Growing up: Lee Street Theatre ready to open new performing arts center
The outside of the former Peeler-Miller warehouse at 329 N. Lee St. looks just about the same now as it did when construction started there about 7 months ago.
Read more about Lee Street Theatre’s production of “All the Great Books (Abridged)” in today’s TimeOut section.
The building’s exterior has remained unchanged, except for the addition of a large block of window panes along the back, a new deck and signage that has yet to be installed.
The space, which will officially open next Thursday as Lee Street Theatre & Performing Arts Center at the Tom & Martha Smith Event Center, is a fusion of old and new.
Modern pendant light fixtures line the ceiling inside the lobby and bar areas, just a few feet away from the electrical closet, which is covered up by the warehouse’s original loading dock doors.
The exposed brick, rust-colored steel beams and concrete floors paired with freshly-painted walls and an oddly-shaped box office make the building look “industrial chic.”
“We’ve kept that industrial style and warehouse feel, while being very polished,” said Lee Street Theatre’s Managing Artistic Director Justin Dionne. “It’s a historical restoration, so we’re keeping the building as close to the original as possible.”
The project kicked off about a year and a half ago when Dionne, along with Lee Street board members Robert Jones and Bill Greene, announced a $1.5 million capital campaign to raise the funds for the facility.
Since then, the group has brought in about 80 percent of its $1.5 million goal thanks to the generosity of about 300 people. Organizers had anticipated it would take up to three years to reach 100 percent.
“It’s been such a community effort to bring this to fruition,” Jones said. “We’ve always had a positive attitude and we’ve always tried to be very grateful for anything anybody has given us whether it’s their time, $5, a chair or a curtain.”
The project is winding down about $80,000 under budget, but Dionne said it’s still important to bring in the remaining $250,000 of the initial goal to ensure the building is paid off.
“I’m still going to stand up on this stage just like I did on the other one and say ‘We need your help,’” he said.
Donor blocks in the lobby are still available for a $1,000 gift, payable over three years. The center has additional naming opportunities, including the black box theatre.
Greene said once the space is up and running, it will be self-sustaining.
“We want it fully utilized,” he said. “That’s one of the key things that we looked at in the beginning, we wanted to secure the economics of the project so it would pay for itself and make some money.”
The new facility will be available to rent for special events and will host music concerts and touring acts.
Back to the start
The new 9,000 square-foot performing arts center will serve as the home to both Lee Street Theatre and St. Thomas Players, a well-established theatre troupe for Center for Faith & the Arts.
The space will open for its first performance a week from today with Lee Street’s production of “All the Great Books (Abridged).”
The group has been renting the Looking Glass Artists Center’s black box theater, which is right across the street, since its inception six years ago.
“When we started we didn’t have a dime to our name,” said Jones, one of Lee Street’s original founders. “Some people gave us money to do the first show, which gave us enough money to do the second show, which gave us enough money to do the third…
“All we wanted to do was have an alternative form of theatre to showcase things that weren’t being done in Salisbury.”
Jones said the group survived on a shoestring budget for years.
“With the help of Justin we’ve been able to take it to a new level,” he said.
Dionne said the troupe has outgrown the Looking Glass space.
“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for where we started at Looking Glass,” he said. “I think we’re a perfect example of what a place like Looking Glass aimed for, which was to accompany the start of a theater group and allow it to grow and grow until it was time to move out of the house.”
Greene calls the completion of the new performing arts center a “culmination of a lot of dreams.”
“We’ve always dreamed of having a professional black-box style theater that has all the bells and whistles,” he said. “It really has a unique feeling that you only get in special places.”
Greene said the project has been completed on time with very few glitches thanks to Dionne.
“He’s grown into a top-notched theatre professional,” he said. “His hard work and attention to detail have made a big difference.”
Inside the space
The new 9,000-square-foot performing arts center will seat about 132 people during its first show.
Dionne said the group has a total 163 chairs that can be arranged in a variety of ways thanks to sets of movable risers.
“We are still small and intimate, we don’t want to lose that because we have a new space,” he said.
The sprung floors, built to absorb shock, in the performance space will serve as the stage with the audience sitting in rows that climb upward.
“There’s not a bad seat in the house,” Dionne said.
He also means that literally, pointing out the comfortable cushioned chairs.
Staging and chairs will be customized for each event. Dionne hopes to do the 10-minute play festival as a theater in the round production this year with chairs on all sides of the stage.
“This is a true black box space where you can really do whatever you want,” he said. “It gives us a chance to up our production value, which we’ve always wanted to do in order to challenge ourselves and challenge our audience in more ways than we were able to before.’
The performance space features 25-foot ceilings, a new lighting system and two sound systems – one to provide sound effects and music during plays, the other to support live musical acts.
The space was built using concrete donated by Johnson Concrete. The bottom layer is made of acoustical block, Dionne said.
“It sounds awesome in here,” he said. “You can hear everything and it doesn’t echo like you’re in a big concrete box.”
The bar and lounge area will be decorated differently each time to complement the theme of each play. It will include seating as well as plenty of space for people to stand and mingle.
Dionne said the bar, which will sell beer from Salisbury’s New Sarum Brewery, soda and snacks, will be open before and after each show.
“We want to enhance the experience,” he said. “We want people to be able to come and hang out.”
People will also be able to head outside to the facility’s new deck and patio area, which will include four benches lit up by two new street lamps.
Al Wilson is the general contractor and Jon Palmer is the architect for the new space.
Dionne said he hopes to attract a number of performance arts to the facility, including everything from dance companies and stand-up comedians.
“This isn’t my theater, it’s the community’s theater,” he said.
Greene said the new facility should be “something for Salisbury to be proud of.”
“(The city) is getting a good reputation and gaining momentum in the theatre world,” he said. “People are starting to perk up and pay attention.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.