Theater Space Project (TSP), the nonprofit organization that aims to provide affordable theater rental space for small companies, has its sights on a new location near Selby and Dale, after closing the Lowry Lab Theatre earlier this year. The building, which has been vacant for five years, is just an empty commercial space right now, with no bathrooms or electricity, but Carol Schweickhardt, Executive Director of TSP, envisions the space as an ideal location for the small organization that helps small theater companies present work at affordable prices.
In January, Theater Space Project found out that they would have to move out of their previous location — The Lowry Lab — in downtown St. Paul when St. Paul Conservatory for the Arts, a charter school, needed space to grow.
The Lowry Lab was the organization’s second location after first opening The Fourth Street Theater at Fourth and Minnesota, next to the current location of Señor Wong’s restaurant. TSP moved out of that space in 2006, and opened up the Lowry Lab three months later.
A theater major in college, Schweickhardt owned a business teaching childbirth classes for 30 years. In the 1990s, she got involved with the Refreshment Committee, a theater company, where her husband, Kurt Schweickhardt was artistic director at one point. “I loved being involved with that,” she said, and she saw first hand the desperate need for rental space. She thought starting an organization that aimed to fill this need would be fun and interesting.
Theater Space Projects began in 2000. “At the time, there wasn’t enough rentable theater space downtown,” she said, especially for small companies that don’t expect to have more than 50 people in an audience.
TSP doesn’t curate or censor companies they rent to, instead renting space to theaters by the week, on a first come, first serve basis.
After being at two different buildings that TSP renovated from the ground up, Schweickhardt said she’s found there are three questions to ask when looking for the perfect space: “It’s got to be affordable, there can’t be content restrictions, and there’s got to be parking,” she said. “If people can’t park, they won’t come or they won’t come a second time.” The Selby and Dale spot does have a very small parking lot, and there’s also street parking.
At first, Schweickhardt said she was hoping TSP could purchase the Selby building, and had applied for a St. Paul Cultural Star Grant, which unfortunately they didn’t receive. Currently they have a purchase agreement with the owner, and are undergoing 60 days of due diligence, ending on November 24, during which time they have to get inspections, find out about cost and round up funding. During that time, the landlord can’t sell the place to someone else. If they end up going through with the purchase, it will be a contract for deed, where the owner carries the loan and it has a short term- in this case 5 years. If they aren’t able to purchase the building, Schweickhardt said the organization plans to lease, Schweickhardt said.
Roughly, the building needs $270,000 to renovate, including adding electricity and plumbing, putting in walls and a sign out front.
“If someone handed us $60,000, I would make a down payment and fix the bathrooms,” she said. Luckily, the organization already has a lot of the equipment they need in storage, including a light board, a sound board, lighting instruments, and some seats and tables.
“We could go rough and edgy,” she said.
Companies that have performed at Lowry Lab included Theatre UnBound, Table Salt, Gadfly and Theater Coup d’ Etat. Since they’ve closed, all those groups began performing in Minneapolis.
“The space is needed in St. Paul,” she said. The Selby Dale location has a lot of potential, too, she said, because it’s close to so many small businesses, like the Muddy Pig and the Mississippi Market. Additionally, the surrounding neighborhood hopefully will prove more fruitful than people living downtown.
In the past, TSP’s model hasn’t generated a lot of earned income, instead doing what they could to support the theater companies that used their space. Going forward, Schweickhardt said she hopes to at some point get a liquor license, in order to generate funds. She’d also like to streamline one place to handle ticketing, and to take credit cards as an organization.
TSP is holding an open house and conversation opportunity for theater companies interested in looking at the space on Monday, November 4, from 4-6:30 p.m. People will meet at 644 Selby for a tour of the location, then walk to the Muddy Pig for futher discussion. See their website for contact information and to RSVP.
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