I wasn’t going to write about the Southern Theater. I heard about the news of their financial difficulty on Facebook. An acquaintance of mine names Charles Cambell posted a status update on his wall: “O Southern, Southern, Southern. My heart goes out to you. (Although my gall bladder remains seething in my gut.)” Moments later, I had read Rohan Preston’s article and felt myself shocked, saddened, and worried about one of my favorite places in Minneapolis.
The reporter in me, admittedly, was a little annoyed that I had been scooped on the story. But as an artist and arts lover, I just felt sick. Three years ago, this city lost Theatre de la Jeune Lune, that magical and wonderful theatre that had inspired me and offered a unique artistic voice in Minneapolis. To lose the Southern, so soon afterward, would be too much of a blow.
At some point, I thought, can’t we, as a society, recognize the value of certain institutions that enrich our cultural life? If we don’t have organizations that support artistic risk-taking exploration, how do we expect that exploration to take place? Groundbreaking art cannot exist off of ticket sales alone. That kind of art needs to have some kind of supplemental funding. In other countries, the government provides funding for artists and arts organizations. In this country, that role has traditionally been played by foundations, but there is less and less foundation funding available.
So I made a comment on my own Facebook page. “If the Southern Theater were a bank, they’d be getting emergency federal funding,” I wrote. The comments spurred a long thread talking about whether we, people who have loved the Southern for years, should help them now when so much trust has been lost. Wendy Knox, Artistic Director of Frank Theater, encouraged me to write an article looking into some of the questions we all had about what has happened. Who is responsible for borrowing from the McKnight Funds? What exactly has been the change of leadership of the past five years, and what is the guarantee, if they can somehow continue, that mistakes won’t be repeated? [Read that article here.]
So I decided to at least try to get some answers, knowing that it would be difficult. What made it even more difficult was my personal connection to the place. I have been seeing shows there since I was a kid. I’ve performed on the Southern’s stage many times, and many of my friends have performed there and worked there also.
Of course the fun part for me was talking to some of the people involved with the Southern at its very beginning. My favorite was Ben Kreilkamp’s story about how the artistic community rallied to save the building when there was a possibility that it might get torn down(although as Lowell Pickett pointed out, it never would have been saved without a $50,000 earmark from a federal grant.)
The hard part about writing the article was this giant fear that I could sense when speaking to a number of my sources. A fear of libel, maybe—a fear of liability. Those are real fears. But if the current Southern leadership wants to have any hope of making it thorugh this, they need to follow through on their statements of wanting to be transparent. At this point they have no choice.
If the worst happens, and we lose the Southern Theater as an organization, is it possible that the building will be saved again? The worst thing that could happen, in my mind, is for it to sit empty for years, or worse, get turned into condos or something horrible like that.
But the beautiful theater is just part of what makes the Southern Theater such a wonderful place. The other piece is the programming. If you’ve ever read any of my theater reviews, you’ll know I’m not the easiest person to please. The Southern is one of the few places in town that, even if they fail, they are at least trying new things, bringing in a diversity of programming that attempts to challenge audiences.
I’m scared. I’m scared about losing the Southern and about what that means for this city as a viable metropolitan center.