Spotlight shines on new black box theaterWoodbury Arts Connection members conducted a final walk through of the Dorothy K. Merrill Community Arts Center – East Ridge High School Campus, which includes a black box theater, on Jan. 4.
By: Amber Kispert-Smith, Woodbury Bulletin
In 2004, the concept of having a community arts center was just a lofty dream.
Now, that dream is a reality.
Woodbury Arts Connection members conducted a final walk through of the Dorothy K. Merrill Community Arts Center – East Ridge High School Campus, which includes a black box theater, on Jan. 4.
“It’s really surreal,” said Michelle Witte, executive director of Arts Connection. “Persistence is the name of the game. It’s very exciting to have it all come together.”
A grand opening for the black box theater will be held Feb. 22.
The East Ridge campus joins the already established Dorothy K. Merrill Community Arts Center at its Rivertown campus.
The East Ridge campus, which is about 3,800 square feet, includes a lobby, theater office and a theater that will be able to seat between 100 and 120 people.
The theater will not include a stage and the seats will be movable.
A long road
It hasn’t been an easy road to bring the Dorothy K. Merrill Community Arts Centers into reality.
The initial vision, by Arts Connection, was to build a $4.1 million community arts center to be attached to East Ridge’s Loft Stage. Originally, it was to include a black box theater, an art gallery, storage space, prop studio, administrative offices, rehearsal space, classrooms and a set studio.
Arts Connection received a $1.4 million donation from Woodbury resident Dorothy K. Merrill to fund the project.
But in May of 2011, when the Arts Connection opened up construction bids for the project, it was quickly realized that the project was going to cost much more than anticipated.
Bids revealed Arts Connection was between $500,000 and $800,000 under budget and that renovation and expansions would pose challenges in order to be attached to the school.
Arts Connection revisited an option that had always been discussed — maintain the black box theater attached to East Ridge but move the “back end” functions, such as the set shop, costume design and rehearsal space, to a second location.
Arts Connection eventually found an 8,000 square-foot space for those functions at a former architectural showroom located at 380 Rivertown Drive for a cost of $420,000.
The black box theater cost $1.3 million to construct.
“At first it was daunting,” Witte said of the project changes. “But, it’s sort of making lemonade out of lemons.
“It would have been nice not to have to move the sets over, but on the other hand now we have a space where we can have wine and cheese and do the art gallery side of things.”
Arts Connection also recently purchased an adjoining building at the Rivertown campus, which brings the square footage up to 10,600.
The new space will be primarily used as a rehearsal center. The cost was $200,000.
The Dorothy K. Merrill Community Arts Center is a partnership between Arts Connection, District 833, City of Woodbury, Woodbury Community Theatre and the East Metro Symphony Orchestra.
The black box theater
Witte and East Ridge theater director Amanda Hestwood both said the construction of the black box theater, which began in June, went relatively smoothly.
However, there were a few hiccups.
“In any construction there are issues,” Hestwood said. “We had a wall fall over, but in the end, it really had very little impact on what we were doing in the Loft – we didn’t hear any of the noise that was happening in there.”
Witte said she was pleased with the end product.
“We’re pleased with how usable it is as a standalone and as a collaborative piece with the Loft,” she said. “It’s going to be nice to make that space more usable.”
The black box theater will be used in a variety of different ways including performances, rehearsals and theater classes.
For East Ridge, the theater will be primarily used for rehearsal space and all of the school’s theater classes will be held in the black box theater.
“This space is such a premium at East Ridge right now,” Hestwood said. “This is a perfect space for spreading kids out and letting them do work.”
Hestwood said she was hoping to start having classes in the black box theater this week if possible.
Since the black box will be used by theater students for rehearsal space, that will open up time on the Loft Stage for other performances and events.
“This is a perfect opportunity to free up some chunks of time,” Hestwood said. “It’s limitless how many different opportunities there are.”
From Arts Connection and the Woodbury Community Theatre side of things, the black box theater will allow for added rehearsal space.
“You can push a show out much easier when you’re right next to the stage,” said Witte, who is also a producer for the Woodbury Community Theatre. “They can really start to block earlier, which takes the pressure off the main stage.”
Witte said Woodbury Community Theatre will definitely be using the black box theater for its next musical, “Stars on Broadway II,” which opens in March.
The black box theater will also provide opportunities for smaller performances.
“We’re very excited to do more things that don’t have to earn big money to make it work,” Witte said. “We’ll be able to do more of those small shows.”
Additionally, Witte said she would like to look at the possibility of holding outdoor performances in the grassy area directly adjacent to the black box theater, sort of a “Shakespeare in the Park” type idea.
A grand celebration
During the grand opening for the black box theater on Feb. 22, guests will begin at the East Ridge campus where they will tour the space, participate in a silent auction and be treated to some food.
Additionally, the Woodbury Community Theatre will give a short performance, which will be a retrospective of the community theater and Arts Connection over the years.
Following the performances, guests will travel to the Rivertown campus to tour the newly renovated space and enjoy wine and beer.
The grand opening will help raise funds for the remaining expenses for the black box theater including seating, equipment and fixtures.
Witte said she is excited to see what the future holds for the Dorothy K. Merrill Community Arts Center.
“Now that the black box theater is built, we can get a sense of how everything is going to come together,” she said. “Every show comes together differently so it’s like a puzzle to figure out how everything goes together.”
The grand opening for the Dorothy K. Merrill Community Arts Center – East Ridge High School Campus and the black box theater will be Feb. 22 from 6-11:30 p.m. Tickets are $45 for adults and $25 for students. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for an invitation to the event. More information can be found at www.merrillartscenter.org.