How will community theatre grow at the corner of Eighth and Cass streets in Traverse City? A completely new facility is likely a decade away, but the show most definitely goes on.
When the Old Town Playhouse (OTP) completed a feasibility study last year to determine how it should address its bursting-at-the-seams facility, one thing was clear: there is community support in the Traverse City area for a new community theater. However, it was also clear such a project – likely in the neighborhood of $20 million – is a good 8-10 years away.
But that same feasibility study also fueled a revision of OTP’s strategic script – with an immediate commitment to put the audience center stage.
“Without an audience, there is no theater,” says Executive Director Phil Murphy. So the playhouse has launched a three-phased plan over three years – total price tag $500,000 –to enhance the audience and community experience at the current facility, and the public will start seeing improvements soon.
That first phase, estimated to cost $125,000, includes a completely new entryway with an extended awning and “curtaining” – making for a much more pleasant experience while waiting to enter the theater in February or on a steamy August afternoon during the Film Festival; also included is improved business and handicap-accessible entry, and sound system and house lighting upgrades. So far, it has raised $61,200 toward the project.
The goal is for the majority of the work to be complete prior to the opening of Les Miserables on October 4, anticipated to be the biggest show in the playhouse’s history, says Murphy.
That’s a long way from the 1990s when – at one point – the OTP was very close to bankruptcy, recalls Murphy. But instead, it shut the facility down for a year to get it up to current building codes and took its 1998-’99 season on the road, performing at various venues around town. Also around that same time, it realized the public trust had changed. “We had been accused of being a social club, and rightly so,” says Murphy. “But this changed our focus to the community at large.”
“We had to grow up and mature as a business, and we truly have,” says Development Director Betsy Willis. In fact, the Old Town Playhouse is now the third largest community theater in the state, behind Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. The feasibility study shows the playhouse contributes some $1 million annually to the Grand Traverse economy.
Murphy notes that TCAPS Superintendent Steve Cousins did approach the OTP about a partnership as it explored its own auditorium construction project. But between rehearsals, performances, workshops and more, there is something going on at the playhouse 280 nights a year.
“I told Steve there was no way they could accommodate us,” says Murphy.
Rounding out the next two phases of the three-year facility improvement project are renovations to the lower lobby to make it a more “engaging and comfortable space” for audiences to gather before and after performances, upgrades to its kitchen and concessionary, painting and other maintenance, and finally new seating throughout the auditorium. Cost estimates for those two phases are $122,000 and $263,000, respectively.
To view the OTP feasibility study in its entirety or for more information on how to donate to current fundraising efforts for facility improvements, contact Betsy Willis at 231.947.2210.