Our Story

Founded in 1914, the Playhouse is one of the nation’s oldest non-profit regional theaters and produces a year-round season of dramas, musicals, and youth productions.

The NorShor Theatre being restored

Let’s go back to the year 1914. A small group of women gathered around the big dining room table at the home of Mrs. Frank Parker to discuss the possibility of starting a drama group. They became a chapter of the National Drama League but called their organization “The Little Theater.” Meeting at first in homes, they later acquired the former Christian Science church building at Ninth Avenue East and First Street. Dressing rooms were in the basement on a cold, damp earth floor; the auditorium was heated by a wood and coal stove that had to be well stoked before performances. The Little Theatre of Duluth then began its career with the American première of Bernard Shaw’s Dark Lady of the Sonnets.

The Little Theater announced a playwriting contest in 1916. The young winner was Margaret Culkin Banning with a one-act play,Her Sacred Duty. The group members paid fees for guest lectures, road companies, and visiting professionals, and they sent delegates to drama festivals all over the country. The entrance of the U.S. into World War I meant that theater, except for benefit shows, came to a near halt.

In 1926 The Little Theater was reorganized, added men to its roster, took on a new enthusiasm, and brought in its first full-time director. Maurice Gnesin, a professional theater man, ran workshops and gave acting lessons and instruction in stagecraft.

In August 1927, The Little Theater group rented and moved into a building at 6 South 12th Avenue East. (The former building on first Street was moved across the ice on the bay to Park Point and became Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church.) The auditorium in the new building was equipped with wooden benches, later replaced with wooden theater seats and, finally, upholstered seats.

Almost from the very beginning, The Little Theater group expressed interest in and pursued plans for an active program in children’s theater. The Duluth drama group was recognized nationally as one of the first to include children’s theater in its plans. The Junior League and The Little Theater cooperated in producing children’s plays well into the 1930s under the fine direction of Frances Hoffman Lavine.

Duluth Children’s Theater, founded in 1928 by Frances Hoffman Lavine, opened what is believed to be the first Children’s Theater playhouse in the country in 1932.  Throughout its history, the Children’s Theatre of Duluth was unique in originally having an executive board with all positions comprised of youth. It presented a record of eight plays in its first year and a half. Members of the Children’s Theater transformed an old barn between First and Second Street and Sixteenth Avenue East into their presenting theatre, which had a seating capacity of 200. All Duluthians of college age or younger were able to audition for plays or work backstage. Work Progress Administration monies assisted the organization during the 1930s until it disbanded in 1939 due to a lack of funding.

Alan Wallace came as director in 1929. He opened the season with Barry’s controversial Broadway hit Paris Bound, on the subject of easy divorce. Eyebrows were raised, tongues wagged, and some patrons threatened to cancel their memberships. Despite this scandal, Wallace did much to popularize the theater by presenting many highly acclaimed productions. He was followed by John Wray Young, later a nationally known authority on community theater who, along with his wife, were among one of the first people inducted to the Louisiana Performing Arts Hall of Fame.


These were the Depression years, and throngs of jobless, young and old, were seeking an inexpensive outlet for their “leisure” time. With this many volunteers upon which to draw, large-scale shows like Green Grow the Lilacs (upon which Oklahoma! was later based) were frequently presented.

Director Young was followed by several other noteworthy professional directors, including Ulmont Healy, who was director for nine important years. During Healy’s stay, he gave the audiences and players many enjoyable modern dramas, as well as classics and some fine Shakespearean productions. Healy encouraged local writers by producing plays by Duluthians Mrs. U.H. Reque, Joe Cook, and Dr. Simon Sax. It was also during this time that the name of the theater was changed to The Duluth Playhouse. The next full-time director was Sam Wren, who had a background of New York theater and summer stock experience. Ron Hammond, a delightful Englishman, was next with his talented designer wife, Dagmar.

In 1956 a revolutionary idea was proposed: instead of relying on the talents of just one director, why not use the local talent to hire individual local directors for each play! This play was highly successful, bringing not only a far more diversified range of experience but also a fresh approach with new volunteer talent and new audiences. This change brought financial stability for the Playhouse. During these years the Encore Awards were established for acting and production; winners were chosen by the membership.

This was the Golden Anniversary year, with spotlights in the sky, television interviews with arriving guests, and national coverage on the radio networks.

In 1967 the Playhouse added an additional play to its schedule. This special production was to be a play which would not fit into the regular season schedule, either because of its controversial nature, limited audience interest, or unique staging. The first of these productions was In White America, which filled the auditorium for its four-performance run and was later repeated in the 75th anniversary year. The annual “special production” continued to be limited to four or five performances and covered a variety of dramatic styles and forms.

Just before dawn on Sunday, March 29, 1971, flames licked at the big velvet stage curtain that had closed a few hours before on the Playhouse performance of Roar of the Greasepaint… The fire that gutted the building on 12th Avenue East left the theater in ruins. When the smoke cleared, lighting and sound equipment, properties, sets, Green Room furnishings, and hundreds of costumes collected over a period of 57 years were gone. Miraculously, the office on the second floor of the building had the least damage, and all records, pictures, and historical files were saved. In the tradition of “The show must go on,” the interrupted run ofRoar of the Greasepaint continued one week later in a high school auditorium with new sets, new costumes, and new props. After an extensive search, the Playhouse moved to the former Covenant Club rooms downtown, where it opened its 1971-72 season. One hundred and eighty seats were purchased at two dollars each and hauled in from a movie house in North Dakota. The dining room became the auditorium; the kitchen area became the dressing rooms and paint shop; the card room was the Green Room; and all the necessary work was done by Playhouse volunteers!

In May 1977, the Duluth Playhouse moved into another new space at the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, better known as The Depot, at 506 West Michigan Street. This beautiful 282-seat theater was designed with continental seating with generous space between the rows and excellent sightlines from every seat. The Green Room, dressing rooms, costume and props storerooms, and a substitute rehearsal space are all on the lower level. The Playhouse season expanded to seven mainstage shows plus a children’s production.

Duluth Playhouse brings the finest in entertainment and theatre arts opportunities to Minnesota’s Northeast Region. Featuring local and professional artists, the Playhouse hosts a year-round season of live theatre. With the Children’s Theatre Arts program, The Play Ground Theatre, and the new Conservatory for the Performing Arts, there are opportunities for everyone to explore, learn, and perform.

(The above history was compiled in 1989 for the Playhouse’s 75th Anniversary Year. A continuing history is in development… Please contact the Playhouse if you know interesting anecdotes or information about the theater since 1977.)

Christine Gradl Seitz joined the Playhouse as its new Managing Director. Seitz went on to serve as Artistic and Executive Director. For 21 years, Seitz took the Playhouse to new heights and inspired extraordinary growth within the organization.

Christine Gradl Seitz announced her retirement as Executive Director on September 30, 2020. "The artists in this community make me so proud to be part of this ever-expanding and exciting arts scene, and I feel very honored to have worked with you all," Seitz wrote in her announcement. "It has truly been inspiring. You are what makes me excited to go to work each morning, and every night I leave my job in awe of the creativity happening on all our stages. Thank you, everyone."

Under Seitz's leadership, the Duluth Playhouse grew from a single-stage community theatre to a three-venue theatrical organization offering live theater experiences for actors and audiences of all ages and interests.

Duluth Playhouse opens a second stage, The Play Ground, a 70-seat black box theatre, to give emerging Northland artists a new option. As a satellite theatre of the Playhouse, the Play Ground provided a second stage for more contemporary and experimental works without the pressing demand to fill the Depot auditorium. The Play Ground provided a more intimate venue for smaller cast shows. The Play Ground also served as a performance venue for non-Playhouse productions, expanding art opportunities.

With the Children's Theatre Arts program, The Play Ground Theatre, and the new Conservatory for the Performing Arts (230 W Superior Street, lower level of the Wells Fargo Building), Duluth Playhouse expands to allow everyone to explore, learn, and perform.

On June 15, 2010, the Duluth Economic Development Authority (DEDA) purchased the NorShor Theatre and Temple Opera Block. Duluth Playhouse assumes the theater's management. The intent was to return the NorShor to life as a vibrant cultural center — serving the needs of the region's arts, dance, theatre, and musical organizations.

DEDA selected developer Sherman Associates and Duluth Playhouse as a part of an RFP asking them to join forces to oversee the theater's transformation and future management of the facility. Each bringing expertise in their respective fields, this powerful partnership crafted a compelling vision and plan for the project. Together they directed the rehabilitation of the NorShor Theatre, the Temple Opera House, and the annex buildings, creating a state-of-the-art, 605-seat facility in the heart of Duluth.

The Play Ground moved to the Depot in April 2013 and was renamed The Underground Theatre. The mission of The Underground is to serve the community as a meeting place for culture and conversation, for arts and education, offering diverse programming to foster the artistic and intellectual life of Northern Minnesota.

The Centennial Year of the Duluth Playhouse reached even greater heights of high-quality entertainment from its local community with its production of Les Misérables at the DECC. Regarding Playhouse's growth in its 100 years, Christine Seitz told the Duluth News Tribune, "The arts are emotional, educational, and engaging experiences which point to the core of humanity. Theatre arts give us opportunities to see how something plays out. They make you think. They give us compassion because they allow us to step back and look at ourselves through the eyes of others and step into someone else's shoes."

The Playhouse Children's Theatre launched a Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) series. TYA produced interactive theatre events that ignite the imagination of children and adults alike. This inventive series featured a professional ensemble of adult actors in plays capturing the irreverence of childhood, made brave adaptations of literature, and ensured memorable first-time theatre experiences.

After years of strategic planning and hard work, The NorShor Theatre officially opens! Duluth Playhouse Main Stage moves to the NorShor Theatre with the regional premiere of the Broadway blockbuster Mamma Mia.

In March of 2020, the coronavirus forced the world to a halt. Live theatre everywhere cancelled and postponed programming. Though many theaters around the country closed due to the pandemic, the Playhouse survived in thanks to its supportive community, passionate staff, strategic decision making and financial assistance from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant which provided emergency assistance for eligible venues affected by COVID-19.

Duluth Playhouse and its Board of Directors announced on January 20, 2020, that Phillip Fazio would become the NorShor Theatre's next Artistic Director. Fazio succeeded Christine Gradl Seitz, who served as the organization's Artistic and Executive Director for 20 years.

"On behalf of The Duluth Playhouse, I am pleased to announce that Phillip Fazio has been selected to provide artistic direction for the Duluth Playhouse at the NorShor Theatre," said Gradl Seitz. "Phillip is a highly skilled director and will provide strong artistic management and a new vision. I very much look forward to the Playhouse's growth and community impact under his leadership."

In 2021, Fazio was promoted to Producing Artistic Director of Duluth Playhouse, placing him in charge of overseeing all artistic elements of the multifaceted organization.

On May 11, 2021, Duluth Playhouse Board of Directors announced the hiring of the new Executive Director, Wes Drummond. 

Drummond said, "I'm most excited about the people; the people inside and outside of the Playhouse. An organization of this capacity owes its success to a staff of fearless artists, a supportive Board and an active community who is dedicated to seeing the arts thrive. The past year has been a challenge for arts organizations everywhere. Christine and the Duluth Playhouse team have been working non-stop throughout to guide this organization to the other side of the pandemic. I'm thrilled by the passion and possibility that I see around us."

In a strategic move to adapt in the face of rising rent costs and a newly enforced RFP, Duluth Playhouse moved its Family Theatre and School of Performing Arts from the Depot stages to the NorShor Theatre for the 2022-2023 season. The 2022-2023 Season also announced an exciting new collaboration in the HART district, as Duluth Playhouse Underground premiered in the Zeitgeist Teatro Performing Arts Theater. This consolidation moved all Playhouse programs into the HART District of Downtown Duluth.

The Playhouse officially ended its lease with the Depot on December 31, 2022. Acknowledging the bittersweet aspect of leaving The Depot, Playhouse Executive Director, Wes Drummond stressed, "We will certainly miss performing in The Depot spaces that many people have called home for decades. It's important to remember that since its founding in 1914, Duluth Playhouse has had many homes. We are now fortunate to have a spectacular performance space at The Norshor. The timing is right. We can focus exclusively on maintaining and enhancing the renovated Norshor Theatre and the updated amenities located there."

Duluth Playhouse continues to bring the finest in entertainment, education and theatre arts opportunities to Minnesota’s Northeast Region. Featuring local and professional artists in the recently renovated, beautiful NorShor Theatre, the Main Stage offers a collection of uplifting stories about promising characters. Duluth Playhouse Youth Theatre, also housed in the NorShor Theatre, has a commitment to providing performance opportunities for young people. The Youth Theatre allows students to put their skills into action while connecting with their peers and growing as young artists. Duluth Playhouse Underground is dedicated to high-quality productions of unique stories. This fresh series of remarkable productions has an independent spirit of its own and will now be performed at the Playhouse's newest venue, The Lab, located at the NorShor Theatre.

2023-2024 Main Stage Season

Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (Sept 2023)

The Sound of Music (Dec 2023)

Mystery Play (Jan 2024)

Next to Normal (March 2024)

Peter and the Starcatcher (May 2024)

9 to 5 The Musical (July 2024)