The Nautilus Music-Theater Studio: Making an Artistic Home

ARTICLE BY BEN KRYWOSZ

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Ben Krywosz may be one of the best kept secrets in the Twin Cities performing arts community.  He is an accomplished director and thinker, and his work with opera and music theater has enlightened people for years.  He has aided and mentored a large number of the areas finest musical theater and opera performers over the years as well as offering guidance and instruction to potential writers, composers, and directors of all types of music based performance. I am very proud to be associated with him.  -Mike Wangen

Nautilus Music-Theater’s studio has become an attractive and comfortable place for operatic and musical theater artists to develop their craft. Located in Lowertown St Paul, in the same building as the Black Dog Coffee Shop and Springboard for the Arts, Nautilus works with writers, composers, performers, and directors to explore new ways of telling stories through music. Our studio space is a good example of how motivated artists can use limited resources, creative design, and sweat equity to support their developmental work.

Nautilus began in 1986 as the Minnesota Opera New Music-Theater Ensemble, a program of the opera company. Our 1988 performances opened the Minneapolis Theater Garage, and for the next five years, we performed there, at the Southern Theater, and at the Seventh Place Theater (now Park Square Theater). In 1992, we spun off of the Minnesota Opera as the New Music-Theater Ensemble, and although we kept our offices in the Minnesota Opera building, we continued performing off-site. In January of 1995, we initiated our monthly Rough Cuts series, appearing in informal spaces such as the Soap Factory, College of St Catherine’s, and the Opera Center. In the summer of 1995, we moved to St Paul, settling into a small 800 sq ft room on the second floor of Artspace’s Northern Warehouse, with the express purpose of using it for rehearsals, classes, workshops, and Rough Cuts performances.

The single room measured 50’ x 16’, with 10’ ceilings, and a total of 4 windows, three of them overlooking the alley between the Northern Warehouse and the Tilsner Building. We set off a 10’ x 16’ office area at the far end of the space, and installed curtains, hiding our desks, computers, and copying machine. We hung a wood grid constructed of redwood 2x2’s, and filled it with clip lights for general lighting. Public bathrooms were directly across the hall. We purchased around 50 used plastic folding chairs, rented an upright piano, and for the next few years, held our St Paul Rough Cuts performances, as well as rehearsals for our fully-staged productions and working sessions for our Composer-Librettist Studio. It was cramped, but we had complete control over how and when to use the space. We continued holding our Wesley Balk Opera/Music-Theater Institute at St Kate’s, Macalester College, and then Augsburg College. Sets, costumes, and props were stored at an off-site storage facility in West St Paul.

Around 2001, the space next to us became available, and we rented it for prop and costume storage, a photocopying center with archival files, and a small workshop area. We cut two doors between the side-by-side rooms, doubling our square footage, and giving us a more flexibility for our projects. We upgraded our piano in 2007, and bought new padded chairs in 2008. We continued with Rough Cuts and developmental sessions, and squeezed in our rehearsal process for our off-site shows, which were still presented off-site, including THE LAST FIVE YEARS (at the Loading Dock Theater), MAN OF LA MANCHA and CAROUSEL (both at the Southern), ORPHEUS AND EURIDICE (at the Pantages), and numerous Fringe Festival productions, as well as winning Ivey Awards for our productions of I AM ANNE FRANK (at Intermedia Arts) and SISTER STORIES (at the Playwrights Center).

But in 2010, we were feeling constrained by the financial expense and physical logistics of nomadic performances. In conversation with our designers, we began exploring how we might adapt our little space into a full-blown, if tiny, performance space for fully-staged productions. Focusing on new work as we do, audiences have never been large, and our box office income contributes to, but doesn’t balance, our budget. Artistic flexibility and a supportive creative environment were our priority, and we were inspired by our colleagues at such venues as Red Eye, Off-Leash, Patrick’s Cabaret, and Open Eye Figure Theater.

We began with our 2011 chamber version of JOAN OF ARC, by Mel Marvin and Laura Harrington, set in Joan’s prison cell. Under the guidance of scenic designer Victoria Petrovich and lighting designer Mike Wangen, our tech director Jon Hegge turned our space into a dark claustrophobic dungeon, a sculptural installation that set audience members (46 in all) on both sides of a runway, flanked by two platforms; experiencing Jennifer Baldwin Peden’s performance as if we were the jury. Lights were designed into the set and hung on a metal truss above. At a crucial moment, rain water flowed from the ceiling, cleansing Joan’s transgression. Offstage voices, switching from amplified interrogators to acoustic saints were joined by instrumentalists hidden behind the set. The stage manger, with lighting and sound crew, were positioned in the next room, getting their cues through a closed-circuit video monitor. The sold out production was brought back in Jan 2012, and toured to Winona later that month.

Our second chamber production, in May of 2012, was THE VIEW FROM HERE, Timothy Huang’s one-act piece performed by Joel Liestman, set in an empty New York City apartment. We constructed conventional risers, and put the apartment setting down in our office area (which had been moved into the space next door), hiding the pianist and trumpet player. Hegge constructed a large window, inserted into one of the existing window openings, and we arranged for lights to be hung from the building next door, cable draping across the alley. Being on the second floor, the audience gasped when the character opens the window and prepares to jump, seeing just how high up we were. Conventional lighting instruments were rented or borrowed for this temporary installation. The production toured to Plainview the following year.

Both productions demonstrated to our artists, our board, and our audiences the viability of our miniature studio theater production concept. Of course, we could use just a little more space, but that seemed unlikely given the physical limitations of the building.

Then, in the early winter of 2013, our landlord Artspace alerted us to the availability of two adjoining spaces in our building, down on the first floor. They provided more space than what we currently had, along with sidewalk access, a large bank of windows, and 13’ ceilings. We began to imagine various scenarios for artistic and administrative growth, calculating the additional cost (for both the build-out and the increased rent). We created the basic floorplan, envisioning a flexible non-black box that could be used for a variety of activities. We were fortunate to be awarded grants from the City of St Paul’s STAR Program, and Springboard for the Arts Irrigate Program. Finally, in May of 2013, we started our move.

Phase One of the buildout began by tearing down the plasterboard walls separating the two spaces, clearing the ceiling of unused conduit and other detritus, and having a licensed electrician re-route the electrical box. The design called for an office space, a tech booth, a workshop, an archive room, and a conversation area. We drew upon our theatrical colleagues for much of the construction; tech director Jon Hegge did much of the architectural construction work, and master carpenter Zach Morgan installed a raised wooden floor above the existing rough concrete. A chemical treatment removed 12 layers of lead-based paint on the massive pillars and brick walls, and the ceiling was professionally painted black. Dozens of volunteers helped with the demolition, spending weeks cleaning up and painting. Our baby grand piano was moved in from upstairs. Four custom Levolor blinds controlled the daylight, and we installed lighting pipes on the ceiling beams in preparation for our first studio production in the new space, the regional premiere of Adam Gwon’s ORDINARY DAYS (scheduled to open September 19th).

Of course, best laid plans do go astray, and our ambitious construction schedule went slower than intended. But the show must go on, and it did, with make-shift dressing rooms and plastic draped over an unfinished doorway. Petrovich created a gorgeous two level set, woven in and around the central beams that had served to separate the previous two spaces, now one continuous long and narrow performance area, delineated by two rows of 25 seats each. Wangen had designed a flexible lighting plan, working with a small board and borrowed lights, managed by resident stage manager Conrad Burgess. The show featured a fabulous cast, and was a success with audiences and critics alike, winning another Ivey Award.

Work remained, however, and after the show closed in early October, we finished moving down all of our materials from upstairs. We continued preparing the space for our “grand opening” in late October 2013 -- our first Rough Cuts of the season, with a special celebration of songs built around the idea of “Home”. The space was adorned with artwork, set pieces, and graphics from past productions, and at last, we were up and running. The total cost for Phase One was around $60,000.

In 2014 we developed the new music-theater anthology REACH in the Fringe Festival, offered our Composer-Librettist Studio, and continued Rough Cuts. Then in 2015, we received a capitol grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council allowing us to proceed with Phase Two of our buildout. Zach Morgan put down a OSB-based finish layer on the floor, Hegge installed a bathroom in our one-person dressing room, and we purchased new woodworking equipment for the shop. We created a second work station in the administrative offices. Phase Two cost around $15,000.

In 2016, we presented our re-thinking of the classical musical THE FANTASTICKS (featuring Gary Briggle and Wendy Lehr as the “young” lovers, and the Baldwin sisters as their fathers). This time, we configured the space as a three-sided thrust, with the piano and harp on an elevated platform stage right, along with three sets of risers, accommodating 55 seats; again most performances sold out and the production was well-received. We installed additional lighting positions and purchased an ETC Element lighting board. In 2017, we toured our premiere of TWISTED APPLES to greater Minnesota, bringing it back into our space in an unusual configuration, with triangular stage area bounded by two sets of audience risers. Again sell-out enthusiastic crowds affirmed the wisdom of our choice to focus on our locally-sourced artisanal performance presentations.

We currently have four different projects in development, with our next full production planned for Fall of 2019. A recent STAR Program grant is helping pay for four moving lights, additional computer equipment, and new music stands and rack. Next year, our multi-year strategic planning process (the “Nautilus Genome Project”) finally comes to fruition. All of this is in service to the writers, composers, performers, and directors who need more than a clean, well-lighted place to work. Although the Nautilus Studio was never intended to be a rental venue, we try to make it available to community colleagues when possible, not for full productions, as scheduling can be problematic; but a number of groups have used it for selected rehearsals and gatherings. Recent events have included activities by Impossible Salt, the Twin Cities Cabaret Artists Network, a couple of bluegrass groups with CD release parties, Springboard for the Arts workshops, the Black Dog meditation classes, and many others.

It’s not a big space, but it’s self-contained, flexible, comfortable to work in, and acoustically friendly. It gives us the artistic freedom to make the work that our artists are interested in, without the extra expenses and logistical headaches of rented “professional” venues. The physical constraints of size and the pillars that break up the space (we like to think of them as “creative parameters”) have spurred us on to creative solutions, and have not compromised artistic quality at all. We will still perform in larger spaces when the material and finances makes such a choice appropriate, but chamber operas and music-theater pieces are our stock in trade. We are devoted to providing opportunities for the artistic growth of music-theater artists who create, develop, and produce work that is emotionally expansive, dramatically engaging, and spiritually stimulating. The Nautilus Studio has become one of our most successful tools to carry out that mission.