Playing for Keeps

Can art pull people from poverty? Noël Raymond of Pillsbury House Theatre is a believer.

To walk through Pillsbury House, a bunker-like facility in south Minneapolis, is to enter a new building behind every door: there’s a theater, a daycare, a free medical clinic, a shop where homeless youth repair bicycles. It’s the edificial equivalent of Mary Poppins’s bottomless bag. And it even spills outside. “That’s awesome,” says Noël Raymond as she admires a nearby garage door painted by Pillsbury House kids with an image of Godzilla. ¶ Though largely a social-services agency, Pillsbury House added a theater in 1992. Raymond arrived three years later and became the theater’s co-director, along with Faye Price, building it into one of the best stages in the Twin Cities. ¶ The mix of aid and art, Raymond says, seemed odd at first. Not anymore. Raymond peers into a box of freshly minted tote bags in the lobby: “A center for creativity and community,” they say, summing up Pillsbury’s new push. Anyone who comes through the doors, whether for a check-up or job counseling, will also have “an arts experience,” Raymond vows—through art on the walls, perhaps, or an impromptu play.

“People in poverty often can’t envision a way out,” Raymond says, settling into an office covered with children’s drawings and poetry. “Creativity is the ability to see options, how to get from here to there.” Infusing creativity into troubled communities is a national trend, but few facilities have tried integrating art and aid as thoroughly as Pillsbury House. Recently, for instance, realizing that people were waiting up to three hours at the medical clinic—“a captive audience,” Raymond jokes—resident artists treated visitors to a reading of a new play.

This month, Raymond directs The Pride, about gay relationships 50 years apart, in the Pillsbury House Theatre. She likes relationship stories, the better to personalize the issues. (“I’ll probably never stage The Fantasticks,” she says.) Once absorbed, Raymond believes, good art can outlast bad starts, bad decisions, bad educations—at least that’s the hope. Raymond recalls a recent Pillsbury program that asked incarcerated youth to write and perform their life stories for each other. “I’ll hold onto that memory my whole life,” she says.


1. Raised in upstate New York, she came to Minnesota to get her MFA in acting from the U.
2. She’s acted at the Guthrie Theater but prefers directing: “I’m a problem-solver.”
3. She loves that Pillsbury House began as a settlement house, teaching crafts and customs.
4. Pillsbury House recently helped kids start a pirate radio station, broadcasting within a mile.
5. Preternaturally flexible, she can turn her arm all the way around, freaking out her coworkers.

Raymond talks art and poverty at