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Black box theater now open

As part of the opening for the Dorothy K. Merrill Community Arts Center-East Ride High School campus on Feb. 22, Woodbury Community Theatre performed a retrospective of its 40 year history.

It's finally here.

After nearly 10 years, several starts and stops and a reshaped vision, the Dorothy K. Merrill Community Arts Center is finally a reality.

Arts Connection held a grand opening for the Dorothy K. Merrill Community Arts Center-East Ridge High School campus on Friday.

The East Ridge campus includes the new black box theater.

"It's so exciting," said Michelle Witte, executive director for Arts Connection.

The East Ridge campus joins the already established Dorothy K. Merrill Community Arts Center-Rivertown campus.

The opening night gala included a tour of the new black box theater, a retrospective performance by the Woodbury Community Theatre (WCT) and a caravan to the Rivertown campus.

The retrospective featured snippets of Woodbury Community Theatre's 70-plus shows over the years.

"It's a great way to see how the whole concept of an art center comes together," Witte said.

The arts center is named for Woodbury resident Dorothy K. Merrill, who donated $1.4 million to Arts Connection.

The arts center is divided into two separate spaces: the 10,600 square-foot Rivertown campus, and the $1.3 million East Ridge campus, which houses the black box theater and an entryway.

The arts center is a partnership between Arts Connection, District 833, City of Woodbury, WCT and the East Metro Symphony Orchestra.

One of the groups that will get the most out of the arts center will be WCT, which finally has a place to call home after 40 years of bouncing from church basement to church basement, WCT director Lenore Weir said.

"We've been waiting a long, long time," she said.

WCT hasn't wasted any time using the arts center either.

While rehearsals were happening at the Rivertown campus for the spring musical, "Stars on Broadway II," rehearsals were happening simultaneously at the black box theater for the opening night retrospective.

"To have the space to be able to have two things running is incredible," Weir said.

WCT won't be slowing down either since it will be moving rehearsals of "Stars on Broadway II," which opens March 16 on the Loft Stage, to the black box theater and kicking off rehearsals for its first performance, "Nunsense," at the Rivertown campus theater.

Weir said she chose "Nunsense" as the first performance for the black box theater because it's a funny show that only requires a cast of five, so it fits perfectly into the smaller theater.

"It's a nice showcase for what we can do with this space," she said. "What better way to open the black box than with a very, very funny show that has great music and five incredibly gifted women."

"Nunsense," which opens April 1, is a show about a fundraiser put on by the Little Sisters of Hoboken to raise money to bury sisters accidently poisoned by the convent cook.

Weir and Witte said they have already started planning for additional performances in the black box theater - "Inspecting Carol" and a Stephen Sondheim revue.

"We wanted to come out of the gate with ideas of how to use the space," Witte said.

Weir said a great added bonus for the black box theater will be the opportunity to do smaller shows - like comedies or dramas - because they don't need the big stage like musicals do.

"We never do dramas because we've never had a place to do them, but the black box offers us an opportunity to do very different things," she said.

Weir said she is excited to see where the Dorothy K. Merrill Community Arts Center takes them.

"To be able to spread our wings and do things we've never been able to do in 40 years is kind of a big kick," she said. "We're opening ourselves up to a whole new world. I'm just excited about the whole future."

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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