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INTERVIEW: The Last Days of Bedlam, with Maren Ward

When news broke yesterday of the November 2 closure of Bedlam Lowertown, it didn’t take long for Bedlam Theatre’s Lowertown and general Facebook pages to start filling up with tributes, thank yous, and laments. Amidst the aftershocks, the scramble to rebook acts, and the general unhappiness, the Twin Cities Arts Reader’s Basil Considine spoke with Bedlam’s Master of Ceremonies and Performing Artistic Director Maren Ward (a founding member of the company) about the company’s recent years and future.

Bedlam Theatre made several public calls for donations in 2014 and 2015. Despite some internal changes last year, the only really public news about shakeups in 2016 involved kitchen and booking updates. What was going on behind the scenes?

Maren Ward, Co-Founder, Master of Ceremonies, and Performing Artistic Director of Bedlam Theatre.
Maren Ward, Co-Founder, Master of Ceremonies, and
Performing Artistic Director of Bedlam Theatre.

We were keeping a low profile as we sorted out our plans and strategies for going forward… we did have conversations with funders and we [also] had a year-end fundraising campaign that we were preparing to launch [before yesterday’s announcement].

When we announced last year that we were having trouble and needed to raise a certain amount to keep going, we found that our immediate community was very supportive. We had a lot of donations to our Indiegogo campaign, and we felt that we’d raised as much as we could from our base supporters; we were in the process of seeking new relationships and to distance ourselves from the story of the debt from the summer and to revamp and present from a more confident position.

The agreements that we had with our creditors and our landlord were helping to do this, but we weren’t were in a very secure [financial] position – there wasn’t really any extra, and when we had a few bad weeks, we weren’t able to keep up with these agreements…the amount that we needed to be secure was more than we felt we could raise in a campaign, and so we didn’t try.

Now, you’ve been with Bedlam a long time…

Yes, I was a co-founder – since 1993.

Bedlam’s occupied a number of spaces, during which its offerings have evolved considerably. How did the operations in Lowertown compare to what had been offered before? Were the investments in the space related to a desire to find or create a more permanent home?

Our first space was a rehearsal space that slowly became a venue…we moved into it with the intention of rehearsing and then performing around town. Then we found that the community gathered around it and so we converted the rehearsal space into a venue. It didn’t have a bar and a venue, although we made it work as a venue.

When we moved into the other space in Cedar/Riverside, which had been a bar and restaurant, we thought it was a good fit. There was a lot of food and drink consumed in the other space, it just wasn’t a restaurant. However, we never had a long-term lease with [the landlord there]. We had a very short-term lease – we knew it was an experiment to see that would look like: a theater, a bar, and a restaurant [all in one]. If we’d been able to stay in that space, we might have done a capital campaign like we did for Lowertown, but we never knew that we could…

With Lowertown, we saw this more as a long-term space, so we made the improvements that we thought would make it really serve the vision that we had. For example, that space (Lowertown) didn’t have a full restaurant and kitchen when we got it, so putting the kitchen in was a big part of that. Putting in the kitchen [in turn] led to a lot of the building improvements that were made. It was during that [process] that we learned the time that was involved and the expense that was involved.

At that point [when we realized how much it might cost], it was maybe an option to call it off, but at that point we were so invested and so excited that we decided to go forward. We were simultaneously working on the funding and business relationships needed to make that happen. We really wanted [Bedlam Lowertown] to be open in time for the Green Line [grand opening on June 14, 2014 – two weeks after Lowertown’s], since that was part of that vision.

[Ultimately,] we found that building those relationships would take longer than we had, but we didn’t really see it that way when we started. Then there’s a spiral effect when one decision leads to another…

What were the operating costs like in Lowertown?

Bedlam Lowertown costs about $36,000 a month for venue operations. This does not include theater/non-profit artistic or administrative staff, programming, or artist payments. We were getting by with a reduced staff…it would be about $50,000/month with a healthy staff.

Rent and utilities, without the debt, was close to $10,000. With the debt, it was close to $13,000. The insurance was sort of astronomical; the licensing – there were three licenses we had to have… Licensing and insurance was a big [driver of costs].

Minneapolis and St. Paul can be very different in terms of costs – was there a significant change in licensing costs when you moved operations across the river?

There was no significant difference between St. Paul and Minneapolis expenses for licensing, etc.

With the caveat that things are still being figured out, what is the future looking like for Bedlam Theatre?

There’re a couple ideas about Bedlam the Non-profit, but it’s going to come down to how we’re able to manage the debt. It’s pretty likely that we’re going to have to fold and declare bankruptcy…that’s a piece that we’re figuring out now. We first have to shut down the venue and operations.

Looking back, what made Bedlam unique?

There were so many avenues for involvement – especially when we were at our high point of activity. There were so many ways to [just] walk in and get involved, and then some real outreach to different communities to be involved, and to bring the celebratory social atmosphere to performing arts. We designed the space so there was no backstage – that the actors would just walk offstage into the audience and mingle.

It’s really hard to put my finger on it, because it’s very different people coming to the Lowertown space than [was the case for] the Cedar-Riverside space. There was some carryover, of course, but a lot of the Facebook comments [since the announcement] are from newer community members [who joined us in St. Paul].

The difference starts with the philosophy and the physical design of the space – the feeling when you walk in and the inclusivity, like in the Amsterdam. (There’re a lot of groups that performed in both spaces.) People just talk about the vibe and that it just feels good in there.

I think that this comes from very intentional choices about how it’s [a performance space and venue are] setup, and the people that it attracts to work there, and the spirit…it has just really followed us. The people who work at the bar, for example, they all wanted to work there because it feels different than working somewhere else…the feeling that “You’re here, so you’re part of what’s going on.” I think that’s really the main thing. The mix.

There are other places [with this type of thing] , but there aren’t so many that have so much of it.

Speaking as a Minneapolis resident who mourned the demise of free parking in St. Paul after 6 PM, and who found parking to be a significant issue in visiting Bedlam Lowertown, how did the logistics of getting to the space change with the move to Lowertown?

I think that parking definitely had an effect [on an attendance] – I had events where people would message me and say, “I tried to come, but there’s nowhere to park.” And [on some level] that’s what the light rail’s there for, but then there’s no where to park to get on the light rail [in Minneapolis].

I think the feeling that it was hard to get there had an impact on Minneapolis [residents’] attendance. I’ve heard other Lowertown businesses complaining about that…it wasn’t just us having issues [with the parking situation].

What about the sharp spike in rental costs in the Lowertown area? The neighborhood has changed very significantly since Bedlam was first approached about moving into the space, of which gentrification and the light rail are probably the most significant (and linked) factors. There’s a common phenomenon in which artists move into space, do work that makes people want to visit and makes people want to stay – and then when it happens very quickly, rents rise and those artists get priced out…were there demographic shifts influencing and changing the audiences?

Yes, but on the other side of it, you [also] have all these other people coming into the neighborhood, and it’s a question of how you draw them in. I feel like if we’d been able to make it through this moment, we could’ve reached the point where it was packed every day…

What we really hope now is that the space will continue to do what it was designed to. There’s a lot of Bedlam just in the design of the space, and if someone can get in there without the debt and carry on the mix of activity and community engagement, I think that would be really worth it for Lowertown [as a community] to rally around. It was specifically designed and brought in to counteract some of the changes that you mentioned, and to be a real connector for the artists in the neighborhood – and to have the conversation about what neighborhood we want to be.

I hope that it doesn’t become just another restaurant that doesn’t include arts and community.

Bedlam consolidated its footprint just into Lowertown, correct? There aren’t any additional office or rehearsal spaces?


I understand from discussions with several performers who’ve worked at Bedlam that there are a variety of other outstanding debts…

There are debts that are owned to staff and others.

What’s going to happen to Bedlam’s various assets? Will there be a big move-out after November?

The equipment and the building improvements are owned by our landlord and our biggest creditor, the Nonprofits Assistance Fund. The things we have to get out of the space are those without big value for someone else, like our papers and props…the equipment stays in the building for now; I think the Nonprofits Assistance Fund and our landlord are trying to keep it together before going the route of tearing it up and giving up.

Was the Nonprofits Assistance Fund involved from the beginning with the financing of the renovation?

The Nonprofits Assistance Fund were involved from the beginning.

There were a number of sources for all of the improvements that happened – some of it was the Nonprofits Assistance Fund and some of it was City of St. Paul; some of it was Artplace (a national funder) and the McKnight Foundation and a number of smaller community loans. Some of it was grant funding and some of it was loans.

Looking back on the experience, do you have any closing thoughts about Bedlam and Bedlam Lowertown that you’d like to share?

I hope that people come there in the next two weeks and enjoy it and the events that we have planned. We’ll be fully operational through the end – we might run out of a few things – but it will help the spirit of those of us who are working there and [to reduce] the debt that we’ve just spoken of to have a lot of traffic in the next two weeks.

Like I said in the Internet post [announcing Bedlam-Lowertown’s closure], I feel really grateful for the investment that’s been made in the company and the vision, and also the staff – and all the time that’s been put in as artists and staff members. I feel the responsibility of the big project that this was, and I regret any debts that we can’t pay. That feels like a weight and, you know…I’m welcoming the conversation.

I want things like this to happen in our cities, and I don’t want this to be like an example of why you can’t do that. That if another organization or an incarnation of Bedlam tries to rise again, that we [will] know what it takes. I also look at other arts organization that are struggling; as a community, we have to find out how to support the things we care about. This isn’t to say that the community didn’t support Bedlam, but ultimately that we didn’t figure it out.

For me, if Bedlam ends, it’s going to free me to figure out what to do [next] with a non-profit. When a non-profit ends, it’s a lot. If we want the Southern [Theater] to continue as a venue for the performing arts, it needs help. Intermedia Arts [went through its crisis], Patrick’s Cabaret just lost its space…it’s a bigger problem. I’d like to be part of that conversation.

Bedlam-Lowertown’s last week and a half of operations include 16 exiting events in St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood. For more information, see:

Basil Considine