Imagine, on a summery night less than two years from now, sitting in the newly opened Blue Barn Theatre at the southwest corner of 10th and Pacific Streets.
As patrons in the 99-seat theater look toward the stage, its rear wall opens up to reveal an outdoor courtyard covered with artfully arranged wood beams. It’s the theater’s new front door, which can double as an extension of the playing space for actors. A car drives up, and patrons watch a character make his entrance from the street as traffic whizzes by.
That’s just one aspect of the innovation and flexibility built into plans for the theater by Studio Gang Architects of Chicago and theatrical design expert Fisher Dachs of New York City. The Blue Barn announced it would build a new home last April.
Designers see the theater as a spark in developing a cultural district extending from the Old Market along 10th Street that would include new housing, restaurants and other arts outlets.
The Blue Barn unveiled a scale model of the proposed theater to season ticketholders this weekend as it kicked off a $7 million capital campaign. It includes $4.5 million for construction, $1.5 million for an operation and maintenance fund, and $1 million over the next five years to ensure the Blue Barn’s artistic growth during its initial years in the new building.
Groundbreaking is planned for September 2013, with a grand opening in time for the theater’s 26th season in fall 2014. It would be Omaha’s first new stand-alone live-drama theater in decades.
The Blue Barn has already raised $2.5 million toward the goal and will focus on large donations and foundations in its initial search for funds. Board member Nancy Mammel donated the land for the new theater building and made a substantial initial gift for the fundraising campaign.
“Omahans talk so much about how to retain and attract young professionals and artists in the community,” Mammel said from Santa Fe, N.M., last week. “One way is to support progressive, out-of-the-box, diverse arts organizations like the Blue Barn.”
The Blue Barn, founded in 1988, is known for staging contemporary and progressive works in an 86-seat space at 614 S. 11th St. A goal of the new theater would be to retain the intimacy and personality of the present space while expanding its artistic capabilities.
The new facility is designed to be 10,800 square feet, almost double the space the Blue Barn has now, but audience capacity will expand just 13 seats, to 99. Dressing rooms, bathrooms in the lobby, a small costume shop and set construction space also are in the plans, and many spaces are designed to be multipurpose. The scene shop, for example, will also house a kitchen area.
“To have Studio Gang and Fisher Dachs working on a project of this size is unusual and unexpected, just like the Blue Barn’s work,” said Susan Clement-Toberer, the Blue Barn’s artistic director. “They’re the leading people in their field.”
Studio Gang’s projects include the 83-story Aqua Tower in Chicago. Fisher Dachs was a consultant on the new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and Toronto’s new opera hall.
Partner Joshua Dachs said last week that designing large performing arts centers that serve multiple uses can feel generic. The Blue Barn project, though small, presented the attractive challenge of retaining a specific character and personality.
“Very often arts organizations building a new home make the mistake of forgetting who they were in the first place,” he said. “That’s not a mistake the Blue Barn is prepared to make. They want very badly to hold onto the things that make the Blue Barn special.”
That includes intimate scale, public spaces that encourage interaction, and an “artisanal feel” of custom-made art, whether wood-cut posters in the lobby or high-quality stage productions that make you feel like you’re watching from your living room.
Architect Jeanne Gang, a recent recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (nicknamed the “genius grant”), said theater can be a strong component of community, with the capacity to act as a catalyst for change.
“Tenth Street is one of the few through streets (downtown),” Gang said. And there are already cultural components along that street, from the baseball park and CenturyLink Center Omaha to the Durham Museum, Leahy Mall and the Old Market. “This could be an extension of that and inspire more development,” she said.
Clement-Toberer said plans include using local building materials and incorporating the work of local artists into the building.
“We’re building smart,” she said, “but not just a big box. It will be an incredible addition to the 10th Street corridor, to building that area into an arts district. Omaha supports the arts in such a great way, and we’re confident we’re going to get there.”
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