Zephyr Theatre aims to turn Stillwater train depot into performing arts destination

Zephyr Theatre hopes to turn Stillwater hub into regional performing arts center.
By Mara Klecker Star Tribune
August 19, 2018 — 11:35pm

Propped against one wall of the old Minnesota Zephyr train depot in Stillwater are renderings of what the building’s new owners hope will become a focal point for performing arts in the St. Croix River valley.

In May, after a year and a half of fundraising and with the help of a commercial mortgage loan, the nonprofit Zephyr Theatre purchased the $2.5 million former depot on Main Street.

Now a second wave of fundraising is being launched, aiming for $4 million to turn those renderings into reality.

The plan includes the creation of a professional theater company with a three-story, 330-seat auditorium, rehearsal space, lobby and public cafe.

“It seems the arts community in Stillwater has been hungry for a space like this for a long time,” said Calyssa Hall, the Zephyr Theatre’s 27-year-old artistic director.

Robin Anthony, executive director of the Stillwater Chamber of Commerce, said the former depot is a “hidden gem” that has gone unused for several years since it was a hub for the popular Zephyr dinner train.

Bringing professional performances to the area is going to “help complete Stillwater’s downtown,” Anthony said.

In addition to a cafe planned for the south end of the building, theater organizers plan to convert a vacant train car into a snack shop for pedestrians and cyclists along the Brown’s Creek State Trail which runs behind the building along the St. Croix River.

Hall grew up in Afton and started performing at the Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, Wis., at age 11. Even then, she was dreaming about running her own theater, she said.

Five years ago, Hall founded what is now Only a Dim Image Productions. After producing several plays at various theaters in Minneapolis in 2016, she recognized the absence of professional theater in the east metro and started searching for a theater house for her own company in the St. Croix Valley.

By the end of the year, she’d assembled a board of trustees, created an advisory board and secured the purchase agreement to buy the depot.

While leasing the depot site, the Zephyr Theatre company produced several performances in local parks and Stillwater Area High School’s auditorium. The company now offers programs — film showings, theater classes, dances and community events — six days a week.

“It’s all grown very, very fast,” Hall said.

She hopes the second phase of fundraising also goes quickly. Hall wants to start renovations and work on the addition next year, and open the doors for performances by 2020.

Chico Rouse, the theater’s marketing and programming director, said he’s been impressed by Hall’s determination and entrepreneurial spirit. Rouse worked as a musician, producer, music promoter and music club manager for 50 years before relocating from New York City to Stillwater this year.

In March, he went to the theater for a film showing, saw the renderings and started a conversation with the staff.

“I’d been in this business so long, but I looked into Calyssa’s eyes and saw her passion,” Rouse said. “I knew I wanted to support her vision.”

In the six weeks since he joined the Zephyr Theatre, Rouse said he’s also seen Stillwater’s support for the project.

“It seems [Hall’s] vision has become the community’s,” he said.

Eva Gemlo, 24, said excitement about the theater has extended beyond Stillwater, at least among performers. Gemlo, who lives in St. Paul, said there’s a need for spaces outside Minneapolis and St. Paul that support professional thespians.

As Gemlo got into costume for her performance as Olivia in the Zephyr’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “Twelfth Night,” she said she’s looking forward to acting on the new stage.

“It’s going to be an amazing space,” she said, pausing to look up at the gaudy locomotive-themed signage on the walls.

“Now just get the train decor down, and the stage up.”

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