FMCT bids farewell to old theater, looks forward to new development in Island Park
The new outdoor theater could be finished by the end of 2023.
FARGO — On Monday night, June 13, members and supporters of the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre gathered at its longtime Island Park home for the organization’s annual meeting. The event doubled as one last chance to say goodbye to the condemned theater, but also an opportunity to look forward to what could take its place.
At Tuesday night’s Fargo Park Board meeting , the board will consider a Memorandum of Understanding with the theater troupe that would lead to building an outdoor stage in the same location. The document covers lease information — similar to what is already in place — and a plan for the space.
The pavilion facing Fourth Street would be saved, and an amphitheater would be built to the south so that the audience would face northeast. The new space would hold about 350 seats, the same as the indoor space, but by using the grassy hills of the park, capacity could reach up to 600.
Judy Lewis, FMCT’s executive director, said demolition of The Stage at Island Park, 333 Fourth St. S., could begin as soon as the Memorandum of Understanding is signed, but that the project wouldn’t likely be completed until the end of 2023.
Lewis said she first made a proposal for an outdoor space in January of 2021, shortly before Moorhead Mayor Shelly Carlson invited the organization to set up its main stage in Moorhead’s Hjemkomst Center.
At the time, Lewis told The Forum plans for renovating the Island Park space were still on the table. Before Monday’s meeting, she said that was not a good idea.
“My personal feeling was that spending $16 million on a building in this location with no parking was not a good use of money,” she said.
Lewis said her initial outdoor proposal wasn’t well-received by the Fargo Park Board.
“They got a little pressure from the community and changed their minds. I could not be happier,” she said Monday afternoon.
Jaime Aasen, FMCT’s outgoing board president, said the organization and the Fargo Park Board now see more eye-to-eye.
“I think we’ve had enough discussions. I think we’re on the same page. I think we’re both happy with this,” she said Monday afternoon. “We want to get everything in place and in writing because things have changed so much over the last two years. We want everything to be concrete.”
Lewis said the west wing of the current theater, where there is rehearsal and classroom space, is still structurally sound and could be saved. The proposal includes plans for an added east wing.
The indoor spaces would largely be used for rehearsal spaces and classrooms, especially for children’s theater classes in the summer with productions moving to the outdoor stage. Lewis said the FMCT would probably perform one show from its annual lineup on the stage, but the space would also be available to other groups and renters.
“I’d love to see (local cultural group) Folkways on that stage, or (events promoter) Jade Presents or the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony. At night, I’d love to program other things that benefit the community,” she said.
The project wouldn’t require much additional fundraising, Lewis said. At Monday’s meeting, she told those gathered, “We have a couple of big players in Fargo who want to help us.”
Monday’s event was held in the theater’s shop, looking out onto the condemned stage where supports held up the compromised roof. Puddles of rain water pooled on the stage.
Guests were invited to write notes reminiscing about their experiences in the theater. The notes were gathered and would be left on the stage until the theater was torn down. Some notes would be read by actors and recorded to be played back over video of the demolition.
Looking out onto the stage, Sandy Thiel said she wrote about watching the theater being built as a teenager in 1966.
“This is so sad. It’s so weird,” she said about the building being torn down.
Scott Brusven, who wore many hats at FMCT including artistic director, was working up what he’d write.
“I might start weeping,” he said. “This place was built by the community for the community. That’s the true soul of what community is. It will be a phoenix. It will be great.”
“We are the community theater,” Aasen told the crowd. “It’s not the building. Wherever we go, we can bring it there.”
“To this beautiful old lady,” Lewis said, leading a champagne toast toward the end of the meeting. “This is your funeral. We love you, and we’ll always remember you.”