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VOL. 125 | NO. 5 | Friday, January 8, 2010

Playhouse on the Square Readies for Building’s Debut

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Daily News

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MUSICAL FEATURES: The orchestra pit is one of many amenities at the new $13 million Playhouse on the Square. -- PHOTO BY JONATHAN DEVIN

In anticipation of its grand opening production of “Pippin” Jan. 29, the new three-story Playhouse on the Square near Overton Square held its first preview event this week.

The new theater is the culmination of five years of fundraising and more than a year of construction.

“We wanted to give the community an opportunity to come in and see what we are doing,” said Whitney Jo, POTS’ managing director. “Originally we thought (the building) would be a bit further along, but it’s going to get there in time for the opening of ‘Pippin.’”

The stage and some of the public areas were still under construction when about 100 artists, all of whom had previously donated art to POTS’ annual art auction, became the first guests Wednesday.

Jo said POTS had reached its fundraising goal of $13 million for the project, $8.5 million of which covers construction. The rest covers architect fees and the purchase of the property at the corner of Union Avenue and Cooper Street.

POTS will continue to raise another $3 million to fund an endowment to cover staff increases and other ancillary expenses.

David Burns of the John Morris Agency in Chicago designed the theater. The same agency built Chicago’s noted Steppenwolf Theater after which the new POTS was designed.

Jo said she and Jackie Nichols, POTS’ executive director, were pleased the construction funds were raised in five years, noting that construction would not have begun until the funds were secured.

Some of the funds are long-term pledges, which will be paid off over the next four years.

“We started building this theater in a recession,” Jo said. “We did have our moments when we plateaued in fundraising. We got stuck at $3 million forever, then we got stuck at $6 million forever.

“But Jackie has never started something that didn’t happen. The community got with us too and said if Jackie wants it to happen, it’s going to happen.”

The city of Memphis handled demolition of the vacant Kate’s Antique Mall, which formerly occupied the site and had become a home for vagrants.

The city also donated to POTS a pie-shaped parcel of land at the corner that extended onto the property.

The theater was built into the concrete footing of the former antique mall in order to sidestep codes that mandated new construction to be 25 feet or more away from the curb. The new theater walls reach the sidewalk.

POTS also asked for and received a height variance in order to build a tower to house the theater’s fly space, which allows wall-size pieces of scenery to be lifted over the stage. In the end, the variance wasn’t needed as plans for the tower were downsized to save money.

Jo said they also reduced plans for an “extravagantly green” park-like rooftop terrace complete with grassy lawns, which would have added about $100,000 to the cost. Instead, the terrace features potted plants and a storm water recovery system.

The house includes 347 seats on two levels, 100 of which are in the balcony. The balcony offers six boxes with two seats each. The former POTS had 258 seats.

The stage features trap doors in the floor with a basement underneath and an orchestra pit that is wheelchair accessible by elevator.

“Our orchestra no longer has to play in a hallway,” Jo said. “When the building’s foundation was poured we all went down there and cried because we could see our musicians having light and space.”

The building also offers expanded gallery and party space.

The five-story building immediately behind the new POTS on Union, which was also purchased by the theater, had no major structural changes, but now serves as administrative offices, rehearsal space, storage space, costume shop, dressing rooms, a green room and will eventually have a first floor café.

POTS staff moved into their new offices in December.

In February, the other buildings in POTS’ campus will shift as well. Circuit Playhouse, POTS’ non-residential community theater, will move from 1705 Poplar Ave. at Evergreen Street to the existing POTS theater at 51 S. Cooper St.

The old Circuit Playhouse will be renamed the Evergreen Theatre and will be leased to TheatreWorks for $1 per year. TheatreWorks at 2085 Monroe Ave. will operate in its current building and in the Evergreen Theatre.

POTS’ Varnell Education Building at 1711 Poplar will continue to be the site of its youth acting programs.

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