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Duluth Playhouse moving out of Depot, consolidating at NorShor Theatre

The Duluth Playhouse cited a rent increase at the Depot and a desire to focus its operations in the city's Historic Arts and Theater District.

NorShor Theatre marquee reading RAGTIME MAR 18 - APR 3
The Duluth Playhouse, which is based at the NorShor Theatre and presents shows like "Ragtime" there, is now moving more of its programming to the Superior Street landmark.
Contributed / Wes Drummond for the Duluth Playhouse

DULUTH — The Duluth Playhouse announced on Thursday that it will be vacating its longstanding presence in the St. Louis County Depot to consolidate its public performances and education programming in and near the NorShor Theatre.

The organization cited rising rent at the Depot in addition to a desire to focus its energy in the city's Historic Arts and Theater District, where it will also present shows at the Zeitgeist Teatro Performing Arts Theater across Superior Street from the NorShor.

"This move secures a sustainable future and an overall improved experience for our staff, artists and patrons," said Duluth Playhouse Executive Director Wes Drummond in a news release. "At the same time, other performing arts groups now have the opportunity to apply for the space in the Depot."

Mary Tennis, executive director of the St. Louis County-owned Depot , said: "I am very, very sad to see them go, but I respect their decision. They will always have a place here at the Depot, so if they decided down the line that they needed access to the stage again, I'd do my best to provide that for them."

Opened in 1892, the Depot hosts of series of celebratory events starting with Sunday's first of three building tours in March.

In the news release, the Duluth Playhouse cited "significantly increased cost due to changes in lease negotiations with St. Louis County" as a factor in its decision. Tennis confirmed the Depot has been raising rents incrementally since 2020 as the cost of building operations has gone up.

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"We're just slowly but surely trying to work in basic utility costs into our rent agreements," Tennis said. "We're trying really hard to create a sustainable, healthy building that doesn't rely too heavily on the taxpayer."

The Duluth Playhouse is based in the NorShor, which it has managed and operated since the venue reopened in 2018 after an extensive reconstruction. The NorShor stage has been home to the company's showcase "NorShor Season"; the NorShor will now also become the venue for the company's Family Theatre shows, which currently take place at the Depot. The Playhouse's contemporary-oriented Underground series will move to Zeitgeist.

Family Theatre shows and Underground shows will complete their ongoing seasons at the Depot, moving east as of next season. The Playhouse, which also currently rents rehearsal space and dressing rooms at the Depot, promises a farewell celebration for the Depot stage at some point in the future.

In the Duluth Playhouse news release, the company's Family Theatre artistic director Amber Burns said: "I am really excited, because this is an opportunity for us to take the children’s program to the next level. The kids who are taking our classes and who are in our shows receive professional training. They are ready for the priceless opportunity of performing on the historic NorShor stage."

In a video message to the community, Burns spoke directly to the youth who have been studying and performing in the Playhouse programs: "You are so professional and you are so talented and you are ready for this stage." She emphasized that "nothing's going away. We are keeping all of our programming and we're going to grow."

"We will certainly miss performing in the Depot spaces that many people have called home for decades," said Drummond in the press release. "It’s important to remember that since its founding in 1914, the Duluth Playhouse has had many homes. We are now fortunate to have a spectacular performance space at the NorShor."

The Depot will remain home to seven more tenants: the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, North Shore Scenic Railroad, St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth Art Institute, Minnesota Ballet, Arrowhead Chorale and the Depot Foundation. (While legally separate, the Railroad Museum and the North Shore Scenic Railroad operate in close association.)

Whatever happens next will be a new chapter in a long history for the Depot, which just celebrated its 130th birthday . After passenger rail service to the Depot ended in 1969, it reopened in 1973 as a heritage and arts center. The Duluth Playhouse has been presenting work at the Depot since 1977.

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Ken Buehler, executive director of the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, pointed out that the entire arts wing that extends from the Depot's west end was built to attract the Duluth Playhouse.

"That brought both the the Minnesota Ballet, and also the Duluth Playhouse into the Depot itself, and when that happened, it greatly extended the reach of the arts, culture and history that we are in the building," he said.

"I think that it's a wise move for the Playhouse," Tennis said. "I totally understand. It sounds like a really efficient move for them. I love what's happening in the HART District." She said plans are in the works to accept proposals for new uses of the space the Duluth Playhouse is vacating. "It'll definitely be a public process."

"The Playhouse has been a vital part of not just the St. Louis County Depot, but our whole community," Buehler said. "We're going to miss the Playhouse." An even bigger change for the Depot may be in the works, though. Speaking optimistically of the prospect of long-distance passenger rail service returning to the Depot , Buehler said: "That train will change everything. That's revolutionary."

This story was updated at 10:04 a.m. March 25 to reflect that Matinee Musicale is no longer based at the Depot, and to add mention of the Depot Foundation as a current tenant. It was originally posted at 5:35 p.m. March 24. The News Tribune regrets the error.

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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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