Ensemble Theatre Company appears poised to receive $1 million in city Redevelopment Agency funds to help refurbish the Victoria Hall Theater as part of Ensemble’s grand plans to set up shop in new and considerably bigger digs. The theater company got the green light from all three members of the City Council’s Finance Committee this Tuesday, but last week, received unanimous conceptual support from the entire City Council.
For the past 35 years, Ensemble has operated out of the Alhecama Theatre building, which theater executives contend is too old, too small, too inhospitable to patrons’ comfort, and too far off the beaten path. In recent years they purchased the Victoria Hall Theater, and then weathered a tough battle with the Unity Shoppe—one of the building’s longtime tenants—to gain control of the premises. Since then they’ve been busy preparing plans to build a new, modern, 300-seat theater, more than twice as many as the Alhecama’s. While final plans have not been approved, the Ensemble Board of Directors has quietly launched an $8.8 million capital campaign. Including the $1 million from City Hall, they have commitments for 57 percent of that to date. From the outside, a portion of the new theater would pop up 55 feet immediately over the stage; that’s 11 feet higher than the existing structure.
City Hall likes the project because it promises to bring theater patrons downtown as part of a broader policy to encourage arts-infused commerce. City officials are also in a hurry to encumber its remaining Redevelopment Agency assets with as many legal obligations as possible to prevent the State Legislature—and Governor Jerry Brown—from effectively seizing them. Brown had proposed the outright elimination of redevelopment agencies statewide as part of his solution to the state’s fiscal crisis, but his proposal came up just a few votes shy. With the state’s budget still very much in limbo, the fate of the city’s Redevelopment Agency remains in doubt.