Dairy Center’s renovations will squeeze Boulder’s performance space options during construction

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The remodeled Dairy Center for the Arts promises to improve the experience for performers and audiences, but the multiple months of closure will force theater companies to come up with alternative venues for next season.
Courtesy of the Dairy Center for the Arts

Performing arts companies in Boulder have few options for venues to book within city limits that meet the needs dictated by time, space and cost. Theater companies in town point to The Dairy Center for the Arts as the only real option for a professional production. But with the planned closures of its theatrical performance spaces, the East and the Carson theaters, from January to August 2016, those theater companies won’t just be bumping up against one another trying to fit into limited space for their productions. They’ll be downright homeless.

The squeeze on space caused by the closing has the potential to affect both the amount and the nature of the work these young, growing theater companies produce as well as the options for audiences in town as these artists look to options outside the city limits to keep producing work next year.

“The Dairy is a city-owned building and the renovation of it is being supplemented by tax. … But no one has come in and said, ‘While the Dairy is being renovated, because there are so many arts organizations that produce their work there, we are going to provide this alternate venue.’ … There’s been nobody from the city who’s taking leadership there,” says Amanda Berg Wilson, artistic director of The Catamounts. “I don’t know what’s happening to the arts organizations while the Dairy is being renovated because there’s nowhere to perform, and I don’t feel like anybody from the city is going, ‘Do we really want to lose six months of performance happening in town?’”

For the Dairy Center’s upcoming renovations, funded primarily by $3.8 million in tax dollars through 2014’s Boulder County Ballot Issue 2A, the performance spaces there are expected to be closed for nine months in 2016, according to Bill Obermeier, executive director of the Dairy Center.

“Everybody is excited about the end result, the parent lounge if we can do that,” Obermeier says. “The pain is those six months. … You can’t redo a building without closing it down, so there’s concern but understanding at the same time.”

The lobby and gallery spaces will close from August to December of this year, then reopen just before two of the three performance venues close from January until August, with a grand reopening currently planned for September 2016. The Performance Space, largely used for dance performances, may reopen within a month, but the Carson and East theaters will be closed for most of the year. All theaters will be sound-proofed, their lighting and sound systems and seats will be updated. New, more versatile seating in the Carson will be able to be reconfigured as needed.

Dressing rooms, which are now made of temporary walls with just the basics of mirrors and chairs, will also be remodeled to include bathrooms — allowing companies booking shows there to book Actors Equity Association actors. Equity actors can’t currently work at the Dairy because their contracts require venues to provide en suite bathrooms. Three green rooms, where actors and dancers await cues to go on stage, will be equipped with sound systems so they can hear the performances progress from there, rather than squeezing into the wings.

A lounge for students and parents, a particular need for Dairy resident organizations the Parlando School for the Arts and Boulder Ballet, may be added, if funding allows. Renovations for the front of the theater will include adding a café and a patio and enhanced meeting spaces. The hope is that with enhanced meeting spaces for for-profit companies, which pay more than nonprofit arts organizations do to rent space, they’ll be able to further disperse costs and help keep the prices low for arts organizations.

The Dairy tries to keep their rentals comparably lower so they can provide a home for artists who otherwise couldn’t afford to perform in the City of Boulder.

“If we were to make them comparable there would be a lot of arts organizations who would simply say they can’t afford it, they couldn’t perform here, and they would have no place to perform,” Obermeier says. “And so part of our mission is to make sure they do have a place to perform.”

For the Dairy, 70 percent of the budget comes from earned income — ticket sales and venue rentals — and 30 percent from charitable giving and grants. They ask for donations, he says, because underwriting the Dairy in part underwrites the theater companies that produce work there. The Dairy and the experimental theater companies that use its space share the same issues with the bottom line.

“The reality is no arts enterprise can really support itself on ticket sales,”  Obermeier says.

The Dairy hosted 60 performing arts groups and 324 live performances last year. Eleven organizations have their offices on site, and 14 resident organizations call the Dairy their home — not all of them performing arts organizations.

“We’ve been meeting with them and trying to let them know, here’s the plan, and trying to help them find alternative spaces for the early part of 2016, which is a challenge because Boulder doesn’t have very many performing spaces to start with, so we’re looking for anybody who might have an airport hanger, a Quonset hut, a big barn, anything that could be turned into a little theater for a few months would be really helpful,” Obermeier says.

“The Dairy renovation and other talks are going on in the community about space, and we’ll see where that ends up as far as what it enables people to do, but I think the end result currently is that we’re not going to end up with any new spaces to accommodate anybody,” says Stephen Weitz, Boulder Ensemble Theater Company’s producing ensemble director.

Even with the Dairy Center up and running, space feels tight for theatrical companies in town.

“If everybody produced everything they want to, there’s probably not enough venue space to accommodate everything everybody might want to do,” Weitz says. “It’s a real problem in the city that there is a real dearth of performance space, particularly for companies that are doing multi-week or three or four week-long runs and sort of need a permanent space during that time.”

This year, Boulder Ensemble Theater Company (BETC) will book about 25 weeks at the Dairy — great for theater company, but tough for anyone else who might want to produce work during that time frame. In this, their ninth season, BETC increased the number of plays they produced and the programming available. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to continue at that pace for the upcoming season simply because there’s no room for it. They’re still negotiating on space, but some bookings may take them far from the company’s longtime home at the Dairy Center, where BETC is a resident organization and has produced almost all of their plays.

The benefit to the company taking their shows out of town for a while is that their plays will be exposed to a larger audience, Weitz says, but those audiences probably won’t come back to Boulder when BETC does. And meanwhile, Boulder waits for its artists to return.

“You’re going to see either a fall-off in the amount of work being done in town because there’s just not space to do it or you’re going to see a lot of companies doing exactly that, which is taking their work outside of town, which I think is a shame for a city that prides itself on its cultural offerings the way Boulder does,” Weitz says. “I’m sure we won’t be the only company that’s taking our product elsewhere.”

Square product theatre focuses on producing world and regional premieres — untested scripts that many other theater companies would want to host staged readings for before debuting for audiences, just to work out the kinks and see what makes people laugh. But that’s a luxury square product can’t afford for the same reason that so many artists chose not to live within the city limits of Boulder: the cost of space.

“We don’t have a dedicated space and having to pay to rent space to do something like that is not always within our means,” says Emily K. Harrison, producing artistic director for the theater. “There are very, very few viable performance spaces in town and what that means is that the performance spaces that do exist are incredibly expensive.”

In addition to expense, there’s the question of limited options that fit with her work. Some of the University of Colorado’s theater venues provide great spaces, but are prioritized for student use and generally only available when students are on break. The Nomad Theater is also often booked for student use by the Tara Performing Arts High School, which recently purchased the theater and has hopes of making itself an affordable option for theater companies in the future. For Harrison, the Nomad is both too big and too traditional. The Wesley Chapel works for some things, but the options for technical components are limited and there’s the necessary concession that audiences are in a church and that affects the experience.

“It’ll be square’s 10th season, it’ll also be the Boulder Ensemble Theater Company’s 10th season, and we’ll both be two companies in their 10th season that’ll be struggling to find places to do work, which is not ideal,” Harrison says.

For The Catamounts latest production, the regional premiere of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney by Lucas Hnath, the company converted a small, black box-style space off the back of retail store madelife. It was clear no one else was going to take leadership in addressing the issue of where these homeless theater companies would go to produce their work, Berg Wilson says, so they took it upon themselves.

She’s started to lust after the option of creating their own venue — as does Harrison at square product theatre — but the market for those spaces has also tightened up in recent years, thanks to an entirely different ballot initiative.

“With the legalization of marijuana, a lot of the warehouse space that would be traditionally affordable for small bootstrap companies like ours is now taken up with grow operations,” Berg Wilson says. “We’re just having this dilemma about, how do you stay in town and continue to produce theater in a town that space was already at a premium and is only becoming more expensive and harder to come by?”

A commercial real estate agent she consulted knew of just three places that met the price per square foot she could afford. Longmont makes a compelling case, particularly after hosting a four-course meal with integrated performance at the Still Cellars in Longmont and hearing the price for warehouse space there, she says, but Boulder is home.

“This is where I live and own a home and send my daughter to school,” Berg Wilson says. “But the other aspect of it, and I think this is probably more important, we designed our company and have oriented our mission towards producing work for the people here. We have a pretty significant audience that comes from outside of Boulder which is great because we feel like we’re contributing to the cultural tourism here in town, but we’re interested in making work for Boulder, for Boulderites and that particular mix of well educated, entrepreneurial, curious demographic that lives here, not to say that that doesn’t exist in Denver and that that doesn’t exist elsewhere, but that is very integral to just the foundation of our mission.”

That mission lies in doing work that’s inherently risky — progressive plays by up and coming playwrights from around the country, not time-tested classics that are sure to pull in big box office sales.

“I think that’s the concern, that if we get too over our heads financially then we won’t be able to continue to do that work, and being able to continue to do that work is crucial to our mission because we believe that in order to have a healthy, vibrant arts scene you have to have people who are doing new stuff, who are doing stuff that is on some level boundary pushing and risk taking and expanding the ideas of what theater can be,” Berg Wilson says. “So balancing that with price per square foot.”

If there’s nowhere to perform, either because there’s nowhere to perform or there’s nowhere to perform that’s affordable, what happens to these companies, and can they weather a six- or nine-month stretch in which they have few, if any, performances?

“It’s scary,” she says. “We’re sort of at this really wonderful but kind of vulnerable stage in our growth, which is that people are just starting to notice us. … If we go dark for six months or nine months, people have short memories and will we have to then re-establish the work that we’ve been really steadily by the skin of our teeth doing over the last four years?

“I also thing there’s an energy around Boulder theater, it’s not just us, it’s Boulder Ensemble and square product, it’s not just us that will go dark, it’s the whole scene.”

Unlike many of the theater companies in town, which have been around for fewer than 10 years, the problem isn’t new.

“I was at the Boulder Arts Commission meeting where they were discussing their preliminary findings [from consultants hired to help with the revision of the city’s cultural plan] and number one, it’s not just theater companies that are saying this, the number one issue in town is the lack of diverse venues. And interestingly enough, when they did the cultural plan 10 years ago, guess what the number one issue was? Lack of viable venues,” says Berg Wilson, who serves on the Boulder County Cultural Council and volunteers with arts advocacy efforts around town.

“We need some community leader or someone on city council, someone who really makes it their baby and helps pass legislation or tax codes or whatever it’s going to take, because otherwise I do think we will just be a bedroom community and not a real arts town,” Berg Wilson says. “At some point, whether it’s a 1 percent tax for their arts, or if there’s some kind of special tax designation, or — I know everybody feels like this is a dirty word — but if there’s some sort of city supplement to arts spaces so we’re not having to compete with grow operations or with Google, or with apples and oranges, I mean, arts organizations just can’t compete. “If everything is being dictated by the commercial market, at some point we’re going to just be pushed out.”

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