Years ago, Chani Ninneman and a fellow actor-director made a pact, sinking their thumbs into a bar pizza, a vow made with a saucy print.

They would stage a production of “Hamlet” in 2011. And they did.

John Pokrzywinski played the titular character and directed the modern spin on Shakespeare’s play on a stage with a who’s-who from the local theater scene. A niche company was born and raised.

Wise Fool Theater is in its tenth season of staging classical theater — shows such as “The Taming of the Shrew” at Teatro Zuccone, “Of Mice and Men” at Harbor City or, most recently, “A Comedy of Errors” on campus in a partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

But a repeat staging of “Hamlet,” scheduled to open Oct. 4 at Lincoln Park Middle School, is likely to be the company’s final act.

Brad Damon (Hamlet) holds Jennie Ross' (Ophelia) face while rehearsing a scene from Hamlet at Harbor City International School on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Brad Damon (Hamlet) holds Jennie Ross' (Ophelia) face while rehearsing a scene from Hamlet at Harbor City International School on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Ninneman, the company’s director and keeper, reluctantly posted a 3-plus-minute video to Facebook on Sunday evening with grim news for Shakespeare fans. It’s lights-out for Wise Fool — unless something very significant changes in the next few weeks.

“Basically, I’m just starting to face reality that how we’ve been operating isn’t sustainable anymore,” she said later in an interview. “I’ve been putting myself in personal debt and saying, ‘It’ll be fine.’”

Ninneman said that on Sunday, she was feeling an urgency to make it official. She had already canceled a production of “Anne of Green Gables” — one of the annual family-friendly shows the company stages — so she could pour her resources into making the final “Hamlet” the best “Hamlet.”

“I felt like if I waited any longer, it would be to the point of deceiving people,” she said. “And I can’t do that.”

The real talk

Since that first staging of “Hamlet,” the company has produced about two shows a year, ranging from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to “A Christmas Carol” to “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” — one of a handful of "stage-to-page" productions that gave a copy of Judy Blume’s book to every kid in the audience. Ninneman has also introduced pay-what-you-can Sunday matinees for her shows.

Sometimes this amounts to literal pocket change, but.

“Ethically, I feel like if we’re going to offer a show, everyone has to get a chance to see it,” she said. “Whether they can pay us or not.”

Actors Brad Damon (bottom left) and Jennie Ross (bottom right)  listen as director Chani Ninneman (top right) and fight choreographer Mike Lubke (top center) talk through possible changes the two could make to a scene during rehearsal  of Wise Fool Theater's production of Hamlet at Harbor City International School on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Actors Brad Damon (bottom left) and Jennie Ross (bottom right) listen as director Chani Ninneman (top right) and fight choreographer Mike Lubke (top center) talk through possible changes the two could make to a scene during rehearsal of Wise Fool Theater's production of Hamlet at Harbor City International School on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

On average, staging a Wise Fool production costs between $15,000-$20,000, Ninneman said. The general rule, she said, is that companies try to make at least half of it back in ticket sales. Wise Fool hasn’t been hitting that mark.

Ninneman has had sponsorship from local businesses: Black Goose Chimney & Duct, Ogston’s Body & Paint, Twin Ports Trailer Trash. But never that big check cut from a deep, deep pocket.

“I don’t know how to get myself in front of the people I’m supposed to be meeting,” she said. “Sometimes I feel bad for Wise Fool that I’m the one who had the dream.”

The company’s debut was maybe the company’s biggest success, according to Ninneman. She sold about 1,000 tickets to that 2011 show that featured stage regulars like Luke Moravec, Christa Schultz, Jason Page, Zachary Stofer, Cheryl Skafte and more.

Hitting that mark again could make the difference of whether it’s to be or not to be.

“I’m hoping to sell 1,000 (tickets) to ‘Hamlet 2.0’,” she said. “If we sold 1,000, I would for sure keep the lights on.”

On show biz

Sarah Lawrence, a co-director for Lyric Opera of the North, has two things in common with Ninneman: small artistic company without a home-base theater, work in the classical arts. She’s familiar with scheduling a rented space, working around artists’ schedules, courting and keeping an audience. She’s rooting for Shakespeare on this one.

“I love Shakespeare, and I want to believe it’s possible to have a cool little Shakespeare company in our cool little city,” she said. “I hope this story has a happy ending.”

Ophelia, played by Jennie Ross, and Hamlet, played by Brad Damon, practice a scene during during rehearsal of Wise Fool Theater's production of Hamlet at Harbor City International School on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Ophelia, played by Jennie Ross, and Hamlet, played by Brad Damon, practice a scene during during rehearsal of Wise Fool Theater's production of Hamlet at Harbor City International School on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Jody Kujawa, one of Duluth’s most recognizable actors, has been in a few Wise Fool productions, including “Of Mice and Men” where he played George Milton, a longtime dream role. He credits Ninneman with staging material that larger theaters consider a tough sell: the attention span, the marketing, the preconceptions about the work, the dense language.

“There are points when she proved that audiences are ready,” he said.

Ninneman isn’t sure what has happened in the past three or four years to deplete the audience. She doesn’t believe that there is entertainment saturation, she said. As long as she has been in this business, Duluth has always had a lot going on.

“I don’t know if people are thinking ‘OK, I’ve seen Shakespeare,’” she said.

The show goes on

Auditions for this go-round of “Hamlet” landed just the right people in just the right roles, Ninneman said. Bradley Damon, who has been a regular with this company since debuting in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2015, is Hamlet and Jennie Ross, another go-to lead, is Ophelia; Andrew Kirov, who has hosted a staged and recorded variety show on-and-off since high school, through college, and as recently as in the past month, is Claudius.

“It was pretty magical,” she said. “So I’m really excited.”

Also: Kristen Hambleton, Tony Barrett, Tammy Ostrander. Ann Gumpper has done set design, Kris Biles is on costumes and, before a recent rehearsal, Ninneman was looking forward to fight choreography.

Damon said the cast and crew knew of Ninneman’s announcement before she posted it on Sunday, but everyone has just kept on working. He said he found his place with this company after moving to Duluth in 2014.

“Wise Fool is the only company that consistently does Shakespeare, which is my favorite kind of play,” he said. “They’re also a great blend of community theater and professional theater. Everyone is welcomed and made to feel welcome. We hold ourselves to a high standard.”

As for why they shows have struggled to draw audiences, he can’t figure it out.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t work with business or marketing. I think everyone should see it. I can’t understand the people who aren’t coming.”

If you go

"Hamlet" by William Shakespeare

Oct. 4-6 and 11-13

Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.

Lincoln Park Middle School, 3215 W. Third St.

Tickets $10-$25. Sundays are pay-what-you-can.

218-269-4953

wisefooltheater.com