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DSSO, Minnesota Ballet open curtain on new era for Depot performance spaces

Two theaters formerly used by the Duluth Playhouse will host a wide range of performances and events, including dance and chamber music.

Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Brandon VanWaeyenberghe and Minnesota Ballet Executive Director Maude Dornfeld smiling
Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Brandon VanWaeyenberghe, left, and Minnesota Ballet Executive Director Maude Dornfeld pose in front of a mural near the entrance of the Depot Theater in Duluth on Wednesday, Dec. 28.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Two of the city's most prominent performing arts groups are finalizing plans to reopen a pair of spaces inside the St. Louis County Depot, welcoming a wide range of performances and events in addition to presenting their own shows.

"We want to be very accessible to the community," said Depot Director Mary Tennis. "We're hoping that everybody can afford a ticket to whatever is going on there."

The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra will run the Depot Theater, a 280-seat venue on the Michigan Street level of the structure's performing arts wing.

"The vision we have coming into it," said DSSO Executive Director Brandon VanWaeyenberghe, "will make this a very active and vibrant space as part of our downtown. We're looking for people to come in and and help us create a tone for the space, whether it's through musical performances or small theater, or even things like lecture series, speakers, comedians."

Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Brandon VanWaeyenberghe on stage at the Depot Theater
Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Brandon VanWaeyenberghe is pictured on the stage at the Depot Theater in Duluth on Wednesday, Dec. 28.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Minnesota Ballet will take over what they're now calling "Studio Four," a nearly square open space occupying 2,250 square feet on the Depot's lower level. With a ticket lobby near the base of the stairs leading down from the Great Hall, Studio Four is visible from a mezzanine currently used for St. Louis County Historical Society exhibits.

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"We'd like to make it an affordable and inclusive venue for emerging artists in the community," said Minnesota Ballet Executive Director Maude Dornfeld about Studio Four, "with a focus on dance performance, because it will be equipped as a dance studio and performance space. Because (the dance) floor is modular and can be picked up and moved, (the space) could be used for other performances as well."

Minnesota Ballet Executive Director Maude Dornfeld gesturing with her hands
Minnesota Ballet Executive Director Maude Dornfeld discusses plans for use of the "Studio Four" space on the lower level of the Depot in Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Proposals and process

The moves mark the end of a yearlong process during which the county-owned Depot asked all prospective tenants — including those already in place — to submit proposals outlining how their organizations would use space at the historic train station.

Proposals were due in June. In March, the Duluth Playhouse announced it would be ending its longtime tenancy at the Depot and consolidating operations across downtown in the Historic Arts and Theater District. There, the Playhouse is based at the NorShor Theatre, also using performance space at Zeitgeist and storage space in the Encounter building.

The last Playhouse show to be staged in the Depot Theater, formerly known as the Family Theatre, was "High School Musical," which closed with a sparkling grape juice toast Aug. 14. The final Playhouse performance in Studio Four, formerly called the Underground Theatre, was a collaboration with Zenith City Horror on "Rocky Horror Picture Show" from Oct. 27-30.

Wall displays at the Depot Theater
Wall displays of happy and sad faces hanging outside of the Depot Theater in Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

With Duluth Playhouse offices closed for a holiday break, staff there were unavailable to be interviewed for this story. The organization's producing artistic director, Phillip Fazio, confirmed via email that the Playhouse completed its move in December.

"Since its founding in 1914, Duluth Playhouse has performed out of many venues," wrote Fazio. "The Playhouse is fortunate to now call the HART District home. We look forward to building new memories while continuing to provide high quality programming for our community."

The Playhouse cited rising rent as a factor in its decision to move, and rent was a sticking point for some ongoing tenants as well. Leaders at the Duluth Art Institute criticized the "sudden imposition" of a request-for-proposal process mandated by "a long-unenforced law."

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The Depot Theater
A wide view of the Depot Theater in Duluth. The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra will use the 280-seat venue.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Tennis has defended the rent increases as necessary given rising utility costs and the county's responsibility to taxpayers. Looking back at the request-for-proposal process, she said, "it was a big change, and I think we knew going in, it was going to be kind of a difficult one to tackle. But now that the dust has settled a little bit, I'm really excited for 2023."

While Tennis and her staff are working to transition the performance spaces and other areas, they're also gearing up for a next round of proposals. "We have to restart the RFP (request for proposal) process pretty much immediately," she said, since "we only entered into one-year leases for 2023."

The Depot in Duluth
The Depot, located at 506 W. Michigan St., Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Why not offer longer leases? The Depot is undergoing "a huge project" upgrading the building's infrastructure, explained Tennis. Parts of that project are already underway, including the recent portico construction as well as other work that hasn't been as conspicuous.

Tennis said the Depot is hoping to receive state bonding funds to complete the upgrades, which will entail work affecting tenants' use of their spaces — thus, potentially, the terms of any leases overlapping the construction period. "There are still a lot of moving parts to this," said Tennis, "but our goal, really, is to have longer-term leases with this next round of RFPs."

In the meantime, said Tennis, the Depot's tenants are "really revved up and excited about the building and what's been going on ... programmatically, I feel like everybody is really, really shining."

In partnership with tenants, the Depot's administration has been working to create events that will attract new visitors to the 1892 landmark. On Friday, it's hosting a free marathon of three Nicolas Cage movies: "National Treasure," "Con Air" and "Face/Off."

"The building's for everybody, including Nicolas Cage fans," said Tennis. "There's going to be waffles there, so I think I might be fueling myself."

New spaces, new work

The DSSO, in addition to assuming management of the Depot Theater, will move its administrative offices to the Depot. "Our offices are, right now, in the sub-basement of the U.S. Bank Building," said VanWaeyenberghe. "It's always been difficult for people to find us down here."

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The new arrangement will also raise the visibility of Minnesota Ballet, which has administrative offices and two studios accessed via a staircase curving down from the performing arts wing's rotunda. (The company also has a third, separate, Depot studio, hence the name of the new Studio Four.) There's a sign above that staircase, but it's hardly conspicuous.

"Studio Four" space at the Depot in Duluth
A wide view of the 2,250 square feet of space on the lower level of the Depot in Duluth that the Minnesota Ballet will take over called "Studio Four." The area includes alcoves where spectators can watch from up above.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"Minnesota Ballet has been literally tucked away in the basement," said Dornfeld. When the company is using Studio Four, "someone visiting the Depot might be able to wander through the mezzanine and then take a peek over and see one of our performances in rehearsal."

In recent years under the Duluth Playhouse, Studio Four was known as the Underground Theatre, with a typical seating capacity of 150. The room, originally used for the handling of rail passengers' baggage, will be Duluth's most visible performance space used primarily for dance.

"It's got such a great vibe," said Dornfeld about the space. "Our dancers and our students are just so excited to be able to be in that space with those beautiful high ceilings."

Both the DSSO and Minnesota Ballet will continue to use the DECC's Symphony Hall for mainstage shows, while using their new Depot spaces for more intimate performances.

"We are looking forward to not only encourage people to come out and try something new with our musicians," said VanWaeyenberghe, "but also fill in a niche that hasn't really been fully explored in Duluth in a while."

That niche includes chamber music: performances by small ensembles of musicians. Many masterpieces of the classical repertoire, such as J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and Ludwig van Beethoven's string quartets, were written for chamber ensembles. So are many new pieces by composers working today.

"There are some pieces that require not only orchestral musicians but also dancers and actors," said VanWaeyenberghe. "A small ensemble (of) eight to 12 players would fit, really, right at home in that space."

Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Brandon VanWaeyenberghe and Minnesota Ballet Executive Director Maude Dornfeld chatting.
Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Brandon VanWaeyenberghe, right, talks with Minnesota Ballet Executive Director Maude Dornfeld near the box office window at the Depot Theater in Duluth on Wednesday, Dec. 28.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

"There's already been some talk of collaborative performances," said Dornfeld. "With us being right down the hall, we'll have lots of opportunities for those kinds of things."

As with music, there are some dance pieces best suited to closer confines. "Each year we do a mixed repertory performance, a little more contemporary in nature," said Dornfeld. "That will be our debut performance in Studio Four, featuring some works choreographed by our artistic director, our ballet master, a couple of our own company members, and an invited choreographer, Adam McKinney."

That program, called "Forward," will be presented in February. The DSSO isn't quite ready to announce a specific date for their reopening of the Depot Theater.

"We are working really closely with the county and Mary (Tennis) to confirm when new curtains and new equipment — lights, speakers, another sound system — is to be installed," said VanWaeyenberghe. "Our target is to have it available after March 1 for people to rent and perform. We have a few performances potentially ready to go in March, April and May."

Dornfeld said her organization is working to secure funding to expand its education programming through the new space, particularly for students facing financial barriers. Company members are excited, she added, for the new opportunities that Studio Four opens up for classes, rehearsals and performances.

"Nothing brings people together like the shared experience of a wonderful artistic performance," said Dornfeld. "Support of the arts, for a community of this size, makes it a really special place to live."

"This move comes at a really great time for the organization," said VanWaeyenberghe, citing the DSSO's pride in growing its subscriber base despite pandemic disruptions, as well as the success of recent initiatives aimed at increasing accessibility and elevating new voices.

"This fits right into that vision of us being more connected to the community," he said, "and building a stronger community through what we do."

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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