcome, to program a series that also included a screening of the film “A Breath for George.” That was one way for us to amplify voices that have been marginalized.

MP: What are some of the preparations you’ve made to reopen Northrop?

KS: One of the things that folks will notice when they come back to Northrop is everyone will be wearing masks. Instead of ushers scanning tickets at the interior theater doors, we’ll be scanning tickets at the exterior doors. That will give us the opportunity to welcome guests, scan their tickets – our ushers will be behind Plexiglas barriers – and walk each patron through the Minnesota Stay Safe checklist. And then, when they get inside the door, we’re limited to 250 people. In a 2,700-seat auditorium, you have a lot of room to spread out. The artist may find this a bit disconcerting, but I think the audience will find it comforting.

Our facilities management team has acquired misters that will allow them to sanitize the theater seats. We have hand sanitizer stations at every entrance to the building. We’ve limited our elevator occupancy and will encourage people to use the stairs as much as possible.

Our public drinking fountains are not in service, but we do have touchless water bottle filling stations. So we’re encouraging people to bring their water bottles with them.

We’ve moved to digital programs, so we won’t be handing out physical programs.

MP: And there will be no intermissions.

KS: We’ve worked with almost all of our [dance] companies to eliminate intermissions. Some shortened their performances and added a second performance. That allows us to combat the capacity limitations.

MP: The dance companies have all agreed to have their performances streamed, as an alternative to attending in person. Isn’t that kind of a big deal for dance?

KS: It’s a huge deal. It’s something that really has not been done in the past. We are forging new paths with that one. In our strategic plan, one thing we were narrowing in on was livestreaming. At the time, we were thinking about getting our K through 12 matinee program out to Greater Minnesota. We had already put about a year into a research phase. We were able to lean into work that had already been done and adapt it for this new need for livestreaming digital content.

Social-distance signage on the floor of the Northrop lobby.
Courtesy of Northrop
Social-distance signage on the floor of the Northrop lobby.
I want to be really careful not to think about this as a replacement for live performance, but as a bridge back. I do think that digital delivery will be part of our world into the foreseeable future. But there is nothing like live performance.

MP: What has kept you motivated for the past six months?

KS: Northrop’s mission statement starts with “Rooted in the belief that the arts are essential to the human experience.” I think a lot about what that means in my life and why I do what I do. It’s because I truly believe that the arts are essential for the human experience. That’s what keeps me motivated.

I think about what my life would be like without the arts. I do this mental exercise of removing every arts experience I’ve ever had. I remove every concert I’ve ever seen, every play I’ve ever watched, every note I’ve ever played on a piano, every painting I’ve ever done, every museum I’ve ever visited. I remove all of those experiences and look at what’s left. And that’s when I know the arts are essential to the human experience, and I have to keep going.

MP: As you prepare to reopen, what is your biggest concern?

KS: A couple of things. Access is one. With a 250-person capacity in the building, I want to make sure that as many people have access to it as possible. That being said, I do have the digital solution to that. An unlimited number of folks can access the arts through digital channels.

Another concern for me is balancing financial sustainability and mission fulfillment. This has always been a kind of dance for our organization. Now it has become more of a wrestling match.

Northrop receives meaningful financial support from the University of Minnesota. That being said, approximately one-third of the support we receive is paid right back into the university’s central cost pools. A large percentage of Northrop’s budget is made up of earned revenue from ticket sales and venue rentals, along with contributed income from individuals and organizations who value the arts in our community. And each of those sources of revenue have been, and will continue to be, severely impacted by the pandemic – from university support, to earned revenue, to contributed income.

MP: Is there a silver lining anywhere in here for you?

KS: Absolutely. COVID launched our livestream program. That offers an opportunity for Northrop to reach those outer Minnesota schools. That’s especially important in a year when you’re not getting access to field trips. Beyond that, a lot of these schools wouldn’t have the ability in the best of years to make it to Minneapolis for the arts experiences. The fact that we were able to launch our digital program so quickly and so robustly is, to me, a silver lining.

MP: What will you do when you can do whatever you want?

KS: I will hug my mother without fear. I will attend a live concert. And I will stop pestering my 14-year-old about washing his hands and wearing a mask.

***

In-person tickets ($25-16) are available now to Katelyn Emerson’s performance on Northrop’s pipe organ on Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 p.m. A livestream option ($5) is also available.

View the whole Northrop 2020-21 season and buy tickets here.