Words by Lauren Van Schepen // Photos by Marie Ketring
This piece is a summary of a conversation with Damon Runnals at the Southern Theater on Aug. 22, 2014, as part of Pollen and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of the Twin CIties’ joint Breakfast of Champions series. For more information, and for upcoming events, check ynpntwincities.org.
In 2005 Damon Runnals walked into the Southern Theater for a Fringe Festival show and left immediately — turns out it wasn’t the right venue. He didn’t come back until 2008 when he was hired to overhaul the theater’s tech department. Coming from a frustrating corporate job that gave him little but a love of flip charts, Runnals dreamed of a career that aligned more seamlessly with his values. He imagined he just might find it at the Southern.
But it wasn’t quite that idyllic. Runnals did his best — first as head of the tech department and then as production manager — to sort through the Southern’s messy operations, but he was chasing a moving target. In 2008, a new board of directors fired the theater’s longstanding artistic director. Then in 2011, as Runnals participated in the Wilder Foundation’s Shannon Institute, it came to light that the Southern had long been using McKnight Fellowship funds to cover general operating costs. With over $400,000 in debt, closure felt imminent.
That’s when Runnals stepped up. “It was tempting to get laid off, collect unemployment for a few weeks, and try to figure out what I was doing with my life,” he admitted. “But while it was possible I would fail and it may suck, I was ready to take that risk.” A board of directors with few other options was ready as well. Working as executive director and the theater’s only employee, Runnals turned the Southern into a rental facility, eventually earning enough money to pay the theater’s debts and consider alternative revenue models.
These days the Southern is preparing to launch into its first year of ARTshare, a sort of Netflix-for-theater Runnals hopes will address longstanding tensions between artists and venues. “We have to take what has long been a top-down system and turn it into a connected ecosystem,” he said. “As a theater we don’t make anything. We just provide infrastructure. We depend on artists, and our programming has to have them at the table.”
Cautiously optimistic, Runnals is looking forward to seeing how ARTshare and programs like it not only change relationships between institutions and artists, but also the financial health of institutions themselves. “Efficiency is our number one challenge,” he explained. “Every other business finds ways to make things more efficient over time, but not the performing arts. Beethoven’s 10th Symphony is played by the same number of people for the same amount of time every time, but inflation and costs rise. We can’t expect the old models to work forever.”
Reinventing the relationship between artist and venue? Solidifying the financial health of a historic theater? Sounds like a lot of work, and perhaps not an older man’s game.
“Oh, it’s absolutely not sustainable for me,” Runnals admitted. “But at the moment I’m right in the sweet spot for this job, age-wise. I couldn’t do this at 25 years old, and in 10 years I might be too curmudgeon-y. But I hope I’ll take away a willingness to try when your back is against a wall, regardless of age. You need to know enough to get by, but not too much. It’s in that ignorance you can have the grandest visions.”