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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Sturgeon Bay theater offers views during demolition


Third Avenue Playhouse

Third Avenue Playhouse co-artistic director James Valcq takes a whack during demolition. (Amy Frank of Third Avenue Playhouse)

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Very few positives in the theater industry can be found in midst of the coronavirus COVID-19, and then there is Third Avenue Playhouse.

The distinctive theater in a former movie house in downtown Sturgeon Bay has taken it on the chin like the vast majority of theater companies.

+ Lost income in the tens of thousands of dollars.

+ Cancellation of productions. First, performances were canceled or postponed through summer. As the coronavirus wore on, productions were called off for the rest of the year.

+ Unemployment for highly skilled performers.

+ Disruption of the rhythm of the theater as a go-to place, or a place of discovery for newcomers.

But what’s happening at Third Avenue Playhouse is better than one of its dramas, in a way: Third Avenue Playhouse is taking the opportunity to renovate the theater house.

Suddenly, the theater is in the midst of a $3.5-million improvement project.

The place is being torn apart.

Front of Third Avenue Playhouse. (Amy Frank)
James Valcq at front door. (Amy Frank)

The theater has friends. It reports it is $1.7 million along in its goal thanks to donors, topped by an emboldening $1-million lead gift.

When done, the theater will no longer be… hmmm… quaint.

Soon after Robert Boles and James Valcq became co-directors in October 2011, a storage room in the old Donna movie house was converted into a black-box theater.

What happened on stage – the most important thing – was absorbing. An array of drama, comedy and musicals was artfully presented.

Most everything around that was make-do.

Lobby before. (Amy Frank)
Lobby in process of demolition. (Amy Frank)

Third Avenue Playhouse’s website recently hung out its laundry:

“Yet the incredible performances on stage distract attention from a grim reality: as a theater and a public facility, TAP is woefully lacking.

“The experience for an audience member is less than desirable: the seating creaks and is uncomfortable; the bathrooms are undersized and not easily accessible; the lobby and concession spaces are small and cramped; and many areas have inadequate heating and cooling. For the professionals who work in the space, the conditions are dire as well: the stage lacks wing space and crossover areas; the dressing room is little more than a landing at the top of the stairs; and there is no dedicated scene shop, costume shop, or even basic office space.

“Yet despite the substandard facility, the dedication and commitment of the professional staff and volunteer leaders have made TAP the focal point of Sturgeon Bay’s arts scene.”

Back wall of Studio Theatre. (Amy Frank)
Back hallway to men’s room. (Amy Frank)

What has been interesting since the announcement of the renovation project, called REIMAGINE, is the posting of the demolition process.

Demo sites usually aren’t that interesting.

A whole lot of rubble.

But this demo site had a public presence. Thousands of people walked its way.

The place had a being all its own.

My mind’s eye now does a walkthrough: In through the front door, past the candy counter to the right, past a spot to the left on the wall that served for displays of a kind of dramaturgy for the production at hand, past a lighted too-small sign high up on the wall to the right announcing “Studio Theatre’ and the title of the current production, onto the SLOPED walkway, past a performance photo gallery on the LONG wall to the left that kept growing as seasons piled on seasons, and to where tickets are taken.

First, a stop at the rest room. The men’s room is to the left along a hallway, past a dressing room to the right from which voices were sometimes heard and into the necessary space, where I don’t recall warm water ever coming from the faucet when washing my hands.

And then back along the hallway and into the theater itself: The floor still slopes. To the left are six rows with 14 seats in each row. In the left rear corner is the tech area (lights, sound). To the left is a black curtain running the length of the space, behind which actors arrive and/or quick-change. To the front right is another curtain for arrivals/quick-changes. The stage is long, black and close. On it, a whole lot of fascination occurs.

Now, everything I’ve described is history, presumably.

Exterior plan. (Richard Toyne Architect)
Interior plan. (Richard Toyne Architect)

Third Avenue Playhouse has posted photos of scenes around the building as demolition has taken place.

One photo I get a kick out of is James Valcq taking a swing with a sledgehammer. The guy’s a composer, director, pianist, singer, dancer, actor and planner, and here he is doing a Lizzy Borden on a lobby.

Other theaters in the region have undergone major projects – the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh, Weill Center for the Performing Arts in Sheboygan, Meyer Theatre in Green Bay, Capitol Civic Centre in Manitowoc and Peninsula Players Theatre in Fish Creek.

The project of Peninsula Players Theatre is the closest to Third Avenue Playhouse in wholesale change – full stage house, seating area, etc.

What’s remarkable about Third Avenue Playhouse’s renovation is the timing. The theater was supposed to be in the midst of a season right now. “Anyone Can Whistle” was supposed to be starting this week.

Now because of COVID-19, there are no shows, and the theater is looking for a better future. How does that work? How does the world turn?

The theater is rolling with a serendipitous turn in the midst of a global pandemic – and taking photos along the way.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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