May 14, 2018
FOCUS: Tourism

TheaterWorks’ next big performance includes $4M renovation

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Christiane Noll and David Harris starred in TheaterWorks’ hit musical “Next to Normal” in 2017. By the end of this year and into 2019 TheaterWorks’ Pearl Street venue will be getting a major facelift.
Photo | HBJ File
Rob Ruggiero, Producing Artistic Director, TheaterWorks

A few years ago, when TheaterWorks — the intimate 195-seat performing-arts theater on Pearl Street in Hartford's downtown — celebrated its 30th anniversary, the organization took the opportunity to not only celebrate its history, but also look forward to its future.

"We had just completed our strategic plan and three of the major components were focused on growth, increased access and expanded community involvement," said Gerry Lupacchino, the organization's current board president.

As an opening act to its next 30 years, TheaterWorks is investing more than $4 million — including $2.5 million from the state — to thoroughly renovate the 91-year-old building.

Rob Ruggiero, TheaterWorks' producing artistic director, says the renovations will begin late this summer and continue into 2019. They will include major upgrades to the theater's lobby area, including the restoration of the building's original staircase, the addition of a second elevator, new bathrooms and updates to the theater's electric and heating systems.

"It's going to change audience flow and make patrons who need to use our elevators feel much more integrated into the whole experience," Ruggiero said.

The basement-based theater area will also undergo significant upgrades, including the restoration or replacement of all seating, elevated lighting, expanded dressing rooms for performing artists and a more open stage left, which Ruggiero says will provide more space for scenery and set design.

"Those enhancements will make a great difference to the comfort and access of our audience," Ruggiero said, "and artistically we'll be able to do more."

That's good news not only for the 40,000 people a year — including more than 5,000 subscribers — who see shows at TheaterWorks, but for restaurants in the Pearl Street area, including Max Downtown, Salute and Bin 228 Wine Bar, if the renovations help drive more foot traffic to the theater.

According to a report by Americans for the Arts, the average attendee to an arts-related event spends an estimated $24.60 after admission in the local economy. By that measure, TheaterWorks, which performs 225 nights a year from October through August, helps generate nearly $1 million a year for the local economy, said Freddie McInerney, TheaterWorks' communications director.

Understanding the positive economic impact his theater has on neighboring businesses, Ruggiero says he is committed to creating programming downtown even when the theater itself will be shut down temporarily in early 2019 for the renovations.

"We want to be good partners and we know that a lot of restaurants around us depend on our shows to create great business for them," Ruggiero said, "so we are looking for temporary space downtown [during the renovation]."

But the organization's interest in additional space is also part of its long-term goals.

"We are looking at our capacity in our [current] building," Ruggiero said, noting that more space would enable TheaterWorks to produce alternative programming that's a little riskier than normal. He also said additional downtown space would allow the theater to partner more in the local community.

According to local real estate brokers, TheaterWorks has shown interest in potentially buying the vacant former Congregation Ados Israel synagogue on Pearl Street. It currently uses the building for storage.

"We get a lot of requests to use our [current] space, but it's often not available," Ruggiero said.

Diversifying the audience

TheaterWorks has been very strategic about something that is at times available: last-minute tickets. Earlier this spring, in partnership with the Hartford Consortium of Higher Education, which includes Goodwin College, Central Connecticut State University, UConn, Trinity College and Capital Community College, TheaterWorks announced that "rush tickets" — would-be vacant seats by curtain call — would be made available to college students for free.

"We hoped [this initiative] would encourage students, especially the growing educational communities downtown, to be interested," Ruggiero said. "We want to build an audience for tomorrow."

And its audience today, according to TheaterWorks subscriber surveys, is not only committed to the organization — 60 percent of patrons re-subscribe to an annual membership before the season's productions are announced, McInerney said — but are equally enthusiastic about the upcoming renovations, even if it means temporarily moving productions off-site.

In fact, 92 percent of respondents reacted positively to the idea of taking shows on an adventure to a new space.

"And even those who weren't sure, said they trust us [to still have great shows]," McInerney said. "And that means a lot to us."

Lupacchino said the renovation is a great opportunity to expand TheaterWorks' creativity.

He's also encouraged by the development in the Pearl Street section of Hartford. The new apartments currently being constructed at 101 and 111 Pearl St. are expected to bring more young professionals into the area, and Lupacchino sees the theater as an anchor for the neighborhood, which can drive new restaurants and economic activity and put TheaterWorks on a path to its next 30 years.

"Next season there will be times when we can't get in the theater, but I think people are really excited and energized to see how [creatively] we will do it," he said.

Most Popular on Facebook
Copyright 2017 New England Business Media