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June 06, 2010
Cleveland will lose its third-largest theater -- PlayhouseSquare's 2,500-seat Allen -- in September.
The promised payoff, a year later: A three-venue, 1,000-seat complex for the flagship Cleveland Play House, which sold its outmoded facility, and for Cleveland State University's undergraduate drama program.
All for a relative bargain -- under $30 million -- and preserving the 1921 Allen's architecture.
That's the potential held by new plans, released exclusively to The Plain Dealer, for downsizing the Allen and building two new theaters next to it, expanding the theater district to 10 venues.
But wait, there's more. The plans also call for:
• Demolishing the "gerbil tube" glass skywalk funneling 400,000 patrons a year from the parking garage to the theaters, replacing it with a dramatic atrium.
• Renovating an office building into 120,000 square feet of classrooms and support space for the Play House and CSU's art, theater, dance and other programs.
• And -- together with PlayhouseSquare's existing arts-education programs and the Play House/Case Western Reserve University graduate acting school -- creating a potentially unique preschool-through-MFA collaborative.
"It's transformative," said Thomas Schorgl, president of the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture. "They've taken the Play House problem and instead of a stopgap, they're creating a whole new paradigm."
If the plan is completed as projected -- and there are still lots of ifs -- PlayhouseSquare, already the country's largest performing-arts center outside New York, would begin to rival Chicago's more widely dispersed Loop theater district in number of venues and diversity of offerings.
The Play House has spent up to $1 million a year on maintenance and utilities on the building at Euclid Avenue and East 85th Street that has been its home since 1927. Under the new plan, it could see those bills reduced by half, meaning an extra $500,000 for making productions at the country's oldest professional theater better.
CSU's theater program, which has grown from seven majors in 2003 to 70 today under the leadership of Michael Mauldin, would become one of the few undergraduate programs in the country affiliated with a professional theater and could have a shot at national prominence.
(The Middough office-building project, a separate venture not included in the Allen's under-$30 million price tag, would bring about 700 students into PlayhouseSquare daily to the first CSU classroom facility west of East 17th Street, the existing border between the campus and the theater district.)
And the community could be another step closer to having a bustling, rejuvenated section of downtown with the critical mass of people needed to attract new restaurants, retail space, offices and residential units to the empty storefronts and mid-rises along Euclid Avenue.
"This completes PlayhouseSquare," said Michael Bloom, artistic director of the Play House. "The Allen becomes more functional and functioning -- we'll have 340 events a year where there are now 80. And it will have the kind of curb appeal the Play House has never had."
Movie palace from the Roaring '20s
The Allen opened in 1921 as a 3,080-seat movie palace designed by architect C. Howard Crane in a style inspired by Renaissance architect Raphael's 1523 Villa Madama near Rome. It was named for its owners, Jules and Jay Allen, brothers who operated a Toronto-based chain of theaters.
Like the four 1920s legitimate theaters and vaudeville houses that, with the Allen, form the nucleus of PlayhouseSquare, it went through good times and bad, becoming a 1970s showcase for rock acts such as Bruce Springsteen, who made his local debut there in 1974 as an opener for Wishbone Ash.
After dodging the wrecking ball and being acquired by PlayhouseSquare, it was refurbished and reopened in 1998 as the fourth venue to be renovated in the district, joining the Ohio, State and Palace theaters (the fifth, the Hanna, was renovated and reopened in 2008).
The Allen was designed to house long runs of such big musicals as "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Les Miserables."
But by the turn of the 21st century, three of the four principal producers of those kinds of shows -- Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Livent -- had turned to smaller projects, run out of ideas or gone bankrupt. Only Disney Theatricals was left.
At about the same time, the local operation of Cleveland San Jose Ballet went out of business and what is now called Opera Cleveland scaled back its productions, greatly reducing demand for the State and, by extension, the Allen.
By 2006, PlayhouseSquare President Art Falco was looking for an alternative use for the Allen.
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The plans for renovation of the Allen into a main stage for the Play House and CSU -- drawn by the Cleveland-based architects Westlake Reed Leskosky -- call for preserving almost all of the work done during 1998's $15 million renovation.
The all-new 1998 stage house (the tower over the stage that houses the lights, stage mechanics, curtains, dressing rooms and other support spaces) was designed to accommodate huge sets and hundreds of costumes, actors and backstage personnel. It would not be touched in the new renovation, because it can already handle the needs of CSU and the Play House.
The architectural details of the auditorium and lobby -- dominated by a columned dome -- would continue to peek out at the audience from behind acoustical panels and other new elements, creating what Westlake's Matt Janiak called a multilayered contrast of styles and materials.
The auditorium, which now reaches back to Row ZZ, would be shortened by slightly more than half, to the current Row Y, which is situated just under the front edge of the current balcony. That balcony would be closed off and unused, at least for now.
A new orchestra-level floor would be raked (or tilted) away from the stage at a sharper upward angle than the current deck. That would create better sight lines to the stage, which would be relatively lower. The rear-most seats would be on a more elevated parterre section. This main level would seat 334.
A shallow balcony seating 149 would be constructed just in front of the closed-off current balcony (which seats 850).
The orchestra seats in the 26 rows under the existing balcony -- from the current Row Z to Row ZZ -- would be removed, as would a 1998 wall in the back of the current auditorium. All the space under the existing balcony would become part of an expanded grand lobby.
The farthest seat in the new auditorium would be 50 feet from the stage, about 10 feet closer than at the Bolton Theatre, the Play House's largest venue at its old 8500 Euclid Ave. facility.
Next door to the 81,500-square-foot Allen, in what is now a parking lot, Westlake has designed a 44,000-square-foot addition that would house two state-of-the-art theaters the likes of which Cleveland has never before seen.
A very versatile performance space
The northernmost venue, called the "second stage" in the drawings, could be configured in just about any way a director wanted, up to 350 seats. It was inspired by Bloom's visit to the New Theatre, erected at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2002.
The four basic stage arrangements are: a thrust (audience on three sides, actors in the middle); an arena (audience on all four sides, actors in the middle); a runway (audience on two sides, actors in the middle); or a traditional proscenium (audience on one side, actors on the other).
And, thanks to technical gizmos, the second stage could be configured in one shape for a matinee of a show and changed to a different setup in time for an evening performance of another play.
The southern end of the Allen addition would be a similarly flexible but smaller 150-seat laboratory theater, which Bloom called "the workhorse of the complex," for student projects, children's theater, readings and events in the Play House's annual FusionFest.
All three theaters could be accessed from Euclid Avenue via two existing entrances: the lobby of the Allen and the lobby of the Bulkley, an office building that has been part of the Allen complex since 1921.
•PlayhouseSquare grows larger by getting smaller.
•The Allen Theatre: A timeline
They could also be reached from what Falco is calling "another front door for PlayhouseSquare" on the northern end of the new complex, along Dodge Court.
The existing, 450-foot pedestrian walkway from the PlayhouseSquare parking garage would be demolished to make way for the Allen addition. In its place, a far shorter, 51-foot walkway would carry patrons over Dodge Court and into the four-story lobby of the lab theater.
A hallway -- or in Janiak's words, an "inner streetscape" -- would proceed south toward Euclid Avenue, punctuated by entrances to the second stage and the renovated Allen's lobby. From there, access could be made to the State, Palace and Ohio theaters without going outdoors.
The piece of the plan involving the Middough Building classrooms is not complete, nor is there a cost estimate. The university and PlayhouseSquare are in the final stages of negotiating a purchase price with the building's owners, Falco and CSU President Ronald Berkman said.
Before work starts: details, details
Much needs to happen this summer before all becomes reality.
The Play House, PlayhouseSquare and CSU must:
• Win CSU board approval for a joint operating agreement for the construction and operation of the Allen complex. Berkman said he would "enthusiastically endorse" the project at a June 14 meeting.
If CSU and PlayhouseSquare have a deal with the owners of the Middough Building by then, Berkman said, that project would also be on the meeting's agenda. The Play House and PlayhouseSquare boards have approved the Allen project in increments.
• Raise nearly $30 million for the Allen complex. The Play House sold its Euclid Avenue facility to the Cleveland Clinic for $13 million, and CSU has won $2.5 million in grants.
Play House managing director Kevin Moore declined to say how much more than $15 million has been raised for the Allen project. But he did say the fundraising campaign, which will not go public until next spring, will have a goal considerably higher than $30 million.
The Play House has to pay for its move from the old facility, find and rent a building within a 5-mile radius of downtown suitable for its scene shops, and build its operating endowment to keep its finances strong during economic downturns.
As for the Middough Building project, Falco said that he, Berkman and Moore are still developing an ownership and financing structure.
• Enter into an agreement with the stagehands' union allowing CSU students to work in the theaters as part of their technical-theater training.
The CSU drama program historically has been a strong technical program. And Berkman said it will continue to be one because there is demand in the job market for theatrical carpenters, electricians and other backstage personnel.
But not every single thing about the Allen has to be decided before the project can begin, Falco said.
Take that closed-off original balcony of the Allen. There are no plans for the space, but the project budget calls for an elevator to be installed, making it accessible to the disabled in the future. It could become an intimate, 500-seat cinema.
If the Allen project were a new house for sale, Falco said, the balcony is the bonus room.