Foundry Theater hard stage to share
- Published: April 23, 2015
Since Foundry Theater reopened last summer after its first renovation since the 1980s, the black box at Antioch College has been busy. Yellow Springs High School used the Foundry for its fall play and spring musical; Yellow Springs Theater Company held an original play in the Foundry’s experimental theater; World House Choir used it for the Coretta Scott King celebration in February; Yellow Springs Community Dance held its annual concert there; and Antioch College itself held both theater and general education courses there, plus many performances and events.
Clearly there is no lack of demand for the only theater space in town with auditorium-style seating and a performance area large enough for a cyclorama (backdrop) and a backstage. The demand has made scheduling one of the biggest challenges for Amanda Egloff, who was hired in November as the Foundry’s part-time technical director. But Egloff has also had to manage the response from community groups who were expecting a nearly finished theater by this point — one with ample capacity, theatrical lighting, and dressing rooms, which the community was promised when it donated over half of the estimated cost for phase I renovation.
The Foundry has come a long way over the past two years, with an updated electrical system, geothermal heating and cooling, a better roof, brand new plumbing and restrooms, and a new set of risers for seating. But due to unexpected cost overruns, the phase I project ended short of its goals, Antioch College Vice President for Finance and Operations Andi Adkins said in an interview this week. But the college is still committed to moving ahead to the next stage, and now hopes to get a matching grant to fund phase II construction.
“Phase I turned out to be more expensive than we anticipated, but there is enthusiasm about moving forward,” Adkins said.
Many of the performers that have used the Foundry this year are glad the theater is up and running. But several noted that both the heavy demand on the space and lack of communication about the unfinished projects — a leaky roof, inadequate theatrical lighting, overlapping events — created difficulty while trying to mount events in a space they were paying to occupy. Organizers for Yellow Springs High School’s recent production of “West Side Story,” for instance, encountered some snags, according to Theater Arts Association board president Daniele Norman.
“It wasn’t everything we wanted, and we kept stumbling onto things as we went along,” she said. Communication eventually improved, and now that the high school knows what it’s getting with the Foundry, it will consider using it again in the future.
“We all want to use it, but there are definite challenges,” Norman said. “The theater has a ways to go.”
Yellow Springs Theater Company Artistic Director Lorrie Sparrow enjoyed her experiences at the Foundry this year, she said last week. But scheduling, spacial limitations and the rental cost, which a recent focus group found was unaffordable, have proved challenging for community groups. She feels the Yellow Springs community needs its own theater.
“We need a community performing arts space that is not educationally controlled,” Sparrow said. “YSTC wants to find that space, and I prefer to build it here; but it won’t be the Foundry.”
A shared performance space
The Foundry was refurbished with the understanding that it would be a shared space between the college and the community. In its annual report for 2013, the Community Foundation reported that its $200,000 gift was to support the Foundry as the “principal performing arts space for both the Yellow Springs community and Antioch College,” which was completed to “[fulfill] the community’s needs for a larger performance venue.” A performing arts center was “the final actionable goal” of the Center for the Arts Steering Committee created from the community visioning in 2006. And the community at large, with the help of two major anonymous donors, backed the Foundry with $722,000 of the total $1.3 million project cost.
Long-time Yellow Springs Arts Council member Jerome Borchers has worked since 2006 toward the ultimate goal of getting a performing arts center for the village. The work to partner with the college on the Foundry began before the school closed, and then picked up again after plans for the partial renovation were announced. An Antioch College Theater Advisory board of college faculty and community members, including Borchers, worked for several years to plan and fundraise for the Phase I opening. According to Borchers, it’s true that the theater isn’t finished, but it’s open and functioning and is “a work in progress.”
For those who had hoped for more by this point, Borchers urges patience and a cooperative spirit.
“I realized years ago that as a small community, we can’t expect a large performance space to be available to everyone all the time,” he said. “There will always be compromise.”
A lot of the draw to the Foundry is the inadequate alternatives it competes with in town. There is Mills Lawn, which has a small proscenium but no backstage and shares space every day with an elementary cafeteria and a gym; the Presbyterian Church, Bryan Center and the Vernet building stages, three similarly small stages with no backstage that share with church, Glen and other local events; and South Gym in the Wellness Center, which has no stage and is also a shared space.
The high school group that used the Foundry for its fall play and spring musical liked the theater space, which exceeds the alternatives in size and scope, according to Daniele Norman of YSHSTAA last week. But the lease agreement was not without complications.
What the show’s directors expected was different from what they got when they showed up for rehearsals two weeks before the musical opened. For example, the theater lacked adequate technical lighting and due to its liability regulations was unable to allow the high school to hang its own supplemental instruments (Egloff ended up doing it herself). And because the show included about 75 cast and orchestra members and the Foundry’s total capacity was capped at 225 people, the audience seating had to be reduced, which in turn reduced the anticipated box revenue and affected the high school’s ability to pay the originally negotiated rental fee.
The cost to occupy the Foundry has also posed a challenge for several community groups. According to Egloff, the theater’s rates, about $400 a week for the main stage, have stayed at about a quarter of the market rate, largely due to its unfinished condition.
In order to remain accessible, the Foundry has tried to negotiate around the specific needs of each group that has asked to use it, which means it has operated at a loss this year. But a focus group that met this winter found that overwhelmingly theater users feel the costs are “not feasible for local artists,” Egloff said. The current Theater Advisory group, including Egloff, performance professor Gabrielle Civil, alternate Louise Smith, Adkins, and community members Jo Frannye Reichert, Valerie Blackwell-Truitt and Jane Baker, is still in discussion about a more transparent fee structure and will make those fees, along with fees for all of the college’s shared facilities, available to the public at a community open house to take place at the Foundry sometime in July.
“We’re trying to figure out how we can make it better for next year,” Egloff said.
The college is in the process of seeking $500,000 in grant funding for phase II renovation. According to Adkins, the grant is contingent on a $1.5 million match, for which the college plans to hold a capital campaign to be announced in more detail at the July open house.
Room for other theaters
Yellow Springs Theater Company artistic director Lorrie Sparrow agrees with Borchers that the Foundry can’t be everything to everyone all the time. She finds that “for all its faults, Foundry Theater is a charming space” that should be used. But it lacks professional equipment, such as a ceiling grid with catwalks, storage and sound baffles, that aren’t even budgeted for the space. And Sparrow believes there is more creative activity blooming in Yellow Springs than the Foundry alone can support. That’s a good thing, she said in an interview last week. And it’s the reason her company is looking in earnest for another space, preferably in town, that can also support the performing arts. It doesn’t have to be big — a 99-seat venue with some storage and rehearsal space would suit what she envisions for local shows and recitals, as well as revenue generators such as workshops, arts consulting, and a place to host groups from outside Yellow Springs.
The village supported that kind of dedicated space in Center Stage on Dayton Street for over 20 years, Sparrow said as evidence that she didn’t invent the need. As the home of the original Shakespeare Festival and a mature and thriving artist community, Yellow Springs deserves its own theater, and one that is used “as much as humanly possible,” Sparrow said.
“To be in the arts today, you have to explore every revenue stream, but if you don’t have a space to do this, you need one,” she said. “The Foundry Theater is not it. The Foundry belongs to Antioch, and this town needs a theater that’s run by artists.”
Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse Director Ara Beal also sees that while the Foundry and the college-owned amphitheater adjacent to it are assets for the community (and the long-time home of YSKP), the college must serve its own needs first. YSKP has recently vacated the former sculpture studio behind the Foundry and moved into an office space inside the Foundry, an arrangement that made sense given YSKP’s decision to discontinue its year-round classes and stick to summer performances.
Beal feels hopeful about the Foundry’s current state and future plans, but also sees its limitations and the advantages a second community theater could offer. But fundraising for both could be a challenge, particularly if the narrative of what is promised isn’t clear. She also believes that with creativity and adaptability to already existing spaces, it’s possible to make strong performance art in the village.
“Part of what you have to do as an artist is think creatively,” she said, using Kings Yard as an example of an outside space that could accommodate the right performance. “The way the community can be supportive is to be willing to allow us to use other spaces, and for us as artists to be willing to go there and see them.”