Theatre in the Round finishes accessibility project

Sarah Brouillard

The Theatre in the Round on Cedar Avenue celebrates more than just its 50th anniversary season this year. For the first time, the theater has complete accessibility for people using wheelchairs. Bathrooms, a new front entrance and a wheelchair lift are new accommodations to one of the Twin Cities’ oldest community theaters.

Some may be quick to criticize the theater for taking half a century to make its building more convenient for people with disabilities. But Theatre in the Round is among the few lucky small community theater companies in the Twin Cities and nationwide to receive renovation financing. Those who can’t afford or find funding must continue operations that sometimes inconvenience people with disabilities.

Although public and private funding is widely available for American Sign Language interpreters and devices for hard-of-hearing audience members, and audio-describers for visually impaired people, funding for brick-and-mortar improvements isn’t readily available, said Craig Dunn, executive director of VSA Arts of Minnesota.

Most grant-giving organizations dislike funding a theater’s capital improvements, favoring marquee programs instead. If they do accept grant applications from small community theaters, those requests get lost under the glitzier, high-buck projects of the larger theaters, said Barbara Davis, a freelance arts management consultant. She said even those theaters have to cut through their own red tape.

“Getting capital money for even a larger organization like the Guthrie is an uphill battle,” Davis said. But small theaters looking for small changes – a ramp or a new bathroom – are just a blip on the radar of grant-givers. “They always fall between the cracks,” she said.

“It’s a classic bias,” said Neal Cuthbert, arts program director at the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis. “Funders want money to go to programs because you know those programs are going to serve in the immediate future. With capital, it’s a little removed. You’re investing in the future of that organization – and what if that organization fails?”

In the absence of grants, small community theaters have to raise their own funds – a task that takes time and money from their largely volunteer staffs.

“It takes a lot of time to raise money; you really have to put together a campaign that requires dozens and dozens of volunteers,” Cuthbert said. And that campaign has to be headed by a full-time administrative staff, a resource few small community theaters have.

For Theatre in the Round, a funding campaign wasn’t necessary. Many accommodations for people with disabilities were funded on the go when money allowed: a unisex access bathroom here, a few listening devices there.

“It’s always been a long-time goal of ours for total access and to achieve those objectives as money allows,” said Steve Antenucci, executive director of Theatre in the Round. Over the years, he said, the theater has whittled away at that goal, but the final impetus to fully renovate came this summer.

“As we turn 50, we decided to make a big push and get it all done,” he said.

For Antenucci, funding came by way of connections. He obtained it through the American Express Community Relations Program because many Theatre in the Round staff work day jobs at American Express.


Sarah Brouillard welcomes comments at [email protected]