Arts Spotlight: Southern Theater, Minneapolis, MN

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Damon Runnals

Small theaters usually don’t make the business section of local newspapers, but the 165-seat, 105-year-old Southern Theater in Minneapolis was featured in the StarTribune last month in an article about fundraising. We were inspired to visit Executive Director Damon Runnals last week.

YPP: How does your “Netflix model” work?
Runnals: We call our theater subscription program ARTshare. For $18 per month members can attend an unlimited amount of resident company performances at the Southern, including drama, dance and music. Currently we have 15 local organizations participating – a range of scripted work, devised work, dance and theater, and movement-based storytelling. ARTshare members can explore exciting, new productions – numerous performances every month – all year long.

YPP: How did the idea originate?
Runnals: We’re trying to come at the performing arts in a different way. As a consumer of theater, I was incredibly frustrated with the hoops I had to jump through: some groups didn’t take credit cards, others required me to fill out numerous online forms and pay processing fees. Back in 2009, some friends and I brainstormed what a Netflix-style theater subscription program would look like. We loved the idea but also believed it would be impossible to pull off.

I shelved the plan until 2011, when I took over at the Southern. Our board and I discussed long-term goals and evolving beyond being a rental facility. To return to mission-based programming, I dusted off the subscription idea. We spent two and a half years working through the program with artists.

YPP: How does ARTshare work for artists?
Runnals: We locked in 15 resident companies for a three-year commitment, together performing roughly 145 nights each year in rotating blocks of repertoire. Roughly half the membership money is given back to the artists in a monthly paycheck.

YPP: What is the non-subscriber ticket price?
Runnals: For any performance, it’s one ticket price of $24, plus a $3 facility fee. We wanted to price single tickets high enough so it only took five or six shows before patrons realized membership made more sense. We’re also adding perks for members, like restaurant discounts.

theater subscription program

YPP: How are subscription sales?
Runnals: We’ve had good growth and are looking for more. Our goal is 500 members by summer and 750 by year-end. We’re currently at 400 members, including 50 student members from the University of Minnesota; we also hope to work with other local colleges. We have aggressive membership goals, but not unreasonable. Word of mouth will be very important.

YPP: Beyond adding subscribers, what are other goals?
Runnals: We want to create a system where everyone is a little codependent. Artists can’t perform without the space and the space needs art. We want to put artists and members at the center of our operation, instead of the theater building.

The ARTshare program is highly reflective of something that’s happening in the industry. More and more, groups are looking at exactly who they serve and crafting programs to meet their needs. For small and mid-sized organizations, the best program you can build is the one that addresses your community’s needs. I’m not sure ARTshare would work at another theater or in a different city.

My wife and I also run a small theater company – Swandive Theater – so I was aware of the challenges faced by the organizations the Southern serves. This program seemed to address most of them.

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