Durham plans new theaters

After months of hammering out details, the curtain is starting to rise on a theater in downtown Durham.

The city is cementing its plans for a new $35-million performing arts center that will host cultural acts including the American Dance Festival, which holds its summer season at Duke. ADF also plans to raise about $8.5 million of its own to build a smaller, secondary theater adjacent to the main stage.

If Durham goes forward with the theaters, University administrators have said Duke would contribute about $3 million to the city for the project.

The city’s theater would seat 2,800 viewers, and performances would focus on artistic and cultural acts. ADF’s smaller theater would be a 40,000-square-foot “black box” that would include rehearsal space, studios and administrative offices. With movable seating, the theater would hold up to 500 people.

With minimal backstage room and a limited capacity for scenery, “black box” theaters are used primarily for small-scale productions and experimental theater. During ADF’s off-season, the theater would likely be available for local groups to rent.

“Small, relatively inexpensive and not overly fancy theaters are in demand with arts groups across the country,” ADF Board Chair Carlton Midyette said.

At the same time, having a large theater in addition to a small theater would help ADF build its base of patrons, who would link the location to the festival’s identity, he added.

When Durham began initial discussions about building a theater, Duke pledged to pay for upgrades to the principle space, so ADF could hold its major performances there. The dance festival currently holds its performances in Page Auditorium, but Duke and ADF officials have said the on-campus venue—with its small stage and lack of dressing room space—is inadequate as a dance theater.

With renovations to Page and the possible construction of a new Duke theater far off, the University offered about $3 million to the city’s initial vision so the Durham performing arts center could accommodate ADF.

Durham’s proposed theater has undergone multiple incarnations since planning began. Originally the project was slated as a 4,000 seat concert venue. After community groups raised concerns about Clear Channel Inc., the initial theater operator, the project was re-structured.

“This proposal looks more rational to us than the earlier one,” said John Burness, Duke’s senior vice president for public affairs and government relations. “This one is smaller, more focused.”

The theater’s likely operators—Nederlander and Professional Facilities Management—would reserve time for ADF’s performances in the city-owned theater. The space would be an appropriate atmosphere for dance performances, added Phil Szostak, the architect coordinating the project.

Throughout the planning process, Durham has sought as much at $13 million from the University to fund the project. Duke officials, however, refused to increase their initial $3 million commitment.

Durham is financing the performance center through a one percent increase in the county’s hotel-motel occupancy tax, but the city is still about $7 million shy of the $35 million it needs to finance the theater.

Concerns about money led the city to trim some of ADF’s amenities from its original theater plan. “We always had a rehearsal space in the back of the house for ADF as part of a large theater,” Szostak said. “When we couldn’t afford it, we moved it out to the front of the house so it could share a lobby and be used as a theater.”

Although Midyette said ADF would prefer that the city pay for its adjunct theater, the festival is prepared to fund its performance needs.

“What’s emerging now is a better arrangement for Durham and for ADF,” Midyette said. “While it’s been a long and maybe tortuous path, I think it’s better for all of us.”


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