When New Haven's Shubert Theater celebrates its 100th anniversary in December, the grand dame of Connecticut theaters will have a 21st Century look.
Gone will be the angled entrance and popcorn- textured exterior in favor of a reconfigured lobby, additional bathrooms and new performance spaces.
Hartford Stage, too, is putting on a fresh face, updating its upstairs lobby and adding new springier seats for its audiences.
The makeovers are in part an effort to make both theaters more patron-friendly, and illustrate a capital spending trend among regional theaters and presenting houses across the country.
The Shubert Theater will begin its $8.5 million-plus renovation/endowment project May 1, finishing in early October just in time for its 2014-15 season. The theater will be closed during the renovation period.
The project will include a warmer and more dynamic lobby, a modern exterior and electronic marquee, up-to-date mechanicals and a slew of audience amenities.
"It's the next chapter in the Shubert's long history," says executive director John Fisher. "We're taking what's great about what we have, which is the theater itself, and updating it for the next 100 years."
The city of New Haven, which took over ownership of the theater in the early '80s after previous owners declared bankruptcy, gave up ownership late last year to the not-for-profit CAPA (Connecticut Association for the Performing Arts), which had been managing the theater since 2001.
Working with the governor and area legislators, CAPA received $4 million in state bonding money for the renovations. New Haven is also providing $2.5 million for the building's capital needs. CAPA will raise an additional $2 million from corporate, foundations and individuals.
The city will also phase out its annual subsidy towards the theater's approximately $6 million annual budget over the next 10 years. (The subsidy this year is $250,000.) A total of $2 million of the overall budget is targeted for the endowment, which is expected to fill in the gap when the city subsidy runs out.
The Glastonbury architectural firm SLAM is designing the project. It also designed New Haven's Metropolitan Business Academy on Water Street.
Some utility improvements will go largely unnoticed by patrons: new heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems; a replacement of the fire escape; repointing of brick work; roof repairs; and bringing basement dressing rooms and relocated offices up to code. Most of the project's costs will deal with the aging internal system, says Fisher. There is no plan to change the interior 1,600-seat, two-balcony theater that received a new paint job about five years ago.
But the new entrance with be decorated with new lighting, carpeting, chandelier, projections, more open space and new concession areas and bathrooms at every level of the theater. The box office also will be relocated so it can be available to patrons without opening up the entire lobby.
There will be a new 100 to 150-seat "black box" venue on the mezzanine level. The private suite off the lobby will be expanded and improved for meetings and receptions. It also may be suitable for cabaret entertainment, says Fisher.
There will be a formal ribbon cutting when the project is completed and throughout the year open houses, a block party and the big gala in March.
In 2010, Hartford Stage completed the $4 million Phase One of its long-in-the-making building expansion and renovation project. This summer it will undertake "Phase 2A," with the more expensive "2B" slated for next summer.
"We originally designed i[the second phase] to be one complete project but because it was based on the availability of cash, we split the project up," says Michael Stotts, managing director of the theater."We didn't want to go into debt and we didn't want to take out a loan."
This summer's phase (the theater will be closed from June to August) will cost between $800,000 and $1 million, designed to spiff up the upper level lobby with new carpeting, lighting and walnut veneer paneling as well as some 484 new maroon-colored seats with better sight lines, new handrails and carpeting down the aisles in the chamber of the theater.
"If we are able to raise another $150,000, we would like to do the actors' "green room" [lounge] and dressing rooms, which we would design and construct in-house," says Stotts. "We're still in fundraising mode so we feel some donors are interested in that. An additional $150,000 will get the costume shop done but we don't think we can do both construction projects this summer."
Next summer's larger project is estimated at $4 to $5 million and will further alter the street level lobby with the addition of an elevator, bringing the theater in compliance with accessiblity regulations for persons-with-disabilities. The box office will be relocated, new carpeting and electronic "smart boards" placed in the lobby, and digital marquee and additional technical upgrades added for the theater.
New York architect Mitchell Kurtz, who designed the first phase in 2010 and had originally planned the remaining phases, left the project when it was downsized. Kurtz called for a $16 million project. Hartford-based JCJ Architects is now overseeing the project, whose total will now be $12 million.
Earlier 2006 plans for the theater's renovation were estimated at $40 million and included a community room and second smaller theater, among other upgrades.
"We haven't resolved the issue of a second space," says Stotts who says talks continue and are now focused on existing downtown space that can be converted for an ad-hoc theater space that to accommodate about 150 people.
"But it's going to have to have a business model that makes sense," says Stotts. "We don't want a second venue that has a lot of operating personnel and rent costs. Without a pretty decent revenue stream, a Stage II is not going to develop."
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