Phoenix Theatre begins construction of new auditorium, needs additional funding

Construction has begun on the new 500-seat auditorium at the Phoenix Theatre. The overall project will cost $15 million, but the theater still needs $5 million in additional funding. (Mauro Whiteman/DD)

Construction is underway on a new 500-seat auditorium and unique lobby space at Phoenix Theatre on the southeast corner of Central Avenue and McDowell Road.

Once completed, the new venue will allow the theater to feature two simultaneous shows, giving viewers more options and opening more opportunities for local talent, Associate Artistic Director and actor Robbie Harper said.

The first official production is scheduled for October 2013, a few months after construction is projected to be completed in June. The theater expects to have a soft opening for summer camps, dance sessions and donation dinners in August, Director of Production Mike Eddy said.

After the first phase of construction is complete, a new black box theater will open while Phoenix Theatre raises funds for a second phase of construction. A soft opening for the black box theater is slated for August 2013.

Ten years ago, Phoenix Theatre decided to make an addition to their facility, but the lack of feasibility of a $15 million renovation led to devising a two-phase process, Director of Development Patrick Demers said.

Approximately $5 million of the funding used for the first phase was donated. The city of Phoenix gave the other $5 million to the theater through city art bonds. For the final phase of construction, Phoenix Theatre needs another $5 million from donors.

“If we could find a donor tomorrow that wanted to give us $5 million, we probably wouldn’t open the black box,” Demers said. The theater would transition immediately into the second phase, he said.

The black box is projected to seat around 250 people and will allow the theater to feature risky and other potentially low turn-out shows due to the lower ticket demand, Harper said. The intimate new space will allow guests to experience shows on a more personal level, he said.

There is “something really cool about performing in an intimate location,” Harper said. The three-foot distance between the audience and performers results in a “different kind of acting” than the usual distance of more than 10 feet in a traditional auditorium.

“(The audience’s) energy is right in my energy,” Harper said. “It’s awesome (when) they’re with you.”

More than likely, however, Phoenix Theatre will keep the black box theater open for 2 to 3 years while they raise the $5 million required for the second phase, Demers said.

The desire for a more stable economic model prompted the decision to expand, Demers said. The first phase served as a foundation for future construction, providing the infrastructure needed for the second phase, the 500-seat auditorium, Eddy said.

At the conclusion of the $10 million first phase, the black box theater will be fully functional and used for theater productions while Phoenix Theatre saves funds for a $5 million second phase.

During the second phase, a traditional stage will be built on the east side of the black box, which will be modified into a 500-seat auditorium.

The new auditorium will keep the same intimacy as Phoenix Theatre’s current 377-seat auditorium while integrating modern technology with an enhanced amount of space, Demers said. A taller ceiling will allow for larger stage props; a wider wing space, or buffer zone just beyond the curtain, will make it easier for stage hands and actors to maneuver props.

An atrium connecting Phoenix Theatre’s old lobby to its new one will be constructed, Eddy said. When the second phase is completed, many of the black box’s features will be retrofitted for a traditional auditorium. For instance, a rehearsal space will be renovated into a second floor lobby. The increase in space will provide improved pre- and post-show experiences for guests.

There are also plans for concessions to serve warm food, something they cannot do now, he said.

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Correction: Oct. 15, 2012

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Phoenix Theatre’s new auditorium would have 550 seats. The auditorium will have 500 seats. The article also paraphrased Robbie Harper saying that the black box theatre would feature risque shows. Harper said it would have shows that were “risky” because they might possibly have low turnouts.