Park Square Theatre is rising from the near-dead.
After dismissing staff and canceling the remainder of its 2022-23 season in March because of existential money woes, the St. Paul company has announced that it is solvent again and plans to reopen in mid-December. Park Square has raised $650,000 in the past six months to bring its accounts current, theater officials said, and has restructured the remaining loans to make them manageable.
It will begin featuring a series of smaller events, including a "Holiday Hot Chocolate" concert Dec. 15-16 with T. Mychael Rambo and Thomasina Petrus under the brand Live From the Square, before launching a full season in fall 2024.
"If we didn't put in the extra effort, Park Square would've closed its doors," said board chair Mark Howlett. "But we rallied because it would've been a huge loss for an organization that's turning 50 next year and that has meant so much to this community."
Park Square also announced that it has hired theater veteran Stephen DiMenna as its new executive artistic director. A former co-artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club's Stargate Theatre Company and a teaching artist at the Guthrie Theater, DiMenna has helped Park Square use its existential crisis to redefine its vision.
DiMenna first came aboard as a volunteer consultant in the summer, tasked by the board in figuring out Park Square's place in the arts ecology. Even as trustees and staff worked feverishly to raise money to save the theater, which netted $500,000 in 100 days, DiMenna conducted a brand audit.
In looking at the mission and programming of every theater in the Twin Cities, he identified a void that Park Square, which has a 350-seat mainstage auditorium, might fill. DiMenna suggested that Park Square not duplicate quality offerings that patrons can get elsewhere.
"We see great Shakespeare at the Guthrie and Ten Thousand Things," DiMenna said. "What if we narrow our focus to contemporary American plays plus one reimagined classic every year and one midsized contemporary musical."
Park Square has long been known for its murder mysteries, and that audience will be well-tended, DiMenna said. In fact, he promises world premieres of new mysteries.
Beginning as a small, unpaid community effort in 1972, Park Square rose to become a major attraction in downtown St. Paul. It produced its first show in 1974 in an 88-seat walk-up. The theater redefined itself over the years to build a reliable audience, including student productions for shows such as "The Diary of Anne Frank."
In 2022, it merged with SteppingStone Theatre for Youth Development.
This latest vision for the company comes nearly a decade after an ambitious $3.5 million expansion that gave rise to unsupportable costs even as the company became a sort of theater mall. In 2014, Park Square added the 200-seat Andy Boss Thrust Stage in the Hamm Building, upping its offerings to about a dozen shows a year and working with companies such as Prime Productions, Theatre Mu and Full Circle Theater.
While it built goodwill, the upsizing increased costs for the theater without a corresponding increase in staff or income. Shortfalls and burnout became an issue and the company also announced cancelation of plays in 2019.
Now Park Square is emerging from the crucibles accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The company has a skeletal staff of four that will grow as it ramps up productions. And it is planning on doing four or five shows on its 350-seat proscenium mainstage.
Importantly, it has gotten some forbearance from its landlord, Richard Pakonen's PAK Properties.
"This building is a hub for a lot of great stuff and Park Square is a part of that," Howlett said, adding that even before he became a board member, he loved to take in the ongoing Sherlock Holmes productions and to socialize with friends in the cocktail lounge outside the Boss Stage.
The new emerging Park Square model is personal for DiMenna. He was slated to direct one of the canceled productions, Stephen Adly Guirgis' "Between Riverside and Crazy," with actors James A. Williams, Steve Yoakam and Regina Marie Williams. That would have been "a gateway production" to the new vision of the theater, he said.
"It's a family drama but with much diversity," DiMenna said, recalling what he told the board. "It's post-George Floyd and many reckonings in the country. No theater is selling 90 percent anywhere. Let's definitely take care of our loyal patrons, but no model is good unless we develop new audiences."