HAVE A SEAT: Executive Artistic Director Jonathan Fox welcomes audiences to the newly remodeled Victoria Theater, which opens for a gala celebration on Saturday, November 9.
The Curtain Rises on the New Vic
Ensemble Theatre Company’s Grand New Hall
Thursday, November 7, 2013
This weekend, the curtain goes up at the new Victoria Theater, Ensemble Theatre Company’s $11.5-million top-to-bottom renovation of the space on the corner of Chapala and Victoria streets in Santa Barbara. A handful of features inside the 92-year-old building are the same. The ceiling was structural, and has been retained, albeit with some radical steampunk screens for ornamentation, and the room’s balcony structure remains intact beneath what is now a single bank of seats stretching from the foot of the stage to the control booth. But to all but the most discerning architectural detectives, the interior of the theater is unrecognizable. Where there was once a shallow and ungainly raised platform with public lavatory adjacent, there is now a giant fly loft soaring high above a generous state-of-the-art stage. The sight lines from every one of the New Vic’s 294 permanent seats are impeccable, and there’s plenty of comfortable space along the back wall for standing room.
By Courtesy Photo
GOING UP: The fly tower underwent construction.
From the outside, the hall’s shape appears similar, but with some significant alterations. The landing on Victoria Street has been extended and elevated so that activity in front of the theater will present visual interest from as far away as State Street. The building’s venerable stained glass windows have been cleaned, sealed, and soundproofed. Baffled from inside to protect the integrity of the theater’s soundstage, each window will now be uniformly illuminated from within whenever the theater is open. The hall’s inner courtyard, largely unused in recent years, has been restored and developed into a patio space where refreshments can be served, and the massive basement, which was once home to the Unity Shoppe, is now a warren of luxurious dressing rooms, with space and facilities to accommodate two dozen actors. Finally, the new fly tower rises 55 feet above Chapala Street in order to accommodate the theater’s fully automated, digitally controlled system for raising and lowering sets.
Jonathan Fox, the executive artistic director of Ensemble Theatre and the driving force behind the project, estimates that patron space — meaning places for people to get their tickets, enjoy the full bar that will be available before shows and during intermission, and use the restrooms — is fully five times what it was in the old configuration. Jason Currie, who designed the project for PMSM Architects, sees the New Vic as being “equal in quality to any of the work we’ve done elsewhere in Santa Barbara.” He’s referring to both the Music Academy of the West’s elegant performance space Hahn Hall and the nearby Granada Theatre, both PMSM projects. If several recent walk-throughs, including one on October 31, are any indication, Currie can speak confidently. The space feels at once big and intimate, and the subtly integrated ornamental details weave together old and new elements in a way that Santa Barbara has not seen before. Terracotta wall panels dominate the interior and are accented with splashes of a deep blue-green to create a color scheme that’s both bold and soothingly familiar, providing a perfect blend for a city saturated with red-tile roofs and a downtown dotted with faux-Spanish paseos.
By Courtesy Photo
NOT JUST A FACE-LIFT: The theater’s façade, shown here in its former configuration, remains largely the same, but the front landing has been redesigned to create more public space on Victoria Street.
At 300 seats, the New Vic occupies a sweet spot equidistant between Center Stage Theater, with a maximum capacity of 130, and the Lobero Theatre, which can accommodate 600. In a theater world where booking the right size room can mean the difference between financial success and failure, the New Vic promises to introduce an option that up until now, downtown Santa Barbara has not enjoyed. As the final piece in the city’s 25-year development plan for a Performing Arts District, the theater will complete a project that includes several other major investments in infrastructure, including the Granada Theatre and the adjacent Granada parking garage. After years of research and planning, a decision was reached that this size theater was the one thing the city’s performing arts scene lacked, and it will be very interesting to see just what its arrival means to the various organizations who are the space’s potential users.