At an upcoming open house on February 28th, Near West Theatre
is set to debut its long-awaited new home in the Gordon Square Arts District
. The $7.3 million, green-built, state-of-the-art theatre is the kind of space the nonprofit has long been dreaming of, and this year will be its chance to shine.
Before the winter break, Fresh Water
took a tour of this bold new space with NWT staff. The impressive building is set back slightly from the street, yet it's large enough that you can't miss it. A plaza that will be constructed in front of the building should offer a gathering place for theatre-goers, visitors and community members alike, with planters, bioswales, a mural and a large, artistic sign.
"The entrance will get across that Near West Theatre is the 'magic factory of transformation,'" says Josh Padgett, Technical Director with NWT. "We transform people."
Within the facility, the expansive lower level offers 3-4 separate spaces that can be customized to the theatre's needs. The space will provide a rehearsal studio and changing rooms (NWT's productions are often quite large and can include 60-65 people), and it will be rentable to outside groups. In the future, the group hopes to build out a small cafe that can serve concessions during shows.
The entire building is ADA-accessible, with both an elevator and ramp access, details that were sorely lacking from its past performance space at St. Pat's.
Yet it's the main level of the theatre that truly conveys that NWT has hit the big time. The soaring ceilings offer a full theatrical production facility with fly space. For the first time, the theatre company has wings that can be used during its shows. The theatre itself is at once intimate and capacious, with its 275-seat capacity offering opportunities for proscenium, thrust or in-the-round seating. If that's not enough, there's also a small balcony that may offer the best views.
All of the seats are completely removable and flexible. "It used to take us four days to set up the seats, and now it will take us four hours," quips Padgett, who adds that NWT has purchased state-of-the-art theatrical equipment for its new home. Expect a level of technical proficiency that hasn't been done before.
A few more cool facts that we gleaned during the tour: For the first time, cast members will have their own restrooms (in the past, they had to traipse, costumes and all we imagine, into the same bathrooms as the audience). The large I-beam behind the stage bears the signatures and well wishes of people who attended a recent Gordon Square Arts District festival, and it will remain exposed and visible. The beam was also signed by cast members and theatre supporters. Padgett and others refer to it as the "we beam," reflecting NWT's community spirit.
Part of the beauty of this facility is that NWT owns it free and clear, having raised the funds during the GSAD capital campaign. Also, because the structure was built using ultra-sustainable techniques borrowed from European passive house design, it will be a very affordable building to operate, limiting capital outlay.
In addition to the February 28th open house, NWT is holding a "blowout party" on March 14th. The group's annual benefit will be held on March 21st, while the upcoming production of "Shrek the Musical" will open on April 24th and run for four weekends. Later in the summer, NWT will produce the musical "Hair."