Stage Scarcity

Many local theater companies act like nomads due to a lack of venues

Not all of downtown's homeless people are weathered guys who keep all their worldly goods in a stolen shopping cart. Some are theater producers.

Take Barclay Goldsmith--he runs the well-established Borderlands Theater. True, the company has its own office, but its productions duck from theater to theater with the ingenuity of migrants dodging the INS.

Laura Ann Herman and Dylan Smith of Quintessential Stage ran full seasons of well-received shows in a 50-seat storefront theater through the late 1990s, but the company has gone mostly dormant during the past four years as the company struggles to establish itself in a larger, permanent space.

Stephen Elton and Amy Almquist launched Beowulf Alley Theatre Company with an excellent 2001 production at the Temple of Music and Art's Cabaret Theater, but they, too, have spent the time since then raising more than a quarter of a million dollars to transform some former warehouse or showroom into a home.

By one estimate, 19 small theater companies in Tucson lack facilities they can call their own. Add the dance groups and other arts entities that the Tucson Pima Arts Council has been surveying, and you have about 40 groups with unmet space needs.

Oh, there are performance venues in town, but most of them are either too large, too difficult to book or too expensive for these modest groups. Some lack top-notch lights and other gear. Some are in such demand that a company may have to move its sets and lights in and out several times during a run in order to make way for other users.

"There's a real need for smaller theater spaces in the 200-seat range that are affordable," says Mary Anne Ingenthron, TPAC's executive director. "For a smaller company, it's hard to fill 500 seats over a three- to four-week run, whereas they may easily fill 200 seats."

Says Quintessential's Smith, "Something like the Leo Rich Theater doesn't make financial sense for a group like us, because we can't get anywhere near 500 people a night during a run. For us, 150 people would be a great turnout, but it would be embarrassing at Leo Rich, because the place would look empty. Our goal is to develop a place with 150 to 200 seats. There should be a step between having a 50-seat storefront theater and having something that's way too big and well-equipped and expensive for what small local theaters want to do."

Quintessential hasn't managed to develop its own space yet, but not for lack of effort. First, the company spent six months figuring out whether it was worthwhile to fix up a building on Pennington Street, but abandoned that possibility when organizers realized the back of the building was essentially falling off. The next prospect seemed very exciting: the former Benjamin Supply warehouse on Congress Street, across from the Greyhound bus station. Quintessential held fund-raising events and an open house, hired engineers and architects to draw up plans, and had gotten pretty far into the renovation (ripping out old plumbing and electrical systems, carting off 11 tons of plaster) when it became apparent that when the building was constructed in 1937, nobody had secured the roof to the walls. Fixing that would have cost at least another $150,000.

"After all these people putting in thousands of hours of sweat equity, we had to walk away from the project," says Smith. "Right now, we're still looking for the perfect building."

According to Ingenthron, "It's very difficult for struggling arts organizations to get into the facility development and management business. The energy it takes to develop a physical space or renovate an old space pulls artists away from what they're best at, which is their creative expression.

"In an ideal world," she says, "your infrastructure for producing the arts is public infrastructure, managed by your city and county." But, aside from the Tucson Convention Center, which isn't right for small groups, that isn't happening in Tucson. That might change if some high-quality, small theaters are incorporated into new Rio Nuevo development, but so far, that's just wishful thinking among a handful of theater producers.

The good news is that last May, voters approved a county bond package that included about $700,000 to revive the Tucson Performing Arts Center, also known as the Cursillo Center, in a former church on Sixth Avenue, just south of the Tucson Children's Museum. In the 1980s, the city took over the building, designated it a performance venue for small and emerging groups, and assigned its management to Arizona Theatre Company. But a cracked arch and foundation problems forced its closure four years ago.

So fix-up money is in place, but the bad news is that it may not be enough, and jurisdictional tangles may delay whatever work is possible. The repairs were funded by a county bond measure, but the building remains city property. "And we need a better analysis of the numbers," says Ingenthron. "I've heard that it will take anything from an additional $200,000 to $2 million to get it performance-ready."

Tireless community arts supporter Sally Van Slyke--one of the people who instigated the restoration of the Fox Theatre--has been working to get the Cursillo building open again. "We've been to Muse, and we've been to Zuzi," she says, referring to theater spaces carved out of former YMCA and YWCA gyms on Fifth Avenue. "Those places are fine for a brief run, but theater people can't leave their stuff there. And those places just don't have the dignity and the feeling that this building does. César Chávez attended farm-worker rallies in the basement. It's a great old building, and we have the restoration plans, but right now we're in limbo."

Barclay Goldsmith says his Borderlands Theater used the Cursillo Center extensively in the 1990s, and he'd like to move back permanently. "We're very nomadic, and that's not good for us," he says. "We need a solid venue in one place."

But Goldsmith is well aware that recent changes in the availability of city funding--that is, the elimination of most of it--may lead to friction if the city or county decides to subsidize Cursillo's management. "In the 1990s, the city underwrote some of its operations," says Goldsmith, "and it was helping mid-size groups out with rent, so places like Zuzi and maybe Muse benefited from that. But now that that money has been withdrawn, nonprofit groups with venues they rent out would lose out if the city started underwriting the Cursillo building. Places like Zuzi need that revenue to keep their spaces going, too."

Beowulf Alley is on the verge of becoming one of those companies with space to rent. After long negotiations with the Gibson family, the company has taken a 6-year lease on 6,000 feet of the former Johnny Gibson's Gym Equipment showroom on Sixth Avenue. The company is installing a 140-seat theater with plush stadium seating, air conditioning and up-to-date lighting and sound systems, as well as a physically and acoustically separate rehearsal space and a workroom that can be used even while a show is in progress. The facility may be open by the first of the year.

"We need our own space," says managing director Amy Almquist, "because typically, small companies come and go. Having this building will give us a sense of permanency. We're looking to be a Tucson landmark."

Almquist says the company is about 80 percent of the way toward its goal of raising $150,000 in start-up costs. Once it's up and running, the company will rent whatever space it's not using at the moment to other groups.

Like Quintessential, Beowulf Alley had to abandon earlier plans for a different, structurally problematic downtown building. The company is still in dispute with the owners of that warehouse, and negotiating the lease on the Gibson building was, according to Elton, "the most difficult thing I've ever done." But he's not sorry for all the hassle.

"Having your own space has important advantages," he says. "You can run a show as long as you want if it's successful, instead of renting a place like the Cabaret, where even if you have a hit, you have to close it and get out so the next group can get in. In theater, your major expense is in the costumes, the props and the set; once you've bought or built all that, your expense is minimal--just royalties and paying the actors. So if you can run that show for a longer time, you can start to break even."

Although the availability of Beowulf Alley's theater and the Cursillo building will open doors for small companies, it won't exactly open a vast stage frontier. The leaders of arts groups are so hungry for new space that they're salivating over other downtown properties that aren't even on the market.

New theater spaces can't rise fast enough for Quintessential's Dylan Smith, who says, "We're raring to get back to doing what we set out to do--to create theater, and not go around looking at dusty warehouses."

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