As children arrived in small groups at the back door of a majestic temple-like building on St. Paul’s Victoria Street, there were some subtle indications that this was an unusually creative crowd. One youngster sported a crisp fedora, and another walked in laughing about the fact that she’d unwittingly coupled her school letter jacket with a pair of fuzzy slippers.
The century-old building, a former church, is the new home of SteppingStone Theatre. The children were arriving for a rehearsal of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever!, the first production to be staged in the new facility. The cast assembled in a circle on the altar-turned-stage for a warm-up with music director David Simmons, an energetic man wearing a bright blue floral-print shirt. When Simmons directed the performers to take their places, one girl in pigtails broke into an enthusiastic stationary jog. “Baby angels, please don’t run in place,” asked Simmons, referring to the girl’s role in the pageant. Nodding in acknowledgement, the angel-in-training slowed her exaggerated steps to a walk.
“It’s really exciting,” says ten-year-old cast member Liam Skulley. “The new space is much bigger. We can have more fun, do more things.” Eleven-year-old Mira Grinsfelder, appearing in her second SteppingStone production, agrees. “The new space is a lot cooler. We can have our practices right in the theater, and there’s room to really spread out.”
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of SteppingStone’s founding as a company producing theater for young audiences with casts consisting almost entirely of children. When Richard Hitchler became artistic director a decade ago, an uncomfortable crunch was already apparent. “I went to the board of directors and said, ‘If we keep growing at the rate we have been, we’re going to outgrow our space in just a few years.’”
Hitchler’s prediction proved correct, but it took several years before an appropriate space could be identified; in the meantime, SteppingStone continued to make creative use of available space in St. Paul’s Landmark Center. The building on Victoria, built as a Methodist church and most recently home to the Grace Community Church, had been vacant for years. Condominium developers had planned its destruction, but neighbors organized and successfully lobbied the city council to force the structure’s preservation.
The building officially became the property of SteppingStone Theatre on August 31, 2005, “and we started raising funds on September 1,” says Hitchler. The comprehensive renovation, which created space for SteppingStone classrooms and offices in addition to the performance venue, cost more than $3 million. According to Hitchler, “the transition is going very well. The new space is allowing us to meet our goals of offering more access and more opportunities.”
Among those opportunities is a chance for young people to play significant roles backstage. The nature of the company’s performance space at Landmark Center made it impossible for children to work on lighting or sound, but the new space was designed to accommodate young technicians. Thirteen-year-old Brianna Peterson, who performed onstage in a previous SteppingStone production, is among the crew members for Christmas Pageant. “There are so many more things we can do now,” says Peterson. “We can have bigger sets, we can have better lighting. Compared to this, the old space was like a small box.”
“This is a unique location,” notes Hitchler of SteppingStone’s new neighborhood. “We’re midway between Summit and Selby. It’s very accessible.” The accessibility is not just geographic, says Robyn Matthews-Lingen, whose children—as well as her partner Ann—are participating in their first SteppingStone production. “The parent community has been so welcoming. It’s just a huge mix of good people. And the staff makes sure that the kids all get to know one another as well.”
On stage, Simmons was smiling as he encouraged his cast to enunciate properly. “We are Americans!” he boomed. “Our vowels dipthong!” “Dipthong!” cheered the children in response. Calling for a break in the rehearsal, Simmons dropped into a front-row seat to assess the new space. “I’ve been involved with the company since it started twenty years ago, when we were working in someone’s basement. I love this new space. We can have larger casts, which is relevant to our mission of bringing theater to the entire community.”
Even though its paint is barely dry, the new stage already feels like home to the children who will be the first to perform on it. When Liam Skulley—veteran of two previous SteppingStone productions—is asked if he’s nervous about the moment the curtains open to reveal an audience nearly twice the size of that at the previous space, he shakes his head. “Not really.” Then he pauses. “Well…maybe a little bit. Just a teensy bit.”
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! plays from December 1-22 at SteppingStone Theatre, 55 N. Victoria Street, St. Paul. For tickets ($11 adults, $9 children/seniors), call (651) 225-9265.
Jay Gabler is a writer specializing in culture, the arts, and entertainment. He is assistant editor of the TC Daily Planet.