The Community’s Community Theatre
Originally published in Fargo Inc!, April 2018
Amidst the bustle of 4th Street South, there is one standalone building that has been catching the eye of passersby for years. The Stage at Island Park pavilion is a bright hexagon of tall windows that shines like a lighthouse from the trees. It can take on many looks; for Valentine’s Day the lights gleam red, and for Christmas, red and green. For parties, it is seen filled with men and women dressed to the nines, and summer camp fills the space with curious kids. When a Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre show is taking place onstage, the pavilion comes alive with glittering lights and guests.
No matter the occasion, it’s a clear sign to those driving by; there’s something magical happening here.
“As soon as you walk in the door you can tell this is someplace special,” said Eloise Breikjern, Executive Director of the theatre.
But it wasn’t always this way. When the pavilion was first constructed, it was an open-air wooden gazebo, built with the intention of integrating with the surrounding Island Park. While this was pleasant during the summer, it was unable to be used as an active space for most of the year.
“I remember when there were birds in the top of it, and you’d have to kind of watch when you walked in, depending on what season it was,” Breikjern said, laughing.
During this time, the FMCT board was developing a long-term plan to continue the growth of the community theatre. An important early step was to turn the gazebo entrance into something that could be used year-round.
“We wanted it to become a cornerstone of our facility,” said Rick Stenseth, fundraising director and wearer-of-many-hats at the theatre for over 30 years.
It was just the type of project that Katherine Kilbourne Burgum would have loved. Throughout her lifetime, Katherine was a passionate arts advocate and nurtured a love of the arts in her children. As part of a legacy, Katherine created the Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Trust as a vehicle to further her commitment to investing in philanthropic endeavors in the Fargo-Moorhead community.
Her son, local entrepreneur and philanthropist Doug Burgum, found the FMCT mission in alignment with his mother’s commitment to the arts and brought the project for consideration by the family members who manage the trust. But he didn’t just want to give a monetary investment to FMCT – he wanted it to be strategic. When he looked at the plans for the new FMCT pavilion, he knew it would be a meaningful renovation to draw more traffic to the Stage.
“He [Burgum] wants to see growth. He doesn’t want to just put a new coat of paint on,” Stenseth said. “He looked at all the different things we wanted to do, and this was his first choice; to draw attention to our organization and our location, and to help us reach our long-term goals,”
The final product, the Katherine Kilbourne Burgum pavilion, was finished in 2011. It wasn’t long before its presence began to attract more attention to the theatre.
“We get a lot of people coming in who say, ‘I didn’t even know this place was here’,” Stenseth said. “And one of the things that made them stop was seeing the pavilion.”
The theatre is one of Fargo-Moorhead’s oldest landmarks. The idea for a community theatre was sparked in 1941, the brainchild of a group of city leaders who wanted to ignite the local arts scene.
“There was no art in the community. Many of the galleries and school programs now — they didn’t exist then,” Stenseth said. “Community members were looking for a way to involve art in the community.”
In 1963, the first theatre building was put together at no cost to the community. Labor was provided by labor unions, and materials were donated by local businesses.
“It was kind of like a barn raising,” Stenseth said. “It became even more of a community place.”
It’s a foundation that has influenced the connection between the community and the theatre from then until now, 70 years later. Yes, 70 years.
“That’s amazing for a community theater to stay intact that long,” Breikjern said.
She sees it as a testament to the community and the commitment to growing the local arts scene. Adam Pankow, Artistic Director at FMCT, has seen this hold true throughout his life growing up in Fargo-Moorhead.
“It’s actually a little unfathomable that a community as modestly sized as this is able to support so much art, and really quality art as well, whether it’s visual art or performance art,” he said. “This town is truly a cultural oasis.”
Pankow performed in his first theatre production at 12 years old on the FMCT stage. He fell in love with the theatre community, and with theatre itself; particularly its unique ability as an art form to both entertain guests and challenge their thinking. Now, as artistic director, he is continuing the magic of theatre in the upcoming year — a full one, with ten shows planned for the 2018 season.
But you’ll find more than thought-provoking shows on the stage; as a community theater, the pavilion is often filled with other events, such as 1 Million Cups every Wednesday morning, parties, educational classes, even weddings. It’s filled with the life of a community. And that’s exactly as it should be, Breikjern says.
“When you come in this building, it’s your friends and neighbors that are here,” she said. “So come visit us. Come through the doors, and see what it’s all about.”