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Salt Lake City plans for 'black box' theater inside larger Arts Center

Published December 26, 2012 10:52 am

New theater • Some worry $110M complex could be profit-obsessed.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Salt Lake City's theater community first reacted with caution at news of Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker's proposed 2,500-seat "Broadway-style" theater, slated for construction at 137 S. Main Street.

Now that the $110 million Utah Performing Arts Center seems increasingly likely to become reality, that same community wants to ensure there might be something in it for cash-strapped local producers, actors, directors and playwrights.

At the top of their wish list: a 100- to 250-seat black box theater space to accommodate small-scale local professional productions, even as behemoth Broadway touring productions generate revenue that will sustain the facility.

It's an idea supported by virtually every local arts company, from the Salt Lake Acting Company to the coalition of performing arts companies operating out of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

The main worry, as the idea takes shape, is that the center's unique directive to sustain its own operations through revenue — a distinction that separates it from such Salt Lake County facilities as Capitol Theatre, Abravanel Hall and the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center — will open up such a space for use as a banquet or wedding reception facility.

While the Rose Wagner Center offers two such black box spaces, the larger of the two is designed specifically for dance, with the smaller one is almost continually booked for theater, said Fran Pruyn, artistic director of Pygmalion Theatre Company.

"Certainly there's a need for a black box that will serve theater companies particularly," Pruyn said. "I appreciate the fact that they've acknowledged the need and are trying to apportion the money. My only concern is that once they start putting banquets in there, they've opened a source of revenue far greater than what theater could ever provide."

Stephen Brown, president of the Performing Arts Coalition at the Rose Wagner, and founder of the SB Dance company, underscored those concerns. "It [the Utah Performing Arts Center] is not being built for the arts community, it's being built as a economic machine," Brown said. "No one makes any bones about that. At the same time, the city and county has been very sensitive to how this facility will impact the arts community."

All that's true in concept, said Philip Jordan, division director of the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, which manages the county's arts venues. But the responsibilities of operation and ownership for the center between the county and Salt Lake City have yet to be determined. Also, a whole host of revenue possibilities inside and around the center could yet take shape to somehow subsidize — or at least help offset — the cost of using the black box for theater performances.

"We're joined at the hip, the county and city, in the aim that the facility be self-sufficient, but also useful to the community," Jordan said. "To the extent that those two aims are mutually exclusive, I don't think we'd have gotten this far if we believed they were incompatible."

A winter garden, rooftop terrace, and even restaurants and shops on either Main Street to the west of the center or Regent Street on the east could possibly generate the money needed to maintain a schedule of small-scale theater performances inside the black box, he said.

It's also important to keep in mind the "extra bandwidth" that will be freed up once the Utah Center for the Performing Arts Center is scheduled for completion March 2016, said Helen Langan, of the Salt Lake City Mayor's office.

Capitol Theatre, Abravanel Hall and Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center all serve as homes to their resident companies, including Ballet West, Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Repertory Dance Theatre. Assuming Capitol Theatre will no longer host touring Broadway acts, other performing arts organizations can then use that space even if not everything works to plan with the black box.

"These are spaces that inherently lose money, and that's OK," Langan said. "But we need to create policies that give us the right balance to help us offset the cost. We've got some time before the space opens up, but we know we'll get there."