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Park Square Theatre Announces Richard Cook’s Retirement: 43-year career with the Theatre; 38 as Artistic Director

Park Square Theatre Announces Richard Cook’s Retirement:  43-year career with the Theatre; 38 as Artistic Director

 A national search underway for new Artistic Director

Saint Paul, Minn., January 23, 2018 – Today, Park Square Theatre announced that after 43 years at Park Square Theatre, Richard Cook will retire as Artistic Director on September 1, 2018. Park Square Theatre’s Board of Directors has hired Robin Gillette of Arts Progress to conduct a national search which kicks off in February.

“This is a watershed year for Park Square,” says Board President Paul Mattessich, Executive Director of Wilder Research. “Richard has led this theatre from an 88-seat start up with an annual audience of 5,000 to a major artistic player drawing 82,000 people a year to two stages – including one of the largest teen theatre audiences anywhere. He will be handing off an amazing legacy for the next artistic leader to build on.”

 

A simple beginning

Park Square Theatre was founded by Paul Mathey in 1972 first as Variety Hall in the Park Square Court Building in Saint Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood. “The theatre grew out of an extension of the Smith Park Gallery as a bare spot with a brick wall and a few lights that hosted poetry readings and eventually plays,” remembers Richard Cook. As David Hawley, retired Pioneer Press theatre critic remembers, it was a tiny space “tucked away on the second floor of the then-headquarters of a scruffy outfit called Minnesota Public Radio.”

Richard came to Park Square in its first year as the designer for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which was being directed by his husband, Steven Kent Lockwood (who retired in 2012 after 32 years as Park Square’s first Executive Director). “Paul Mathey loved the classics. He wanted to do Shakespeare as part of the 1975 season in the newly renamed Park Square Theatre,” remembers Lockwood. “A mutual friend connected us and I was hired to direct and brought Richard along to design the show – the sets, lights and costumes.” From there Cook and Lockwood worked on every Park Square season for a few years until Mathey decided to retire for health reasons. Cook offered to shadow him as Assistant Artistic Director and took over in 1980.

“Among all my other responsibilities in those first years was to thaw the radiator pipes with a propane torch,” laughs Cook.

“Well, it worked out financially. Richard could take the position at Park Square and plug away over there for practically nothing because the two of us had been working in a steel pipe fitting factory making $13 an hour,” Lockwood reminisced. Soon both had quit those high paying jobs and were working full time (for much less) as the theatre’s Artistic and Executive Directors.

 

A designer of Saint Paul theatre spaces

During the course of his tenure, Cook has conceived, designed (and often helped build) five unique theatre spaces in Saint Paul from that first 88-seat walk up to the Andy Boss Thrust Stage, which opened in 2014.

It was in 1977 when he directed Oedipus at Colonus that Cook rearranged the little Park Square Court walk up into a tiny amphitheater. In 1980, Cook designed a 120-seat ¾ round thrust theatre in the Park Square Court building.

“He ran the upstairs theatre by day and built the downstairs theatre at night,” remembers Lockwood. “I thought he would drop from exhaustion.”

By 1985 the building’s developers wanted to take over the new theatre to rent to more lucrative clients, and Park Square was itinerant for a season before landing in the Jemne Building, then owned by the Minnesota Museum of American Art. The Jemne Auditorium, remodeled into a 120-seat theatre for Park Square, won the 1987 Interior Architecture Award from the MN Society of the AIA for architect Craig Rafferty.

By 1991, performances at the Jemne were bursting at the seams and Cook decided it was time to make a major move. The 350-seat Seventh Place Theatre (now known as the Park Square Proscenium Stage) became available. After a sold-out summer run of The Mousetrap, Park Square signed its first long term lease in the Historic Hamm Building. The move allowed Park Square to take off – first doubling, then tripling its subscriber base – and providing the capacity to launch its now wildly successful education program.

As Saint Paul’s regional producing theatre with an artistic reach that spans classics like this season’s Hamlet to world premiere commissions like Nina Simone: Four Women (which just enjoyed its second production at Arena Stage in Washington, DC), Cook was eager for an additional performance platform that would return the theater to the ¾ round intimacy of its early years. He also wanted to build on a 30-year legacy of developing diverse theatre artists by opening more slots in the season for new voices. After a major capital campaign, Park Square opened the additional 200-seat Andy Boss Thrust Stage in 2014.

Developing Diverse Talent Season by Season

In 1981, when today’s industry-wide focus on diversity, equity and inclusion was still a long way off, Cook eagerly took an important meeting with a group of African American theatre artists.

“Terry Bellamy, Marion McClinton and I had been working at the Penumbra Theatre then,” remembers James A. Williams. “And we’d talked a lot about how we needed to be taken more seriously as ‘theater artists,’ as opposed to ‘black artists’. Peter Vaughan, the Star Tribune critic, recommended we do a production at a mainstream theatre and he’d give an honest review of it. Marion had this idea of doing Waiting for Godot set in South Africa. So, he pitched it to Richard at Park Square, knowing the concept didn’t fit at Mixed Blood or Penumbra, and Richard loved the concept. Vaughan’s review was fantastic! It was a dynamite piece.” That show led to Cook’s 1983 production of Boesman and Lena by Athol Fugard, which would be one of James A. Williams first directing gigs. The show featured the Park Square acting debut of Faye Price (now co-Artistic Director of Pillsbury House Theatre), who would later direct Park Square’s world premiere of Nina Simone in 2016 and who will return to direct in the yet-to-be-announced 2018-2019 Season.

“You know what was good about working with Richard?” asks Williams. “He gave us a chance to do our art. To try things that didn’t quite fit into the boxes that most other theaters want to put us in. Most important to us was that it gave us legitimacy as artists.”

A Legacy of Firsts and Lasts

The soon to be announced 2018-2019 Season will be the last theatre season that Richard Cook will plan as Artistic Director. “What excites me most about the coming season is its spirit of partnership,” says Cook. “It’s easy to get nostalgic because every day is the last time I’ll do this or that, but it’s the ongoing firsts I’m enjoying most – like our first Gilbert and Sullivan operetta now in rehearsal, or our first partnerships with companies like New Native Theatre and Urban Spectrum later this spring. I’ve always looked to the future – from our first copier (which we needed since we ran off all the playbills in house!), to our first commission (Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary), to our first contract with the Actor’s Equity union, to our first major musical (Ragtime), to each season’s directing debuts. Next year will have plenty of firsts that I can’t wait to see from the audience.”

Park Square Theatre’s Board of Directors plans to announce the Park Square’s new artistic leader in early June 2018. Among the events planned to honor Richard Cook’s legacy is a March 5 Season Preview event in the original Park Square Theatre space (now the meeting room for the Minnesota State Arts Board) and an exhibit of Park Square’s history in the Landmark Center this September.

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Richard Cook’s headshots by Petronella Y. Ytsma HERE

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