SRJC sets temporary stage for summer productions during $30 million Burbank Theatre renovations

The summer festival, which brings college actors here from around the country, kicks off later this month with the musical ‘Mama Mia!’ The remodeled theater should be ready for a November opening night.|

Santa Rosa Junior College is setting the stage to resume the summer run of a nationally acclaimed college theater festival and for a fall opening of the modernized Burbank Theatre.

Workers and students are busy with preparations of two different theaters for upcoming productions - and in both settings final touches could come shortly before the curtain rises.

The two projects include a $30 million renovation underway at the Burbank, the college's classic red brick auditorium that has been a campus mainstay for nearly 80 years. Construction workers will spend the coming months getting Burbank ready for a November opening night of the annual fall musical, this year “The Sound of Music.”

Meanwhile, with Burbank's stage unavailable for a second summer, student crews are readying a temporary white “pavilion” - a hard-sided tent complete with glass doors and air conditioning - for the upcoming season of the Summer Repertory Theatre. That festival, which brings college actors here from around the country for seven weeks of performances, kicks off June 21 with the musical “Mama Mia!”

After the season ends, the $150,000 pavilion will be taken down to make way for more campus parking spaces. Its presence, though, means the summer program can resume its theater festival after canceling the 2018 season when plans for an alternate performance site fell through. It was the first such blackout in the 45-year-plus history of the summer theater season.

James Newman, artistic director for the summer theater program, said his students are getting the chance to tackle two new challenges. They are helping create the temporary venue on the college's former tennis courts, where they will perform three musicals there in space designed for theater in the round. The layout will offer both actors and patrons a different experience from a proscenium theater like the Burbank, in which the audience observes from a unified angle the production taking place on the stage.

The pavilion's 275 available seats will surround a hexagon stage. Every patron will sit within five rows of the actors.

“It's so intimate,” Newman said. “I think audiences will love it.”

Both theater projects are linked to decadelong upgrades of the college's two campuses and are made possible by $410 million worth of bonds approved by voters in 2014. The list of other projects includes everything from building student housing to revamping athletic facilities to constructing a new building for science, math and technology classes.

The temporary theater stage will remain for one summer, while the work in Burbank is meant to last for decades. For students and audiences, the changes to the landmark Burbank will be dramatic.

The college's staff and students have produced first-rate shows there for years, but “they have been doing all this in a theater that was quite aged, using old technology,” college President Frank Chong said in a statement. The renovated spaces and the addition of new sound, lighting, video and other equipment will provide resources both faculty “and our students deserve,” he said.

Newman said Burbank was a “classic, beautiful old theater” but its modernization will be striking. For starters, the main theater's capacity will shrink to 400 seats from 600.

But the stadium-style seating configuration will give audiences “a terrific view from every seat,” said Leslie McCauley, chairwoman and artistic director of the college's theatre arts department.

Linked to Burbank will be a second studio theater with 200 seats placed on three sides of its stage. The new venue will allow the summer theater festival in future years to simultaneously offer two productions in adjacent theaters.

When the studio theater opens, students in smaller productions no longer will need to use the classroom-like Newman Auditorium, a campus space that during the academic year has had to be made ready after performances for the next morning's lectures.

The new Burbank also will feature an expanded outside terrace and a spacious lobby with a larger box office. And students will enjoy a makeup lab, dressing room, green room, costume lab, scene shop, acting lab and rehearsal room.

The entire theater building will be accessible by wheelchair. Even the orchestra pit will have a lift.

The architectural firm of Mark Cavagnero Associates of San Francisco and the project's architect of record, TLCD Architecture of Santa Rosa, designed the Burbank renovations.

The project's general contractor is Wright Contracting of Santa Rosa and the construction manager is Harris & Associates of Concord.

Serafin Fernandez, the college's interim senior director for capital projects, said college trustees and administration have set aside money to temporarily house programs such as the summer theater festival disrupted by campus construction projects.

“The main commitment is to maintain the academic programs,” he said.

Admission prices for the summer performances remain unchanged from past years, Newman said. Single tickets are $28 and subscription packages start at $70. One downside is the pavilion can hold fewer than half the number of patrons that Burbank once did.

“We already have sold-out shows,” Newman said.

A former Press Democrat staff writer, Robert Digitale retired in December.

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