Class act: stages for all ages in the Twin Cities

The new Steppingstone Theatre stage in St. Paul is ready for play.
Photo by Rich Ryan
The new Steppingstone Theatre stage in St. Paul is ready for play.

When SteppingStone Theatre celebrated the opening of its new performing facility in December — $4.8 million spent to turn a handsome century-old church sanctuary into a stunning 430-seat auditorium — several stories referred to the 20-year-old company as St. Paul’s only theater for young audiences.

Well, that depends.

To make that claim, you’d have to discount the Flint Hills International Children’s Festival, which takes place every spring under the auspices of St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. The annual budget for the six-day festival, most of it covered by grants from corporations and foundations, ranges from $300,000 to $500,000, compared to SteppingStone’s not unimpressive $850,000 annual budget.

And you’d have to exclude the Young Artists Initiative, a threadbare operation that somehow manages to put on a season of child-cast plays in the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center for Community Building on St. Paul’s West Side. Last year, the theater’s founders, Jefferson Fietek and Ben Lacina, managed to mount a season of plays in St. Paul and a weeklong summer camp near Lake Mille Lacs on an astonishingly minuscule budget of just $1,500. Their secret: Almost everything is donated and nobody gets paid.

The Young Artists Initiative's staging of "Alice in Wonderland."
Photo by Jefferson Fietek
The Young Artists Initiative’s staging of “Alice in Wonderland.”

 

You’d also have to ignore the numerous “school performances” and education programs that occur throughout the year at other St. Paul theaters — including History, Penumbra and, especially, Park Square — and niche operations, such as CB Productions, a one-person program run by SteppingStone’s founder and former artistic director, Carla Barwineck. Six years ago, Barwineck started a theater training program for home-schooled kids and now puts on two shows a year in the student center of the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

These examples reflect the huge extent of theater activity for children in the Twin Cities. Last spring, when the American wing of the International Association of Theater for Children and Young Audiences held a conference in St. Paul, a common bragging claim was that the Twin Cities area has more children’s theater “per capita” than any other community in the country.

But when the national group’s vice president, Lenora Inez Brown, was asked to verify that claim, she demurred. Instead, she offered a “strong tide raises all boats” sort of theory.

“First of all, you have a lot of theater in general, and a lot of children’s theater specifically,” said Brown, who teaches dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at Chicago’s DePaul University. “Second, you have some of the best — and a long history of doing world-class work.”

CTC: the Goliath among Davids
When she said “long history,” Brown was referring, of course, to the Children’s Theatre Company, which was founded in 1965 and has been the area’s second-biggest resident theater operation (behind the Guthrie) for more than three decades. In the world of children’s theater, CTC is a Goliath among Davids. But in terms of its influence on its peers, size probably isn’t its most important contribution.

From its earliest beginnings, CTC established itself as the creator of an estimable art form for young audiences, and critics and audiences soon acknowledged that CTC’s work wasn’t just cute theater for kids. The bar was set high and has, for the most part, remained high — as was demonstrated in 2003 when CTC became the first theater for young people to receive a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater.

CTC’s current artistic director, Peter Brosius, isn’t shy about stating his theater’s place. “We are acclaimed by the field as the leading theater for young people in North America, and we are among the leading theaters of our kind in the world,” he said.

When asked to explain their theories for the size and variety of children’s theater in the Twin Cities, Brosius and other theater artists tend to reply that the local culture places an exceptional value on theater arts in the upbringing of children.

That begs a chicken-and-egg question: Which came first — theater for children or audiences that crave and value theater for children? A reasonable answer: both, lumped together and bound up in serendipity.

Because of CTC’s size and quality — and because of the size and quality of the local theater community in general — generations of artists have been inspired to work in children’s theater and there has been enough economic stability here to support them. And being artists, theater people are not only inspired by what Goliaths like CTC accomplish, but also by what they perceive the theater doesn’t do. Inevitably, proliferation follows.

Aidan Sponheim as Jack and Berit Bassinger as Jill in the Youth Performance Company's "Babes in Toyland."
Photo by Larry Rostad
Aidan Sponheim as Jack and Berit Bassinger as Jill in the Youth Performance Company’s “Babes in Toyland.”

 

Enduring powerhouses
While there’s a lot of theater for young audiences in the Twin Cities, groups and projects tend to come and go. Those with long staying power include, in addition to CTC, the 20-year-old SteppingStone Theatre, along with the 19-year-old Youth Performance Company in South Minneapolis, and Stages Theatre in Hopkins, founded in 1984. All have professional staffs and fairly sizeable budgets — though none approaches CTC’s $12.5 million budget (the Guthrie’s, by the way, is $26 million).

And each has its geographical and philosophical niche. For instance, SteppingStone Theatre and Stages Theatre, located on opposite sides of the metro, share a declared mission of creating work for young performers. SteppingStone uses actors ages 8 to 18 almost exclusively, and the performers in Stages Theatre shows are mostly children. Both theaters regularly commission new plays, though Stages often seeks adaptations from children’s literature, according to Artistic Director Sandy Boren-Barrett.

Both devote a major portion of their performances to school and community groups. Both have sizeable operating budgets — $1.6 million for Stages and $850,000 for SteppingStone, an increase from $659,000 after opening its new theater. For the past decade, Stages has been the anchor tenant in a 725-seat theater in the Hopkins Center for the Arts and its reputation had a lot to do with drumming up support for building the facility.

Both theaters have budgets in the black, and Stages has operated with a surplus for the past three years. Several years ago, SteppingStone, which has never had a deficit season in 20 years, launched a campaign to raise $5.3 million for its new theater renovation and as a hedge on future operating expenses. By the time the new theater opened, $4.2 million had been pledged.

“I guess it makes us a little nervous,” said Richard Hitchler, SteppingStone’s artistic director. “We don’t have millions left to raise, but we do have a million.”

The leaders of both SteppingStone and Stages are fiercely proud of their work.

“Some people still have the sense that theater for young audiences is less meaningful,” Hitchler said. “It’s not true. What we do is as valid as anything at the Guthrie.”

Kids can be tough critics
Stages Theatre’s Boren-Barrett thinks her theater’s audience demographic is a tougher sell than many adult audiences. “With movies, the Internet and video games, kids today have a pretty high threshold for the ‘wow’ factor,” Boren-Barrett said. “It forces us to do our job well. None of us are dumbing-down for anybody.”

Youth Performance Company, which rents the Howard Conn Theater at Plymouth Congregational Church in South Minneapolis, parses its season to offer an emphasis on shows that appeal to adolescents.

Many of the company’s shows reflect social justice issues — such as an early play that dealt with the integration of Little Rock High School in the 1950s — or cusp-of-adult themes, such as a recent show titled “The Talk: An Intercourse of Coming of Age.” The latter show, created by a program called “The PG-13 Initiative,” was made into a DVD that has been shown in 28 states.

“Our goals are to develop extraordinary artists and art, as well as exceptional leaders,” said development director Catherine Conzet. “In a way, we’re using theater as a vehicle to build a community of young people in the Twin Cities.”

Youth Performance Company’s budget last year was $730,000. “We are the smallest of our peers,” Conzet said. “But that has nothing to do with our ambitions.”

Sharing the funding pie
All share the same network of nonprofit funding sources — grants from corporations, foundations, some government arts funding and gifts from patrons. All raise operating expenses from school performances and fees from their own educational programs. General-audience ticket income covers a third or less of expenses.

Does so much theater for young people strain local financial resources for the arts?

“That’s a hard question,” said Vickie Benson, arts program director for the McKnight Foundation.

“There are never enough resources, but that doesn’t mean the art shouldn’t happen,” Benson said. “I don’t think (theaters for children) have more trouble finding financial support than anyone else in the arts. It’s never been easy. But that’s not why people go into the business. They’re not doing it because it’s easy. It’s a drive and it’s important.”

Moreover, Benson believes arts in general — and theater for children in particular — don’t exist as competitors, but as alternatives.

“Everybody has found their niche and they all complement each other,” says Barwineck, who founded SteppingStone Theatre back in 1987.

“When you look at the life span of these theaters — 20 years for many of them, closing in on 50 years for Children’s Theatre — you understand what kind of a base there is for this kind of theater around here,” Barwineck said. “There are so many young people out here who want to be acting, who want to be passionate about something. That’s why we’re here.”

David Hawley, a former reporter for the Pioneer Press, writes about theater for MinnPost. He can be reached at dhawley [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Audrey Riddle on 01/21/2008 - 01:18 am.

    Nice story. I have 2 daughters who have participated in some of these programs you have mentioned. We are thrilled that there are so many options around the Twin Cities for kids.

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