Venues

I've been to just about every theater venue in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, so I thought I'd share a few observations and tips about location, aesthetics, parking, dining, sightlines, concessions*, and bathrooms** (the important things). If you have anything to share about these or other venues, or questions about things I've missed or stated incorrectly, please comment below.


Bloomington Center for the Arts:
Constructed in 2003, the Bloomington Center for the Arts is home to both Bloomington Civic Theatre and Bloomington Art Center. BCT performs in two theater spaces, a black box theater and one that's reminiscent of a high school auditorium. Although the concessions are a bit lacking (no coffee, but there is a Starbucks a few blocks away), the art gallery space that you can peruse before the show and during intermission more than makes up for it. It's a bit of a hike for those of us who live in the Northern suburbs, but it's worth it (and plentiful free parking).

This Minnesota institution (that Oscar nominated actor Amy Adams once referred to as "the Cadillac of dinner theaters") houses three theaters, a pub, and several dining areas. The main stage features table seating and dinner service before the show and intermission. The food is good, not great, and vegetarian choices are limited. But you don't go to the Chan for the food, you go for the entertainment, and the food is a convenient bonus. Plus, you can't beat dessert and coffee delivered to your table during intermission. The sightlines are great from all parts of the theater, although you sometimes have to negotiate with your neighbor to turn your chair so that you can see and not crane your neck. It's the suburbs, so of course there's free parking in the large parking lot (and it's officially the farthest I will drive to go to the theater).

The shiny new Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts opened a few years ago on Hennepin Avenue (aka the Broadway of Minneapolis). It hosts mostly dance performances in the spacious Goodale Theater (formerly the Shubert Theater that stood a few blocks away), but also occasionally theater. It also provides studio and classroom space in the Hennepin Center for the Arts building.

The crown jewel of the Twin Cities theater scene is the big beautiful building on the Mississippi River. It opened in 2006, replacing the original Guthrie Theater near the Walker Art Center. The new Guthrie houses three theaters (a thrust stage modeled after the original theater, a traditional proscenium stage, and the 9th floor studio black box theater), costume and set shops and storage, classrooms, a gift shop with cute, artsy, eclectic merchandise, and two restaurants (although my favorite place for a pre-show meal is Spoonriver across the street, which features yummy fresh local food with lots of creative veggie options in addition to responsible meat choices).The plentiful bathroom stalls mean you never have to worry about getting back to your seat at intermission (and you can also tell the newbies by their confusion at the sinks). The Guthrie is open most days with free wifi, a coffee/snack bar, and lots of cozy places to sit. It's a fun place to hang out, and you might even spot some of your favorite actors wandering the hall. (Take a tour sometime, it's super cool to get a peek behind the scenes.)

The History Theater shares space with the McNally Smith College of Music in downtown St. Paul. There's not a bad seat in the two-level thrust stage, the lobby is spacious, and there is nice concession selection. The line for the downstairs bathroom can get long so keep that in mind. I always park in the Children's Museum ramp on the corner of 7th and Wabasha, although they have other suggestions on their website, and if you're lucky you might be able to find street parking (free after 5 and Sundays). And if you like sushi or Thai food, check out Fuji Ya or Ruam Mit, respectively, for a pre-show dinner.

Illusion Theater:
Illusion Theater makes its home on the 8th floor of the Hennepin Center for the Arts building (enter the Cowles Center, turn left, and take the elevator up). The spacious lobby offers great views of Hennepin Avenue, with a nice theater space that is never as full as it should be. In a downtown Minneapolis parking deal that can't be beat, Illusion partners with Click and Park to offer reserved pre-paid parking deals at neighborhood lots. A must when the Twins are in town or there's a concert at the Target Center (look for a link on their website).

Named after James J. Hill's grandson, this new theater is just off the gorgeous atrium that is the Great Hall in the 180 East 5th building in St. Paul. The theater itself is fairly nondescript and rather long and narrow. I haven't quite figured out parking in the area, but the best bet is if you can find free after-hours street parking. Concessions vary depending on the show.

The lobby of this little gem of a theater in Uptown is a bit cramped, but it's beautifully decorated (and check out the gorgeous mural on the back outside wall). The theater itself is practically perfect in every way. It's small, with great sightlines from every seat, looking down into a perfect little shoebox diorama created by one of the excellent set designers. The concession booth has the best coffee deal in town - one dollar Dunn Brothers decaf. Note that there are few stalls in the bathroom so you'll want to head there immediately at intermission. There is a reasonably priced parking lot behind the building but it fills up, especially on weekend evenings, so leave a little extra time to drive around in circles until someone leaves, or look for street parking in the surrounding blocks.

Formerly the home of the Guthrie Lab, this cavernous space is one of my favorite in which to see theater. From the street level lobby, you descend two flights of stairs into the large open space that allows for different arrangements of stage and seating. The aesthetically pleasing irregular brick walls provide a wonderful backdrop for the beautiful theater I have seen there. The theater was recently For Sale, and if I were a millionaire I would have bought it. Few stalls in the upstairs bathrooms, and a nice concession selection (yes, including decaf coffee) downstairs. $5 parking in the lot across the street but it's the slowest machine in town, so leave a little extra time for that (or possibly snag some free off-hour street parking if you're lucky).

Located in Lake Woebegon itself (aka Anoka), Lyric Arts is an old movie theater, and it still smells like it -they sell popcorn at the concession stand in the lobby. In what other theater can you eat popcorn while watching the show (well, one other than I know of, read on)? Free parking is available in the small lot adjacent to the theater but it fills up quickly, so take to the streets if need be (ignore the "two hour parking" signs, I was told that doesn't apply during showtime). The spacious lobby has tables at which to hang out and enjoy concessions, and photos from past productions adorn on the walls. The theater space itself is like a movie theater, with seats descending to the stage on the floor. Check out the box sites on the side for a fun overhead view. For a tasty treat before the show, visit Truffles and Tortes Dessert Cafe just down the street (closes at 7).

I love seeing theater at the Garage, and I'm not even sure why. Maybe it's the convenient location (just south of 94 on Lyndale), free street parking, intimate space (just four rows of seats in the wide and shallow theater), large stage area in which numerous worlds can be created, economical price (usually around $20), or the great small theaters that often perform there. I suspect it's a combination of the above. Sadly the Garage will soon be torn down to make way for an apartment/retail complex, but a new theater space is promised. I can only hope the above features can be replicated (with maybe an expansion of the bathroom that currently only has two stalls).

This truly one-of-a-kind theater space is on a beautifully restored historic Mississippi River showboat, permanently docked on Harriet Island across from downtown St. Paul. It hosts the U of M summer show (unless the river is high during flood season) as well as other performances throughout the year. Beautiful view of the river and downtown, and a charming old-timey theater perfect for period pieces. There are a few single bathrooms upstairs and down with typically lengthy lines, and concessions that include boxed popcorn. I'm just dying for someone to do the historic musical Show Boat on the Showboat, it's too good of an opportunity to pass up (calling Theater Latte Da).

Not to be confused with the History Theatre in downtown St. Paul, the History Center has a lovely auditorium in which they occasionally host the History Theatre or original productions. If you are going to an event, make sure to allow extra time to explore the exhibits in the museum or do a little family research in the library (tip: it's open late Tuesday nights, as is the lovely cafeteria). $5 parking in the surface lot, even if there's something going on at the Xcel, just tell them you're going to the History Center.

This old fire station in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis houses the black box theater of Mixed Blood, which I've seen in half a dozen or so arrangements. The lobby is small, concessions are limited (only instant coffee, but on a cold or rainy day it'll do), and just two unisex bathrooms off the lobby. But the quality of the theater you'll see here is always great, and Mixed Blood productions offer something called Radical Hospitality, in which if you show up and there's a ticket available, you get in free. There's a reasonably priced lot just across the street, or look for free street parking in off-hours. There are lots of ethnic restaurants in the area (including a hole in the wall by the Cedar Cultural Center, where I discovered something amazing called "egg curry"), as well as the bar and grill Acadia that promises "no crap on tap," and a great local coffee shop Mapps (my Fringe hangout).

The New Century is the newest and smallest of Hennepin Theatre Trust's four theaters and is located inside the City Center. They host musicians and local theater companies in the space. The stage is wide and shallow stage, but lately more and more shows are building out the stage to more of a thrust. Seats are arranged in long rows or cabaret tables, as required by the show. Sadly, no decaf at concessions, but the individual bathrooms are cute and plentiful. Park in the Marriott ramp, go to Rosa Mexicano for the best guacamole you've ever tasted, and head to the theater without ever going outside. You can pretend it's summer in the middle of winter. (Also check out the parking deals for all Hennepin Theatres on their website.)

I know, it looks pretty unassuming, doesn't it?  But nimbus has managed to create a warm and welcoming space inside what seems to have been a warehouse/garage space. Located in Northeast Minneapolis, nimbus produces original works as well as hosting numerous other small theaters in the space. It's a nice open theater space, although the seats are oddly split into two sections with a wide aisle at center stage. Free parking is available in the small lot outside (I've had to get creative with spacing but haven't been towed yet!). I love it because it's the closest theater to my house, a very important factor.

This charming little theater space houses both Open Eye Figure Theater productions, as well as other theater companies. The stage is probably one of the smallest in town but features a cool brick arch, with audience seating in short rows that can't be more than 8 seats wide climbing to the ceiling. Free parking is available in the lot on the Southeast corner of Portland and 24th, just off 35W, and the theater is located on the Northwest corner of the intersection. Concessions vary, just one or two bathrooms off the narrow lobby (and look for the most creative coat rack I've ever seen).

Ordway Center for the Performing Arts:
On Rice Park in lovely downtown St. Paul, the Ordway hosts both touring theater and dance productions, and their own "Ordway Original" productions. Built in the 1980s, the building features a spacious lobby, a grand staircase ascending to the balcony level, a wall of windows looking out on Rice Park, and a magnificent large theater space with over 1900 seats. I'm so spoiled by all the lovely intimate theater spaces that I sometimes have a hard time connecting when I'm in the back or up in the balconies, but all that space is needed for the Broadway tours that come through. The new concert hall, home of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, is scheduled to open in March 2015, replacing the smaller McKnight Theatre. Check out the website for the "Rock the Ordway" events.

The largest of Hennepin Theatre Trust's theaters is a beautifully restored Vaudeville theater that seats 2500 (ditto what I said about large theaters above). It takes a long time to get all those people into their seats, so make sure to get there a bit early to get in and get to your seat. Bathroom lines are outrageous at intermission, but there's usually an usher in there quickly moving people along. Concessions are overpriced (as are tickets), but it is lovely to look at! Downtown dining options abound (although sadly my favorite, the tapas restaurant Solera right next door to the theater, recently closed). Parking options also abound, with prices varying depending on events, but I prefer the lot kitty-corner across the Hennepin and 10th intersection. (Also check out the parking deals for all Hennepin Theatres on their website.)

This is another historic Hennepin Vaudeville theater, but smaller than the above with just over a thousand seats. The lobby is pretty tight, with more space downstairs where the bathrooms are. The space feels much more intimate than the larger Orpheum and is a great place to see concerts or local theater productions. Check out the parking deals for all Hennepin Theatres on their website.

In the fall of 2014, Park Square opened a second stage in the historic Hamm building on 7th Place in downtown St. Paul. The main stage is located on ground level, with a space that feels intimate yet has plenty of room (and cup holders!). The new Andy Boss thrust stage is located downstairs, accessible either through the Hamm Building lobby on St. Peter or through the main lobby, downstairs past the bathrooms, and down a long hallway. Each theater has its own lobby, concessions, bathrooms, and coat rack. I like to park on the surface lot directly behind the theater at the corner of 6th and Wabasha, for anywhere between $4 and $15 depending on what else is going on in town. Nearby dining locations include Great Waters Brewing Co. (right next door) and several other restaurants within a few block radius, but you might want to make reservations on weekends (again, depending on what else is going on in town).

Penumbra Theatre is located in the Hallie Q. Brown/Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center in St. Paul, just off Dale and 94. Plentiful free parking is available in their lot or on the street. The building showcases beautiful artwork in the lobbies, bathrooms, and theater itself (see photo). The theater space is very unique, almost like a square with the stage in one corner and the seats facing it, creating a semi-thrust stage. Penumbra is not too far from Grand Avenue, which has a plethora of dining and shopping options.

This theater in South Minneapolis features a welcoming lobby and an intimate theater space, with just a few long rows of seats. Pillsbury House focuses on community outreach with various programs including thoughtful post-show discussions. Free street parking is available in the blocks surrounding the theater, and for a pre-show snack check out the charming Cafe SouthSide just a block north of the theater.

Playwrights' Center:
In addition to fostering and presenting readings of new work, The Playwrights' Center also hosts small theater companies in their theater in what looks like an old church on East Franklin. There's a tiny parking lot behind the building, and free street parking if you can find it. The lobby is small but quaint, the theater space intimate. Concessions vary, just two single bathrooms off the lobby.

The theater space is fairly nondescript, the lobby non-existent, concessions vary, and bathrooms are located off a second lobby on the other side of the theater. Lots of small theater companies present cool stuff here, with the stage being a large blank canvas on which they create varied and imaginative worlds. And there's not a bad seat in the house, with just a few long rows of seats split by two aisles. Free parking is available in the Emerson school lot during non-school hours, located on 14th between Spruce and LaSalle.

This is perhaps the most beautiful theater space in town. I just love the brick arch over the large floor stage space, it creates such an interesting backdrop for many diverse works of theater, and it works particularly well for dance with the large open space. Seats rise from the floor with great views from all. The best parking I've found is behind The Corner Bar (go south on 15th from Washington and then take a left into the lot) - an auto-pay lot that's usually $4-5 (and offers validation at The Corner Bar). Dining options abound in the Five Corners, from sushi to Indian, and I've recently discovered the great house-brewed beers and veggie burger at Town Hall Brewery right next door to the theater. Concessions are in the upstairs lobby, which is usually where you enter the theater, with just a few stalls in the downstairs bathroom.

The last (alphabetically) of Hennepin Theatre Trust's four theaters was built as a movie house in the '20s. It's in between the Orpheum and the Pantages in size, and hosts smaller Broadway tours, concerts, and the annual local theater awards, the Iveys. The lobby opens on the LaSalle Plaza, which has several dining options. All three of Hennepin Theatre Trust's historic Hennepin theaters (Orpheum, State, and Pantages) are meticulously restored and just gorgeous theaters, and I'm so glad they were saved from demolition and ruin. Check out the parking deals for all Hennepin Theatres on their website. Bathrooms downstairs.

Unique among theaters in town, Theatre in the Round is just that. The stage has seating on all sides, requiring something they like to call "backting." Meaning even if someone's back is to you (as surely will be the case at some point in the show), you can still connect to what they're saying and feeling. It presents some interesting directing challenges and it's always fun to see how they do things. Plus you get to walk across the stage to get to your seat, which is pretty cool. Park in the same place I recommended for the Southern above, and walk right across the street to the theater. Bathrooms have a decent number of stalls for the size of the theater, with snacks sold at the concession stand.

The U of M's theater building houses four theaters, all of which are used in the Minnesota Fringe Festival, which pretty much makes it Fringe central. There's a thrust stage, a traditional proscenium stage, an arena stage (in the round), and what they call "Xperimental," sort of a black box. The four theaters are spread out over the three floors of the building, with bathrooms in the basement. No concessions to speak of, but I always enjoy stopping at Mapps coffee shop during Fringe season. Parking options are plentiful, but I've found the lot at the corner of Riverside and 21st to be convenient and reasonably priced.

YTT is my favorite theater in the 'burbs. Located in an unassuming strip mall just off highway 81 in Osseo (just north of Maple Grove), founders Jason and Jessica Peterson have created a warm and inviting space. The lobby has tables for gathering, folksy fun artwork adorns the walls, and the theater seats are the most comfortable in town (lawn chairs!). The tiny stage is surrounded by just a few rows of those comfy chairs on three sides. It's the suburbs so there's free parking in the parking lot, but with only two stalls the bathroom line gets long at intermission. Sadly my favorite pre-show dinner option, Nectar Wine Bar, has closed, but in its former space are two restaurants, Collage and NOLA (both of which have great food but slow service, so plan accordingly).


*I realize that for me concessions usually means decaf coffee. I apologize for being so lame!
**Moral of the story - it's always a good idea to head to the bathrooms immediately at the close of the first act to reduce time spent waiting in line. And one limitation of my bathroom descriptions is that they only apply to the women's bathrooms, sorry guys!

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