Curtain Call

Madison mayor initiates search
for suitable theater building

Consultant hired to study
available sites to see if any could serve
as arts center, tourism office

"The point now is, if we build it, will they come?"
– Wayne Kyle, senior partner, Woodburn, Kyle & Co.

By Don Ward

August 2010 Madison Edition Cover

August 2010
Madison Edition Cover

(August 2010) – When Spectrum Productions theater group gets ready to audition, practice and stage a play, its members must gather props from various storage sites around town and carry them upstairs to the second floor of the Ohio Theatre movie house. Once there, they must work with only a bare stage and avoid touching the movie screen in back.
There are no dressing rooms, no backstage, no side wings, no stage lights, no pit. What’s more, they must advertise their location on a limited advertising budget in hopes audiences will find them and attend their shows in the makeshift location.
“All we want is a place to call home, so we can keep all our stuff there and people can find us,” said Spectrum Productions member Stephanie Hellmann. “We don’t need a lot; just give us a space.”
For many years now, Madison area actors and playwrights have longed for a theater to call home. While no one is making any promises, a recent effort is under way to possibly find that home.
Madison Mayor Tim Armstrong has launched an initiative to find a suitable building in Madison that could potentially serve as a visual and performing arts center, including a theater, while also providing space for the tourism office, Madison Main Street Program and perhaps even room for seniors. The initiative could also determine that no such building exists and that a new building should be constructed for such purposes, according to Peter Woodburn, CEO and senior partner of Madison-based consulting firm Woodburn, Kyle & Co.
Through Armstrong’s effort, the county’s economic development organization, Economic Development Partners, in late July approved spending nearly $3,000 to pay for a study of local buildings to gauge their potential to serve as an arts center to include a visual arts and a performing arts theater.

Mayor Tim Armstrong

Madison Mayor
Tim Armstrong

“It’s important that we look at all our options and see if there is a building that would serve our needs,” Armstrong said.
Woodburn, meanwhile, secured the services of Bloomington, Ill.-based consultant Bruce Marquis to conduct a three-day assessment in August of several public and privately owned buildings in town – some already for sale – to see if they would be conducive to theater stage productions and, if so, what renovations might be required to make them so. Grant money totaling $100,000 is already available to renovate or remodel such a building, Armstrong said, but not to purchase one. Money to purchase a building, if necessary, would have to be found elsewhere.
“The problem in the past is that every time a large building comes available or vacant in town, people say it would make a great theater or arts center, when in fact, it probably would not,” Woodburn said. “This effort is an attempt to take a close look at all possibilities in the community to see if in fact there is a location that would be suitable for tourism and cultural programs.”
Woodburn, who sits on the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Board as a representative of Economic Development Partners, said the assessment would focus on downtown buildings – and ideally those situated on or near Main Street. But he did not rule out studying locations on the Madison hilltop.

Peter Woodburn

Peter Woodburn

Woodburn’s firm helped arrange a similar study in 1999 for the City of Madison during former Mayor Al Huntington’s term. That “Cultural Inventory & Cultural Assessment of Madison, Ind.,” which costs $20,000 to produce, did not focus on actual buildings, however. Rather, it attempted to determine the inventory of artisans and other needs to develop cultural activities in Madison, according to Wayne Kyle, Woodburn’s senior partner at the firm.
“The result of that study showed that at the time, there were not enough artists or cultural inventory in town to move forward, so it was never acted upon,” Kyle said. “But things have changed over the last 10 years and we’ve grown as a community. There are many more artists and theater people in Madison today. We think the time could be right now to pursue the viability of a theater or arts center. The point now is, if we build it, will they come?”
In recent years, several private citizens have discussed plans for establishing a theater, but so far none have materialized. Chicago-area developer Bob Przewlocki, who recently purchased the former Meese building on the Madison riverfront, included a performing arts theater in his original plan. And Andy Lytle, who recently bought the former Jefferson Street Antique Mall at the foot of Jefferson Street, mentioned the possibility of a theater in that building. When Huntington was in the mayor’s office, he cited the downtown Dollar Store building, which was for sale at the time, as a possible theater location.

Madison Senior Center

Photo by Don Ward

The Madison Senior Center
on Main Street.

Madison Trolley Garage

Photo by Don Ward

The Madison Trolley Garage
at 118 W. Second St.

Brown Gym

Photo by Don Ward

The Brown Gym at the
foot of Broadway St.

Wesbecker Building

Photo by Don Ward

The former Wesbecker
building at 602 W. Main St.

Eggleston Elementary

Photo by Don Ward

Eggleston Elementary
School at 419 East St.

Other buildings have been mentioned as possible sites: Eggleston Elementary School building, the former C&R Parts building on Second Street, the Brown Gym, the current Senior Center building on Main Street, the Madison Trolley Garage at 118 W. Second St. and, most recently, the former Wesbecker building at 602 W. Main St. In fact, Linda Lytle, executive director of the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, has been taking theater people and city officials to the latter location to get their thoughts on using it as a possible theater and tourism office.
Such activities are preliminary in nature, according to Woodburn who insists that the upcoming assessment is “only a first step. But we hope it will get the ball rolling and give the mayor something to move forward with.”
Spectrum Productions, which formed in 1998 before disbanding for several years and reforming a few years ago, originally held its stage productions in the basement of St. Michael the Archangel Church, owned by Historic Madison Inc. Some productions were also held at the former Elks Club on West Street and at the Madison Consolidated High School Auditorium, according to Spectrum’s Hellmann. Current Spectrum’s next play, “Moon Over Buffalo,” is scheduled for Sept. 24-26 and Oct. 1-3 at the Ohio Theatre’s upstairs cinema room.
“We’ll have to again put up makeshift walls and carry our stage props upstairs. It’s a lot of work,” Hellmann said. “But we’ll do what we have to do to put on our shows.”
A recent production this summer also was held at the former Lamson Feed Mill building at West and Second streets. It is owned privately by Peter Ellis.
“It is nice but in summer it is so light outside that it was hard to create enough darkness inside to make it work for us,” Hellmann said.
Riverrun Theatre Co. was formed seven years ago by Hanover College theatre professor Jim Stark and playwright David Loehrs and produces about four shows a year. The company has been holding its stage productions on the third floor of the former Masonic Lodge Building on Main Street. Stark says that while the space works and seats 85 people, it is hard to get props up the tiny elevator.
“It’s a lovely space, and audiences really love being in there. But it poses a challenge for the technical side,” Stark said. The group initially held productions in what is now Rivertown Chiropractic on East Second Street. Fellow Hanover College arts professor Leticia Bayujo owned the building at the time and offered the space for their use.
Stark said he has been notified of the recent initiative but isn’t getting his hopes up. “I’ve been to several such meetings over the last few years. It’s always the same concept, but the plan is different, based on the building or the source of funding. Still, I’m pleased to work with the city and do my part.”
Woodburn said he hopes this new assessment of local buildings will provide the engine to allow Armstrong to create a Task Force and move forward. It is not yet determined whether such a facility would be government owned and operated or simply house a nonprofit organization that would conduct the business affairs of the center. He cited successful examples of both now operating in Portland, Ind., and Hartford, Wisc. Both towns are close to or not much larger than Madison, and their theaters stay busy year-round, he said.
“The location and operations are all important questions to consider, but the first step is finding a home for it to take place,” Woodburn said. “And we are anxious to take the first step.”

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