SALT LAKE CITY — It is not very often that a theatre critic gets excited to don a construction hat and orange vest and walk around a construction site, but last fall this theatre critic was indeed very excited to do just that.
Salt Lake City has a vibrant theatre community, and many theatre patrons have a fondness for the Capitol Theater, which has been around since 1913. However, the size of the Capitol Theater has been a challenge for touring companies. Having spent many years in New York, I have often heard the argument “Why does Salt Lake need a larger theatre? Broadway theatres are small!” While this is true, touring companies are a very different scale, needing to make enough money to be sustainable on tour. What has happened is many first run tours, straight off of Broadway, have skipped over Utah as a potential venue because we did not have the theatre space to justify a first run performance.
However, all of that is about to change, when the new George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Theater opens downtown at 135 S. Main Street in Salt Lake City. Opening is slated for this fall, the new season of Broadway at the Eccles already has nine shows booked into the new space. This theatre will have a seating capacity of 2,500, which is on par with other first-run cities like Denver.
I was able to take a tour of the construction site last August with Michael J. Peart, project safety manager for Layton Construction, and Katherine Potter, Senior Advisor of Arts and Culture for the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office. Both Peart and Potter were excited to share information about the project, the hopes for the theatre community, and what this project will do for downtown. A few highlights that stood out for me have to do with my experience as a patron and critic. First, Peart showed me both in the architectural plans and on site, the wonderful plans for the restroom facilities. Yes, some of you may laugh. But, having been faced with the decision of missing an opening act or making it through the line to the bathroom, there are many female patrons who will be thrilled to see the number of facilities the theatre has in place.
Additionally, having attended theatre productions all over the country, I have been in venues where the balcony seating, while more affordable, made for a very unpleasant audience experience. The design and layout of the theatre is smart. Even standing from the third tier balcony, I could still see the stage at full capacity and did not feel I was too far away from where the action will be. The designers and architects of the Eccles Theater have gone out of their way to try and create intimacy while still meeting the needs of a large theatre. And I think it they will meet both goals.
Peart and Potter discussed state of the art sound design, lighting design, and backstage areas. I was shown the orchestra pit, which can be raised and converted to additional seating, depending on show need. I was shown dressing rooms, rehearsal space, storage areas, patron lounges, and layout and design that will make this venue one that touring companies will want to perform in because of the outstanding facilities and patrons will want to return to.
Peart also emphasized the importance the designers have put into planning for comfort in seating and leg space, heating and cooling, and other aspects of comfort for the patrons. I was shown various places where there will be both indoor lounges and outdoor terraces, so that patrons can relax before the show and during intermission. Peart mentioned that there will be speakers that will broadcast music to people in the lounges, as well as areas surrounding the theatre.
Some of the other details of the theater are even more exciting for fans of the local arts community. In addition to the main stage area, I was taken to see the part of the building that will house a black box space. In talking with Potter, she stated that there is hope that this space will provide a venue for local companies, new talent, and new works developed here in Utah. In addition, there will be a bistro, retail spaces, and an onsite caterer for events, venue concessions, and VIP events.
Finally, the lobby of the theatre is intended to be a public venue with open areas that will be accessible to the general public during business hours. Potter discussed opportunities for musicians to perform in the lobby, patrons and those who work nearby can come get something to eat from the bistro and then sit in the lobby and enjoy the music, art, and architecture available. There will also be outdoor spaces and connections to other buildings and areas downtown that will benefit both the theatre and businesses.
I asked Potter what would happen to the Capitol Theater now that touring Broadway shows would be at the Eccles Theater. She stated that there is some renovation plans slated for Capitol, and that the ballet and opera would be remaining there. She stated that Capitol is an important part of the arts community, and that it will still be as iconic as it has always been. The Eccles Theater is just an addition to the growing desire for high quality live theatre options in Utah. I have been blogging with Utah Theatre Bloggers since 2011, and can attest that I see a need for more options for Utah theatre, not less.