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.
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.
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.
Given the extraordinary build-out of prime performance space in Santa Barbara during the last decade — not only the New Vic and the Granada but also Hahn Hall, the Lobero, the Garvin, and the Marjorie Luke theaters have all been remodeled since 2003 — it’s natural to wonder just how many fancy theater seats a small city that’s only 100 miles from Los Angeles needs. But in talking with Fox, one gets the sense that, in this instance at least, the financial side of the deal got looked at first. “We completed the theater’s business plan before we ever committed to the construction project,” he said. “We began by putting expenses against projected income for the first few seasons, and we only went ahead when we were sure that our break-even point would come if we reached 60 percent capacity.
Unlike the other theaters in town, the New Vic has been established to serve as the home of an Equity theater company, and one with a longstanding reputation and track record over at its former home, the 140-seat Alhecama Theatre on Santa Barbara Street. In addition to creating that business plan, Fox and his board have worked on two simultaneous fundraising campaigns, one to cover the cost of the building, which is now within $500,000 of completion, and the other to create a $4-million endowment to cover operating expenses over the initial years in the new space. The endowment fund now stands at $2.21 million, and Fox looks forward to reaching that $4-million goal within the first year. More than 200 donors have participated thus far, and the list of contributors reads like a who’s who of generous people on the Santa Barbara arts scene. From Léni Fé Bland, who acted as campaign chair along with attorney Derek A. Westen, to Michael and Anne Towbes, Sara Miller McCune, Roger and Nancy Davidson, Dana White, and Lee Luria (who stepped in at a crucial moment and bought the building for Ensemble), Santa Barbara’s most generous citizens have gotten on board with this project.
The New Vic got off to a rocky start in 2009, when one of the three nonprofits that once owned the property tried to block Ensemble’s plans. Barbara Tellefson, whose Unity Shoppe once occupied the Victoria Theater building’s lower half, brought a lawsuit attempting to stop the project, and insisted that the lease agreement crafted by Westen along with the other two original partners in the building’s ownership, CALM and RSVP, was invalid. In time, and after some costly mediation, this challenge was dropped, and the deal went forward. It was in the summer of 2010 that Westen remembers realizing that the dream of an entirely new theater within this older structure might become a reality. “After a year-and-a-half of negotiation,” Westen said, “we finally signed the original, 30-year lease for the theater. But although we were then sure that we could create a theater, it was still not clear that we would be able to develop a full fly loft, secure approval for the wonderful entry landing, and acquire key additional space from the owners that allowed for full-basement dressing rooms and an open stage left.” Westen and Fox labored for another two years to secure the needed approvals for these amenities, and Westen cites another huge positive surprise as coming when Luria stepped in. “We did not initially anticipate that we would be able to purchase the theater as quickly as we have,” Westen said.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
No one deserves as much credit for the success of this ambitious project as Jonathan Fox, without whom it’s unlikely the new theater on Victoria would have happened. When he moved here from New Jersey to take over Ensemble Theatre Company in 2006, Fox was an unknown quantity to most Santa Barbarans, and he was charged with filling the shoes of one of the city’s best-known directors, Robert Grande Weiss. By the time Fox began doing his own programming in the second season after he took over, it was clear that he had considerable skill and vision, and that the Alhecama imposed serious limitations on the company. “Theater companies have to keep growing and changing, or else they die,” Fox said in September. He had experience building a theater in New Jersey, where he presided over the construction of an entirely new building to house the Two River Theater in Red Bank, which remains a highly successful regional operation. While his total donor base for that project was considerably smaller than the group that has come together here, two individuals who have been involved in both projects deserve special recognition. Robert and Joan Rechnitz were theater enthusiasts who believed in Fox when he was starting out. They helped him get his feet in New Jersey and even offered to let him use their home as an office during the early years of the Two River project.
Bob and Joan Rechnitz will be among the honored guests at the Curtain Up! gala celebration this Saturday, November 9. It’s their first trip to Santa Barbara, which isn’t all that unusual, but what is extraordinary is the reason they are coming. Early on in the fundraising for the New Vic, the Rechnitzes became the second million-dollar donors to the capital campaign, site unseen, and without any personal connection to Santa Barbara beyond their previous collaboration with Fox. Like many of the other donors to the project, they did so out of passion for the theater and also because they sensed that, as in New Jersey, this was a chance to be part of something big.