ST. PAUL, MINN.: Bedlam Theatre has announced that it will close its doors on Nov. 2 due to debts incurred by its current performance space in the Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul. The company, known for its avant-garde performances and radical community engagement, moved into the Lowertown space in 2014.
“When we got the space, it wasn’t ready for the kind of traffic we were anticipating,” says artistic director Maren Ward, who cofounded the company in 1993. “It wasn’t ready for the programming we wanted to do.”
The theatre was leasing the building and planned renovations, which included building a full commercial kitchen and redoing the flooring. During the process, the company learned that the building was not up to code and that the costs of redoing the building’s heating and cooling system would be their responsibility.
Despite the financial setbacks, the company decided to open the space and continue fundraising. A year later, the company created an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for both its short-term and long-term debts. The company raised $27,000, enough to manage the immediate crisis—but the operational costs continued to grow. The company scaled back on its other ventures in the Twin Cities, including producing in a studio space in Minneapolis’s historic theatre district and organizing off-site events in different communities.
“It became a story of a business that was not working, and people not wanting to fund a business that was not working,” says Ward. “The whole vision of it from the get-go was a combination of contributed and earned income—and we knew that our practice and our approach was a unique model.”
Part of the theatre’s financial model was to rent out the space to music acts and operate a restaurant and bar when shows were running. After the renovations, the space had two stages, a complete sound system, and could fit 150 people sitting and 350 people standing. The company also produced music shows, cabarets, and community events in addition to its theatre programming.
Profits from the restaurant and music groups went directly back into the nonprofit. Eighty percent of the income went toward paying artists, and the other 20 percent paid the tech and box office staff.
Ward fondly recalls the first holiday production that Bedlam mounted in the Lowertown space, Beaverdance: A Marxist Fur-Trade Holiday Musical.
“It was a really fun play and it inhabited the venue in a way that we had envisioned,” says Ward. “People came for dinner beforehand, and then we had the music events afterwards. It was really full and the turnover was big. It was a time when you could see visually, emotionally, and numbers-wise the potential of the space.”
This weekend, the theatre will continue with its Halloween programming, including music performances, dancing, and a costume party. For its last day in the space, the theatre will hold its third annual Dia de los Muertos community event.
“It will be an appropriate roll-in for Bedlam memories, and it will be a time for saying goodbye to the space,” says Ward.
“As far as the space goes, I hope that the investment that was made to turn it into this venue that is very well suited for arts and the community—I hope that it is used for that purpose,” says Ward. “I hope that somebody can come in without the debt and can make it work.”
As for the theatre company, the future is still unclear. “I feel good about the vision that we have shared with the Twin Cities and nationally for 25 years,” says Ward. “I feel like it has inspired a lot and I feel hopeful that some of the principles of Bedlam—radical community engagement and making theatregoing fun—that those things continue to impact.”