The Beginning of Things

After the “crash of the Southern Theater” in 2011 Damon Runnals inherited a theater on the verge of bankruptcy. Almost as if the last administrative directors had turned off the lights and left the key under the front door matt, he was left as the only full-time staff and a organization in ashes.

“We were toxic,” Runnals said looking back, “We had no funding support after May 2011. We were very toxic looking to foundations and I don’t blame them. We really had to bootstrap it for the next four years.”

Three years prior in 2008, longtime director Jeff Bartlett had been forced out of the organization, an interim team of outside managers ran the Southern and did a search to bring in Patricia Speelman at the new executive director. Late in that same year, Runnals was brought in as Production Director to, in his words, clean up “a toxic technical process for artists using the space.”

“The Phoenix metaphor is very apt because a lot of people felt it was over and that’s what we were talking about internally. It was a full on, strip it down to the bare essentials and start over. In all honesty, that is what really excited me the most. We were able to hit a reset button in a way that a lot of organizations don’t get to do.”

Fringers gather outside of the Southern Theater in Minneapolis after a performance. Photo: Tony Webster.

Fringers gather outside of the Southern Theater in Minneapolis after a performance. Photo: Tony Webster.

Not all of the Southern’s troubles in 2011 were internal. Just down Washington Ave at Hennepin, the Cowles Dance Center opened with a focus on attracting more successful dance companies away from the Southern. The Guthrie Theater had opened a three stage multiplex just blocks up the river in 2006 with two auditoriums and a black box experimental space. The Out There series of theater and experimental performance moved back into the newly remodeled Walker Art Center with its McGuire auditorium meant to transform the modern art museum into a live performance venue. With new auditoriums, the large arts centers all competed directly for the companies and audiences the Southern Theater was best know for presenting since the late 1970s.

“On the tech side of things, even as the organization went through financial difficulties for the next three years, people were happy and it created good karma for myself and my team so that when it came time for me to take over in 2011, I was trusted to run the organization and take care of it in a way that was artist focused and artist centric.”

For a decade or longer, the old building that had opened its doors in 1910 as a theater at Seven Corners, the Southern after years as a adult film movie house, served as a hub of new theater and dance, serving Minnesota artists as a place to create. In an entertainment nexus, neighbors included Dudley Riggs, Theater in the Round, Mixed Blood and a variety of music venues nestled next to the University of Minnesota on the West Bank it thrived. But the entertainment center was shifting and dispersing across the Twin Cities.

600 Years
The Southern stage became home to theater creatives and dance choreographers like Jon Ferguson who mounted his adaptation of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” in 2008; Leslie Ball’s weekly midnight BALLS Cabaret; the Out There Series with visiting companies like John Malpede’s LAPD, a group of homeless storytellers; and local dance companies Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands’ TU Dance, Carl Flinks’ Black Label Movement, and Live Action Set.

In order to revive the Southern after the financial collapse of 2011, Runnals was forced to bear down and pay the bills with rentals. With little more than the scared brick walls, acid washed cement and a roof and a skeleton proscenium. the Southern, never-the-less, was the raw space where artists were excited to create. After much anger with Bartlett’s dismissal, the artists and community had to be willing to forgive and, as Runnals explain, “with transparency” they came back to support the recurrently morphing space.

“There is an inherent magic to the Southern,” he observes in hindsight, “We never would have made it without the support of the artists community. I see artist now coming back to the southern and saying I want to create for that space.”

Longtime Southern artist and performer Jon Ferguson returned, giving the space new hope and continuity and then other followed.

“The Southern doesn’t actually make anything.” Runnals points out, “We don’t have an in-house company, we don’t put up our own shows; we co-present; we put up other peoples work.”

Theater rental houses can be like a street corner church on wedding days in June—each event or performance means something only to the guests of the married couple and family but just a parade of repeated rituals to the bystander or surrounding community. They subsist by passing a basket and collecting the rent.

“To me it is important to have spaces like this, where people can go and expect both a level of professionalism and a level of artists adventure and risk taking. Absent a place like this, these companies have to hop around and go to various venues.” said Tad Simons longtime theater and arts critic for Mpls/St. Paul Magazine and weekly entertainment papers. The connectedness between community, practicing artists, and a location with a stamp of dependability for creative work is important to a thriving arts culture.

“It’s very difficult for the Southern to create a large body audience because, more often than not, those audiences are tied to that company. If you have all these companies performing you’re not necessarily going to get cross-pollination.  Creating a momentum for the Southern to grow I think is very challenging because your always selling someone else’s product.” Runnals spells out.

The Venetian Twins

The resurrection of the Southern Theater has been dramatic and impressive. With more than 25 productions by resident companies presenting new and original works and a curated line up, the theater has blossomed once again in a creative hallow essential to the Twin Cities theater scene.

“Everything you see here is new and, for the most part, a first-time production.” he explains with an earned pride for a resurrected season with a returning audience excited to see what will be offered the next month or in the fall.

After 2014, ARTshare became a binder to a mix of all these desperate companies – dance, music and theater. ARTshare has been termed the Netflix of live theater performance. Play a monthly subscription rate at about the same or less than a single performance and attend as many productions as you wish in a month.

“If you like Savage Umbrella or Blue Water than you’ll probably like Sandbox Theater. For 18 dollars a month, you can come see all of it with ARTshare. If you like one you can come back and if you don’t enjoy others in rep you can skip and take in the next.” Runnals urges.

Upcoming 2016 Shows:



Chekov’s The Seagull
[Theater] Theatre Novi Most
March 4 – 27

Here Now
[Dance] Kaleena Miller Dance
March 11 – 13

John Cage: Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano
[Music] performed by Dr. David Shaffer-Gottschalk
March 14

“I don’t normally do this…”
[Dance] Pramilla Vasudevan & Justin Jones
dance created by people who make things other than dance
March 19 – 20

[Dance] Presented by Nankin Butoh Dan
March 23 – 25

[Dance] Mathew Janczeksi’s ARENA DANCES’
April 1 – 24

Cheer Up Gary
[Theater] Presented by Four Humors
April 8 – 22

“Will turn the Southern on its head”
Kid Simple: a radio play in the flesh
[Theater] Presented by Swandive Theater
April 29 – May 22


The Sparrow
[Theater/Dance] Live Action Set
May 6 – 20

Buried Child by Sam Shepard
[Theater] Red Bord Theater
May 27 – June 19


Ballad of the Pale Fisherman
[Theater] Transatlantic Love Affair
June 3 – July 17

Ivey Award-winning production remounted
The Beginning of Things
{Dance] Dance & Other Behaviors
June 23 – 26


A Hill in Natchez
[Dance/Music] by Joseph Horton
July 14 – 17

First Nights of a Foot Flight
[Dance] Eclectic Edge Ensemble
July 21 – 24


The Venetian Twins
[Theater] Jon Ferguson’s Theater Forever
September 23 – October 16

Single Shoe Productions
Crazy Glue
November 17 – 20

S.H.E. in HerStory
[Dance} by Al Taw’am
December 8 – 11

ARTshare page:
Reserve Tickets:
Tuesday night’s are pay-what-you-can at the Southern

Southern Theater
1420 South Washington Ave
Minneapolis, MN  55454
(612) 340-0155

Robb Mitchell
Robb Mitchell has written about arts, entertainment, travel and food for the past 25 years in the Twin Cities and discovered coffee doesn’t ask questions; Italian espresso understands tranquility for only a moment.
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