By Mpls.St.Paul Magazine / Inspired by Lou and Sarah Bellamy's My North
In the 40 years since its modest inception as a community theater program in the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, Penumbra Theatre has become one of the largest and most prominent African American theaters in the world. One of only three professional African American theaters in the nation to offer a full season of performances, Penumbra has been celebrated far-and-wide for its work developing artistic talent. Of the many talents that have launched their careers on Penumbra's storied stage, one notable standout is esteemed playwright August Wilson, one of the most prolific theatrical minds of the 20th century. But this 135 seat theater—founded by artistic director Lou, and which his daughter Sarah now runs as the artistic director—isn’t the only historic theater in Minnesota. Here are five others worth a visit.
Founded in 1914, The Duluth Playhouse is one of the oldest community theaters in the country. The original theater was destroyed by a fire in 1971, but by 1976 the company was comfortably situated in their home-to-this-day, the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, AKA “The Depot.” These days The Duluth Playhouse produces seven shows annually in its 280-seat mainstage theater, one additional Children’s Theatre production, and an assortment of shows in their basement theater space, The Underground. Eventually, the Duluth Playhouse will also put on shows in the historic NorShore Theatre, a one-time vaudeville and movie house that fell into disrepair before a recent push to restore it to its formerly gilded glory.
It might not be the oldest theater in the state, but the Guthrie Theater may be the most important to Minnesota’s artsy reputation, both nationally and globally. Founded in 1963 by Sir Tyrone Guthrie, the playhouse was intended to bring world-class classical theater to Minneapolis—maintaining the same exacting standards as any first-rate theater in New York City, but with none of the snooty Broadway attitude that disenfranchised Guthrie and led to his departure from NYC.
The Guthrie’s artistic output remains vital today under the art direction of Joseph Haj, but equally iconic as the plays it produces is the sleek, blue and yellow theater itself. Built on the banks of the Mississippi River, the Jean Nouvel-designed structure has been a Minneapolis landmark since its inception in 2006. Even if you don’t have tickets to a show, it’s worth visiting the building for a meal at on-premise restaurant Sea Change, and a trip out on the 178-foot-long cantilevered endless bridge.
Red Wing’s “jewel box” theater is so old that the funding for its construction came via a gift from famous grain baron, T.B. Sheldon. Built in 1904 (and completely restored to its ornate splendor in 1988) the Sheldon is among the oldest operating theaters in Minnesota, and is the first municipal theater in the country. Unlike others on the list, the Sheldon is not home to one specific art form, but rather, is a multi-disciplinary stage that hosts everything from plays to concerts to film screenings.
Just a stone’s throw south of downtown Minneapolis, sandwiched between the stately Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia) and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, sits what might be the most important theater in Minnesota. Founded in 1961 as the Moppet Players, the Children’s Theatre Company was the first theater in the country expressly dedicated to telling stories for kids, and remains the world’s flagship theater for young people and families. It stages anywhere from six to 10 productions per year, and boasts student alumni ranging from Laura Osnes to Vincent Kartheiser. And, either before or after your show, be sure to take a stroll across the lobby to peruse one of the finest fine art collections in the country at Mia.
Boasting two independent theatrical companies, Commonweal and St. Mane, the small community of Lanesboro (pop. 754) in southern Minnesota is undoubtedly one of the great rural arts towns in the state, if not the country. Commonweal was founded in 1989, and while the troupe is renowned for staging dramas ranging from Steel Magnolias to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they’re also one of the world’s foremost purveyors of Henrik Ibsen’s work, hosting their annual Ibsen Festival every summer from 1998 to its conclusion in 2017. Just down the street you’ll find the historic St. Mane Theatre, a one-time vaudeville house which was fully restored in 2014, and is now the full-time home of Lanesboro Community Theater.