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Looking for a room of their own


It's a Goldilocks-style dilemma. Of all of the performing arts spaces being proposed --- all the various sizes, locations, and configurations --- for every arts group there is one that would fit just right.

            But who gets into which round of discussions, and how much weight those discussions actually carry, are questions some small- and mid-sized groups are beginning to ask. In a long process, and one with a shifting list of players and possible sites, some potential users of an arts center are confessing to a level of skepticism and confusion.

            The latest round of discussions is with the Main & Clinton Development Corporation, a group made up of "key users" and focusing on the Renaissance Square project.

            Arts & Cultural Council President Sarah Lentini says the Renaissance Square discussions will take other arts groups' concerns into account. Recommendations issued by the recent Ad Hoc Performing Arts Center Committee, comprised of mid-sized groups and the RBTL, will be a "roadmap," she says. But exactly how the recommendations will be incorporated into the final plan is unknown. And all this was before a performance space in a casino was even an idea.

            The Ad Hoc Committee --- which included RBTL, Geva Theatre Center, Garth Fagan Dance, Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Eastman School of Music --- recommended constructing three theaters: One 2,800-seat theater, for large-scale Broadway-style shows, most likely mainly for RBTL's use; one 1,800-seat theater for mixed use by mid-sized groups; and a small theater for the smallest groups.

            They recommended either putting all three theaters at Renaissance Square, or building the large and small theaters at Renaissance Square and putting the mid-sized theater at what's known as the Rascal site, at the corner Main and Gibbs Streets, across from the Eastman Theater.

            "We support that recommendation, to build a mid-sized theater at the Rascal site," says Ruby Lockhart, the executive director of Garth Fagan Dance. "I think it would be much more beneficial overall to continue to develop it in the cultural cluster between the Renaissance Square project over to the Eastman Theatre. That will be a bigger bang for Rochester than just housing them all in one location."

            Garth Fagan has been looking for a facility in Rochester for some years. Lockhart says that the dance troupe's recommendation, to share space with other mid-sized groups at the Rascal site, is the choice they're sticking with. "We're not thinking of ourselves alone when we talk about a home here," she says. "We're talking about a community home, which hosts other arts organizations of similar caliber."

            Garth Fagan Dance could optimally use a theater with seats numbering between 1,500 and 1,800, Lockhart says. They will need excellent acoustics, a sprung floor, and other technical requirements that she believes are compatible with those of Geva, opera groups, and the RPO.

            A $5 million renovation of the 3,094-seat Eastman Theatre at the Eastman School of Music is underway. The improvements --- which include a better stage, orchestra pit, lighting, and acoustics --- are expected to be completed in October. Eastman Theatre is home to the Eastman School's largest performances and the bulk of RPO's performances.

            But both RPO and Eastman were included on the Ad Hoc Committee. "There are times when you need a smaller space," says Sarah Lentini. "There is a distinct difference between the size of the Eastman Theatre and a mid-sized theater. It's about creating a more refined and better use of space."

Then there are the smaller arts groups, many of whom are confused by where they might end up, if anywhere. In addition to a proposed small theater at Renaissance Square, the idea of renovating the Culver Road Armory for performance space for the small groups has also been floated.

            "I think it's important that [a performing arts center] moves forward with some of the small- to medium-sized groups in mind," says Chris Kawolsky, producing director at the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre. "There are small- and medium-sized groups that want it to happen but don't really have the wherewithal to make it happen."

            Downstairs Cabaret puts on theater and music performances in three theaters: two with 99 seats, one with 65. "With the facilities that we have now," Kawolsky says, "we're probably the most desperate group for a better space."

            Kawolsky wants to see a shared performing arts space come to fruition, but he's skeptical of a couple of things: the ability to find the money to build and then run it, and that any shared space would accommodate the smaller groups.

            "I don't think you can please everybody and we've got everybody sitting around the table," he says. "When it becomes clear that somebody's going to walk away empty-handed, I kind of get nervous because generally in Rochester, I've seen, the little guy loses."

            DCT started a capital campaign 18 months ago to renovate its East Main Street theater. Kawolsky says it's moving slowly. "It's harder and harder to get money from the county, it's harder and harder to get money from the state, it's harder to get money from corporations," he says. "When it gets to the point where an arts group is doing as much fundraising as they are programming, it gets to be a problem."

            Blackfriars Theatre has a newly renovated home on Lawn Street in the East End. And the group has no interest in moving.

            John Haldoupis, artistic director of Blackfriars, says he supports the idea of a performing arts center, but he wonders if the idea has "really totally been thought out."

            "We're a fulltime theater," he says. "We have something happening in the theater every day of the week. If it's not in performance then it's in rehearsal. I can't imagine any theater that's a fulltime theater not having its own space."

            Judi Andreano, founder and executive director of Rochester Academy of Performing Arts, would like access to a larger theater. RAPA is putting on its performances in a 160-seat theater, and offers long runs just to cover basic costs. Andreano's major concern, though, is to keep ticket prices down.

            "I would hope there would be funding to sponsor some of the community theater groups' performances so the ticket prices could be held lower for families to attend," she says. "I think what's happening with professional theater in bringing shows into Rochester is families can't afford to take their kids to performances. I think it's important that we serve everyone that wants to attend arts events."

            RAPA has been included in "very few" performing arts center discussions, Andreano says. "I think there needs to be more input from community theaters and educational institutions like ourselves. I think the planning needs to be more widespread."