By Carolyn Walkup
Park Square Theatre and SteppingStone Theatre for Youth have entered into a memorandum of understanding to join the companies under one roof. Together they will operate out of Park Square’s larger space in the historic Hamm Building at 20 W. Seventh Place. That will allow them to lower overhead costs while retaining separate finances and boards of directors and expanding theatrical experiences for all ages.
Joining forces “makes a lot of mission and financial sense,” according to Mark Ferraro-Hauck, SteppingStone’s executive director and Park Square’s interim executive director.
SteppingStone is in the process of selling its building at 55 N. Victoria St., which it has outgrown, Ferraro-Hauck said. Maintaining that century-old Greek Revival building was expensive, he added, and Park Square’s two stages will allow the companies to present productions simultaneously.
“Our goal is to keep both stages active,” said Michael-jon Pease. “It’ll be a rocky road for a couple of years after COVID-19 is over. Some people are telling us they won’t go back to the theater until a year after there’s a vaccine.”
“Our goal is to keep both stages active,” said Michael-jon Pease, Park Square’s former executive director who will stay on as a part-time consultant through the transition. “It’ll be a rocky road for a couple of years after COVID-19 is over. Some people are telling us they won’t go back to the theater until a year after there’s a vaccine.”
Until audiences do return, the theaters are surviving on donations, loans and revenue generated from mostly virtual programming, Ferraro-Hauck said. Each theater received two forgivable loans through the federal Small Business Administration to help keep them afloat during the pandemic—a Paycheck Protection Program loan and an Emergency Injury Disaster loan.
Donations make up roughly half of the two theaters’ income, according to Paul Sackett, Park Square’s board president and long-time donor. “We have people who are very supportive and want to see the theaters not only survive but thrive,” he said. “Both theaters have a long history in Saint Paul, and we hope they bring joy and insight to the human experience.”
Park Square got its start in 1975 as an 80-seat theater in the Park Square Court building in Lowertown. It moved to its 350-seat proscenium theater in 1993 and added a 200-seat thrust stage in 2014. Not only a theater for the general public, Park Square conducted educational programs and produced shows for between 23,000 and 30,000 high school students each year prior to the pandemic.
SteppingStone traces its beginnings to 1987 as a small school residency program at the former Chimera Theatre in downtown Saint Paul. It moved into the former Grace Community Church on Victoria Street in 2006 after renovating the sanctuary as a 430-seat theater.
SteppingStone was able to produce its summer camp this year. The camp typically enrolls about 12,000 students, but this summer it was offered virtually and in a hybrid model that included some socially distant in-person classes. A highlight for middle school and high school students was producing the original play Alice in Covid Land.
SteppingStone also went ahead with Little Mermaid, a play that was in auditions when COVID-19 hit. “We rehearsed on Zoom and later outdoors wearing masks,” Ferraro-Hauck said. “We did three performances outdoors on West Seventh Place in August.”
In the coming weeks, the two companies will offer a series of virtual programs. Park Square will partner with the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society on the presentation of two stories based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 horror classic Frankenstein on October 19. Park Square will also present the three-part “Theatre of the Macabre” online from October 29-31.
In the coming weeks, the two companies will offer a series of virtual programs. Park Square will partner with the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society on the presentation of two stories based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 horror classic Frankenstein. “Long Live Frankenstein” by Tim Uren and “Inglorious Monsters” by Joshua English Scrimshaw will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Monday, October 19, in the style of an old radio show with music, sound effects and commercial breaks.
Park Square will also present the three-part “Theatre of the Macabre” online from October 29-31. Actor and director Craig Johnson will emcee the three pre-recorded programs. Recommended for ages 12 and older, the evening shows will include tales of terror, ghost stories and scenes from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare and others. For more information and tickets, visit parksquaretheatre.org.
SteppingStone will present Family Day Out: Halloween Edition from noon-4 p.m. Sunday, October 25, on West Seventh Place. The event will include socially distant trick-or-treating, a costume parade and two performances of the play Pickup Truck Opera. For more information and the required reservations, visit steppingstonetheatre.org.
“It’s time to have fun again,” Pease said. “This is a good way to get a number of audiences together in a way that seems natural. It’s an artistic buffet for Halloween.”
In November, SteppingStone will offer a month of theater classes for children. Students from preschool through high school will create adventure plays, explore social and climate justice and create improvisational comedy. These and other fall programs have set costs, but are being offered with “pay as you are able” discounts.
The flexible payment policy is intended to open the theatrical experience to more diverse audiences, which is part of the two theater companies’ mission. Pease described the philosophy as “Don’t leave revenue on the table, but don’t leave people out in the cold.”
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