In the past 116 years, the Sheldon Theatre of Performing Arts has survived two tragic fires, but like the namesake of its resident community theater company, Phoenix, the Sheldon has always risen from the ashes.

Even during the current pandemic, the theater is still managing to find ways to showcase the arts. Oct. 15-17, the Sheldon will present an exhibit of photography and artifacts titled “Rise From the Ashes” coupled with a special effects video installation called “Burning Down the House.”

Jeff Larson, the interim executive director of the Sheldon, said the idea for the exhibit and film began back in March when the theater first felt the grips of the pandemic.

“We were looking for ways the Sheldon, both as a building and an organization, could still bring art to Red Wing while our usual programming was impossible,” he said.

The “Rise From the Ashes” exhibit will showcase photographs and artifacts from the theater's long history. Larson said they have so many interesting photos and artifacts to choose from, they're having trouble choosing which can be included in the space allowed by the second-floor mezzanine where they will be displayed.

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“Since we can't have performers in the theater, we think it's the perfect time for the Sheldon to be the star of its own story," he said.

Video rendering by Karin Olson and Michael Murnane
Video rendering by Karin Olson and Michael Murnane

In its present form, with marble columns and golden accents, the theater certainly seems to be a star. It’s hard to imagine the many permutations it has experienced in the past century or to believe that its roof was once raised two feet by an explosion.

The theater was built in 1904, largely with funds bequeathed to the city by prominent businessman Theodore B. Sheldon. It was the first publicly owned theater west of the Mississippi River, and its neo-Renaissance design earned it the nickname “The Jewel Box.”

Hosting everything from orchestras to vaudeville shows and even the first movies with sound, the Sheldon’s role in its community has been important, and the “Rise From the Ashes” exhibit documents its history.

While history is an important part of the Sheldon, Larson makes it clear the exhibit is about foregrounding the theater's current artistic relevance.

“This project is much more about what kind of art the Sheldon can be used for right now, in these times,” he said.

In part, that relevance can be seen through the video installation “Burning Down the House.” The Sheldon commissioned Karin Olson and Michael Murnane to create the installation, which will be projected on the theater's exterior. The projection makes use of the building’s three-dimensional surface to highlight the current architecture and replace it with its past appearances.

“The video installation is a great special effects show — more of a theme park attraction than a history film you’d be forced to sit through in class,” Larson said.

Jeff Larson, interim Sheldon Theatre executive director (photographed by Craig VanDerSchagen)
Jeff Larson, interim Sheldon Theatre executive director (photographed by Craig VanDerSchagen)

In order to decrease risks from the pandemic, the exhibit and outdoor video installment are designed to be experienced in 15 minutes or less, and the theater has worked to create traffic plans and a reservation system to help keep observers distanced.

“We’re not able to focus on the performing arts right now, but we’re not giving up on the rest,” Larson said. “At a time when we’re all trapped in our houses so much of the time, and a lot of what we’re seeing on the news feels so dire, we think it’s a perfect time for an entertaining reminder of Red Wing’s resilience.”

If you go

What: “Burning Down the House” and “Rise From the Ashes”

When: 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 15-17, with half-hour reservations available. “Burning Down the House” shows on the theater's exterior every half-hour beginning at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Sheldon Theatre of Performing Arts, 443 W. 3rd St., Red Wing

Cost: Free reservations available at www.sheldontheatre.org/events.