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INTERVIEW: Damon Runnals, Minnesota Playlist’s New Head

Damon Runnals.

On February 1, Damon Runnals became the head and owner of Minnesota Playlist, an online magazine that hosts artist profiles and functions as the state’s central online clearinghouse for theatre audition notices. Runnals, who stepped down at the Southern Theater in October after spearheading the once-troubled theatre’s financial and operational rebirth, is also a co-owner and co-founder of Swandive Theatre.

Minnesota Playlist is a unique resource in the state. The website was launched by Leah Cooper and Alan Berks on October 1, 2008. Over nine years, its website grew from 5,000 monthly visitors to 25,000, while quickly assuming the mantle of casting and theatre gig callboard. In many ways, the site bucked trends: As newspaper classified ads continued to dwindle and the use of Facebook and other social media to post audition notices increased, the Playlist proved that there was still demand for a focused community resource supported by ads and paid classifieds.

Today, Minnesota Playlist’s content includes audition notices, theatre-related job classifieds, artist profiles, reviews, columns, and more. When Berks and Cooper announced that they were preparing to move onto other projects last spring, the announcement provoked an outpouring of accolades on social media and hopes for a strong new steward of the Playlist. In a January farewell notice on Minnesota Playlist, Berks said, “We are putting all of our current energy into our theater company, Wonderlust Productions.” As their successor, Runnals brings a wellspring of replacement energy. The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with Runnals about his vision for Minnesota Playlist, the work-life balance of artist-administrators, and his time at the Southern.

When did you first become interested in taking over Minnesota Playlist?

I first heard that it was for sale when it advertised in a May or June Playlist newsletter. I thought “that’s interesting” and went on with the rest of my work.

In September, Alan [Berks] and I met to chat about some non-Playlist things. We’d worked together in my previous role at the Southern Theater and with Workhaus Collective…. We were meeting and talking about that and it was very random that we got on the topic of Playlist. Alan had shared with me that they’d put it out there [for sale], but hadn’t really gotten any offers that they were interested in. For them, it was more than [just about the] money. They had a strong desire for someone who would carry the torch and not gut it or take it in crazy directions.

This was when you were still working at the Southern.

By that time, I’d made my own personal decision to leave the Southern [later] that year and strike out in my own direction. They offered to show me the financials, and I said, “I think I’d like to see that. I’d like to see the ins and outs and see if this would be an option.” That was mid-September. It led to Leah and Alan and I having meetings…and we decided that this was going to happen.

Do you have prior IT experience running a website?

I’m more [a] front-end guy, but I’m very comfortable changing up settings. I don’t have a fear that I’ll break things too much when it comes to technology.

It was certainly a good fit in that with Playlist, there’s a guy – David Harris – who’s done the bulk of programming for the site, and will continue working on it. The site is incredibly stable – there’s no coding necessary. Everything is drop-down menus, adding posts, updating information, etc., which can be taught pretty easily.

Did you plan the February 1 transition so that you could fit in a vacation first, after 8 years at the Southern?

I was technically traveling through California the week before the 1st, but that wasn’t planned. February 1st was the fastest we could get all the legal contracts that needed to be signed done and the necessary payments made. We decided on things in early December and then got the lawyers involved…and lawyers take time to do things. We wanted to [make the transition] the first of the month, and February 1 was the first [after the paperwork was ready.

An example of a recent Minnesota Playlist newsletter.

Were you a big Minnesota Playlist user before?

I had had an online profile on and off on Playlist when I was doing more acting work, years ago. Once I was really established at the Southern, [however,] my primary use of Playlist was reading the editorials and listings. At the theatre my wife and I run, Swandive, we found our costume designer through it. I mostly read Derek’s column for the snark. Because of my work at the Southern, I knew a lot of people who had talent profiles, and I didn’t really need to look [to know their credentials].

Before we signed the papers, I recreated my profile….I bumped it up, I think, in November.

That wasn’t an extra financial incentive to sweeten the deal for Alan and Leah?

[Laughs] No.

Working at a non-profit and a performing arts non-profit in particular can be a very all-consuming endeavor. How is your headspace different at the reins of the Playlist vs. your position at the Southern?

I finished up on the Southern on October 28. It occupied the bulk of my headspace [both] as a nonprofit and as an organization that was continually needing work because of so much of the historical damage both to the building and the operational infrastructure that ran it. From leaving that and coming to something like Playlist, I’ve had these [welcome] moments of “It works!” and “It really just works out of the box!”

Not to be flippant about it, but Alan and Leah [said that’s what was going on]: “It just works. People use the site and money just shows up in the bank account.” In the nonprofit world, that’s not always the case and there was a lot of raising money [at the Southern] just to keep the doors open and operate.

As I approach my work with Playlist, I’m gradually understanding that I don’t have a fire to put out every day, and that I can take time to decide what I want the next step to be, and that there’s not a clock ticking on the wall. If I don’t tell people things immediately, that’s not going to suddenly shut down operations. That’s a big mental shift for me.

I will definitely say that I’m glad that I’m done at the Southern. It was a phenomenal experience…but I’m glad to be on to new things.

Now that you’ve had some mental space and separation, what are some of your reflections on the ARTshare program that you launched at the Southern?

It was definitely a big bold idea, and the response to it was, I think, really solid. [Editor’s note: Subscriptions to the ARTshare program have been credited with helping stabilizing the theatre’s finances.] There’s a 20-page dissertation amount of learning that came out of that, but some high points that still stick with me are:

  • It’s really difficult to build something while you’re trying to [also] use it to maintain your operations.
  • In hindsight, I would have loved to have some sort of funding (gift, foundation, whatever) to prototype ARTshare and put it in a sandbox so that we could learn from it and make it stronger from the get-go.
  • I think the program, like everything, needs some time. It’s [only] been going for 3 years.

I’m still in touch with the Board at the Southern, and they’ve said that they’ve seen an uptick in [subscription] numbers, with [more] people being willing to jump on board. I think the program still has tremendous untapped potential for funding, and [potential] to shake things up in the industry. I had grander visions for this [than time allowed], and I’m curious to see what they’ll do with it.

At a minimum, with over 250 consistent members taking advantage of constant work at the Southern, the program’s an undeniable success. In hindsight, when it launched, some people thought it would be a consistent “You can’t get in” level of success, and I don’t think that [quite] happened. But as a never-been-tried thing, it was certainly a success.

I hope it encourages other organization to consider how they might be affected by things like this and that they try it.

What are your plans for reworking and shaping Minnesota Playlist?

For at least the next 6-12 months, I have no real plans to be the driving force behind the content or changes to the content. It will be the same writers who are out doing reviews, doing the editorial stuff, writing, etc.

My goal, since I’m not putting out fires, is a brand new endeavor. My job (or my impetus) is to sit back, listen, understand, and find out what type of content is having an effect driving awareness of the site…what pulls people in. [To acquire an] awareness of the content.

That could take some time.

I’ve read a decent amount of stuff on the site, but there’s 8 years of archives. I want to understand what’s there. Alan drove a lot of the content curation, so I’m getting a list of how Alan worked, and what types of stories he wanted to do. From there, once I have a good understanding of it, there’s an opportunity for my voice to enter into it. But there’s certainly room for keeping Playlist as a community platform, and keeping those voices.

This certainly is a unique resource. I’ve seen comparable classical music websites in some other states, but nothing quite like it for theatre, especially in Minnesota.

I think you’re right – there’s really nothing like it out there. It’s really a unique gem in the performing arts, and what I think is so great is that so many people in the Twin Cities know that and like that. Because of Minnesota humility, no one makes a huge deal out of it – “Yeah, no big deal, we’re going to keep using this.” If we went to another city, though, and said, “Three people just built this and it works,” they’d be blown away. And I think it’s great that something like this can just happen.

Since you have a number of other engagements – Swandive, consulting with Next in Nonprofits – how much time in your week will Minnesota Playlist occupy going forward?

It’s certainly part-time – it’s not a full-time endeavor. I juggle this with Next in Nonproifts, being a dad for two little girls and taking care of them 2 days a week, and then my own theater company (which happens on evenings). I’m dedicating probably one full day a week to Playlist right now, but probably more than that as I get settled

This time commitment was something I had to understand [before deciding to purchase the website] – how much time will this take for just one person doing it? The answer is “One full day a week, sometimes 10-12 hours…” I’ll spend more time with the Playlist as I decide what’s next and what I want to do with it.

Kid Simple, Swandive Theatre’s 2016 production.

Will you be putting more time into Swandive now that you’re not putting in full-time-plus hours with the Southern?

Swandive will definitely benefit from my leaving the Southern. My wife, Meaghan [DiScorio], carried Swandive almost exclusively this last year, and that was difficult. It was really hard to come from a full challenging day in the Southern’s nonprofit world and do the same thing for another nonprofit. I’m very happy to say that, in the last couple months, that [problem]’s turned around. We’ve got some exciting projects that we’re working on.

You’ve mentioned before that Swandive normally does one show per year, but you said projects (plural). Are you expanding your programming?

Yes. One of the things happening this year is the Living Room Tour. Swandive has focused on design and we tend to work with several designers each year on our projects. We also have a program we’ve run called Veggie Stock Theatre; it’s been running for 8 years. We meet in our backyard and read a new show, and have a conversation with the audience afterwards. The backyard picnic idea is something that people really like – they bring food and drink, have a good time.

We have these very contrasting projects on each side, and we wanted [to also have] something in the middle. We found this script called Good Egg by Dorothy Fortenberry, and we had a good friend who said, “You should take this show and do it in people’s living rooms.”

If you look at the music scene, this [house concerts] has been happening for a while. We thought, “What if we took this show and brought it to living rooms around the Twin Cities as both a fundraiser and a performance? Instead of props and stuff, focus on acting and put that right in front of people.” So we did.

We actually started rehearsals last night, and we have our first performances in March. It’s a brand new experiment…we don’t know where it’s going, but we design it to be very easy with only a time investment and no monetary investment. What we get out of it will be a boon, regardless, and inform what we do next year.

Any other changes?

Swandive has pretty much, aside from one work, always produced published works. We’re shifting our focus to work with current, living, and (as much as we can) local playwrights, and on how to bring playwrights into our process, as we do with designers – letting them own their department and creative output. We’re working with Sam Graber (a local playwright here) on a new piece that we hope to do later this year.

We haven’t done development on new scripts before, which is really exciting. This process still leads to [staging] a full-length show, but watching the words [evolve] and having an impact on that script-writing process is something very new for us.

It sounds like you’re embarking in lots of new directions with the extra time and energy in your schedule.

Yes. Looking back, the amount of energy and brainspace and financial dependence that the Southern occupied for me filled a room, so that (to use a metaphor) only the deep nooks and crannies of that room were where I could do those things. Now those [creative] things can come out and occupy more space.

Like any other working artist in town, the struggle is “Can I keep food on the table and make my mortgage?” For Meaghan and I, there’s the added challenge of having two children…they have needs and those needs cost money! [As a result,] there was a lot of fear when I left the Southern: it was a stable paycheck that came in and was guaranteed, but money’s only one part of the equation. The necessity of shifting had to be taken into account in relation to that one [financial] variable.

Anything else that you’d like to add?

I’d just like to say – and it’s a testament of what Alan and Leah built – that I received a lot of emails from people when my taking over was announced. A lot of them were saying things like “I’m so grateful that Playlist is being taken care of.” It really spoke to what they built, the impact that it’s had on this community, and the outpouring of excitement for what it has coming up next.

Because I’ve worked to develop this [larger theatre] community, and have a willingness to try new things and get people involved in the trying of new things, I’m very excited – both for the community, and for myself as the head of it.

Basil Considine