Gaining steam: Stillwater theater effort at old Zephyr depot is gaining steam
STILLWATER, Minn. — For a theater space that hasn't opened yet, the future home of the Zephyr Theatre in downtown Stillwater is sure getting a lot of use.
Last week's calendar of events included a book launch on Sunday, a black-and-white movie classic for teens on Monday, and a wine-tasting and direct-selling event on Tuesday.
"We've had thousands of people come through," Calyssa Hall, the theater's artistic director, said during a tour of the old Minnesota Zephyr depot building last week. "We've done plays, concerts, a book launch, poetry readings, art exhibits. We had a Broadway singer a few weeks ago. We're not just raising money; we're actively producing while we are raising money."
The Zephyr Theatre has an Oct. 31 deadline to raise the first $1 million to buy the property at 601 N. Main St. As of Thursday, , Oct. 19, they had raised and received more than $900,000 in donations, pledges and commitments, Hall said.
Reaching the $1 million mark is key, she said, because then the group can apply for grants from local foundations and work with banks on financing.
The group's goal is to raise $6.5 million, including $2.5 million to buy the property and $3 million for renovation and construction of a new 330-seat theater. The balance will seed an endowment at the St. Croix Valley Foundation to pay operating expenses and ensure sustainability, Hall said.
If all goes as planned, the theater will open in the fall of 2019, she said.
Plans call for a 13,000-square-foot addition, including theater and rehearsal space, a vestibule and dressing rooms. "You will come in on stage level and then it rakes up," Hall said of the theater. "It's about the same pitch as the ... proscenium stage at the Guthrie. Everyone has a good view; you don't have to worry about tall people."
The building's kitchen would be demolished to make way for the theater space; the addition would extend the building by about 30 feet to the north and be about 8 feet higher than the existing building.
Rehearsal space would be on the lower level, beneath the stage. "That significantly increases our revenue potential because while we are rehearsing our next show, we can actively have a touring group performing or a concert or whatever," Hall said.
The existing depot would be used for the lobby, offices, a small rehearsal space and a bakery and coffee shop. Groups would be able to rent out the space for shows, concerts and meetings.
'Huge arts community'
Hall, who is 26 and lives in Afton, founded the theater company Only a Dim Image Productions, now a nonprofit group. She and her father, Franz Hall, an architect who is helping spearhead the Zephyr effort, rented theaters in Minneapolis to produce musicals such as "Gigi," "Lady Be Good!" and "The Philadelphia Story."
But finding theater space became difficult, especially after the sale of the 400-seat Music Box Theatre on Nicollet Avenue, where Only a Dim Image's last show was produced, Calyssa Hall said.
"We started looking for our own space," she said. "We looked at some places in St. Paul, but I grew up in Afton, and we know the Valley. We thought, well, if we're going to do a theater company, we've got to do it in the Valley where we already know there is this huge arts community. We came in here, and we thought it was perfect."
The Halls announced their plans in March 2016.
Suzann Brown, chairwoman of the theater's board of trustees, and the late Norm Steere, a longtime advocate for live theater in Stillwater, worked for years to create a gathering place for film, music and theater events in downtown Stillwater. Steere died in December at the age of 89.
"We looked at multiple spaces, including the armory," Brown said. "Everybody said that they wanted a theater in downtown Stillwater, but nobody was willing to write a check."
Brown said the depot's "energy, spirit, history and location" are ideal for the project.
"It's this incredibly welcoming spot on the river," she said. "There is this momentum now. With the closing of the lift bridge and the opening of the new bridge, people are seeing potential for our Stillwater that hasn't been seen in decades."
A professional , not a community, theater
The Zephyr board has received gifts and pledges ranging from $15 from a 12-year-old boy to $100,000 from an anonymous donor, Brown said.
On Tuesday night, Kristina Marshall sold wine at the fundraising event. She donated 10 percent of her sales to the group's efforts.
"It will be really good for the downtown area, especially in the wintertime because it is kind of seasonal here," said Marshall, who also is a professional photographer who has studio space in downtown Stillwater.
Hall, who graduated in 2016 from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, has worked as a freelance director, musician, stage manager, production coordinator, lighting designer, technician and instructor for professional and community theaters and for the Stillwater Area School District.
The productions that Hall has produced have been "terrific," said Elissa Cottle, also a member of the board.
"She did 'Midsummer's Night Dream' in local parks, and they were wonderful performances," Cottle said. "It was so exciting to see professional theater here, where I live. I'm from Minneapolis, and I still drive in to go to the Jungle or the Guthrie or what have you. We are kind of clamoring for this higher level of theater art out here. This will be a professional theater, as opposed to a community theater. The actors will be professionally paid actors. I'm so excited at the idea of it being here."
The Zephyr would serve the new Brown's Creek State Trail, which runs adjacent to the building, by providing an outdoor snack shop, Cottle said. The theater's bakery would be open to the public during the day and offer desserts during theater intermissions.
Zephyr officials also hope to partner with the St. Croix River Association and the city on outdoor performances at the new Aiple Park just north of the depot building, she said.
Dave Paradeau, who ran the Zephyr dinner train out of the depot for more than 20 years before selling the train corridor to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 2011, said the space is perfect for a theater. The depot has been closed since 2009.
"It's going to be wonderful for the city and the county to have a facility that is going to draw 40,000 to 60,000 people a year year-round," he said. "With that in mind, it's probably the best use of the building."
Paradeau, who is selling the building to the theater group, said the theater will be an economic driver for downtown.