Youth theater group will soon move into new, permanent home – a century-old church
On a cold morning, Charlie Leonard unlocks the doors to the century old church. Inside, he offers a tour and excitedly lays out his plans for the building, which as of March 1, officially belongs to the Blue Water Theatre Company.
Founded in 2007 by Leonard, who also serves as Blue Water’s executive and artistic director, the community youth theater group has presented more than 30 productions and is made up of between 150 and 200 actors primarily in grades 6-12 from schools across the metro area.
Blue Water’s planned makeover will convert the church at 605 Rice St. into the nonprofit theatre group’s new rehearsal and performance space. The theater company received approval from the city council in January to take over the soon-to-be former home of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka, which is constructing a new building opening this spring in Wayzata’s Holdridge neighborhood. Church officials began looking for a potential buyer for the historic building once those building plans were approved this past June.
Leonard, a lifelong resident of the Wayzata area, began teaching in 2003 at Wayzata West Middle School. There he began volunteering as a director for school plays and quickly discovered a passion for directing. After directing at the school for a few years, Leonard was inspired to create Blue Water as an outlet for young actors.
For its first year-and-a-half, Blue Water bounced around to various locations for rehearsal space, including the basement of St. Philip the Deacon Church in Plymouth and school cafeterias in the Wayzata School District. The group then moved into a vacant hair salon in the old Wayzata Bay Center, when the building owner offered a space free of charge.
“It was exactly what we needed at that point because we could not have afforded rent anywhere,” Leonard said. “It really is what gave us the time to grow and to solidify.”
Blue Water then found studio space to rent in the Wayzata Home Center.
Today the theater troupe is preparing to relocate into its new home. The move, expected in late April or early May, will mark a new chapter for the nonprofit organization.
“It is impossible for me to imagine that we would ever leave here,” Leonard said as he took a seat in the church’s narthex.
Most of the time, the director said, Blue Water will use the building for rehearsals and other in-house activities. The 125-seat space will also host the theater group’s smaller musical productions. The group plans to continue renting offsite auditoriums for its four mainstage productions that typically draw an audience of 400 to 500 people.
Work to convert the church into a theater will be relatively minor, Leonard said. Improvements include adding flexible seating, sound and lighting equipment for performances and updating the existing monument sign with the theater company’s name and logo. One of larger changes, the director said, will be constructing a large thrust stage that will allow the theater to seat audiences close to the actors.
Also planned for the conversion work is building a spiral staircase, the removal of wall in the lower portion of the building to create a second rehearsal space and painting – lots and lots of painting, Leonard said.
The church’s many panes of stained glass will remain, but a curtain will be drawn over the windows to block out light during performances.
“We are coming into this project very much with the goal of maintaining the historic nature of the building,” the director said. “It’s one of the things that attracted us to this spot.”
Blue Water has launched a $250,000 capital campaign to help cover conversion and maintenance costs for the new theater.
“The building’s in remarkable shape, especially given its age, but we know that at some point in the next five to seven years it’s going to need a new roof, and that’s not a cheap expense,” Leonard said.
The director said the campaign is off to a good start, with Blue Water having just hosted its sixth and most successful fundraising gala to date. Another positive sign of support, Leonard said, is that the family of a Blue Water actor has pledged a matching donation of up to $100,000, with a June deadline.
“This is a very philanthropic arts community, and we are very hopeful that the community at large will kind of embrace this concept,” the director said.
Leonard said he plans to host a special 10th-anniversary production this summer that could also help raise funds for the capital campaign. The event featuring current and alumni Blue Water actors would also serve as a introduction of the new theater space to the community.
“Despite the fact that a church is technically a public place, it’s not a public place that you generally visit if you’re not a member. … I think it’s going to be really cool to give it a second life in a type of a way that makes it more of a public place than it even was as a church,” Leonard said.
With each visit, theater-goers will also be get an up-close look at a building designed by a prominent Minneapolis architect. The historic church’s blueprints were drawn up by Harry Wild Jones, the architect behind Butler Square and the iconic Lakewood Memorial Chapel in Minneapolis, both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Jones also helped establish the department of architecture at the University of Minnesota in the 1890s and toured the world with President William Howard Taft. The tour resulted in designs for churches in China, India and Burma.
In 1916, Jones designed the building on Rice Street that went on to serve three different congregations: Wayzata Community Church (1916-1949), Wayzata Free Church (1952-1965) and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka (1965-2017).
Last year, the building’s history was celebrated with a Centennial Building Award from the Wayzata Heritage Preservation Board.
“Not only is the building perfect for us, not only is great for the town, but the building actually has architectural significance,” Leonard said. “We kind of stumbled upon a beautiful little gem.”
For more information on Blue Water, visit bluewatertheatre.com.
Contact Jason Jenkins at [email protected]