Theater gets a $30 million facelift at Santa Rosa Junior College
If the multi-faceted Santa Rosa Junior College campus has a single most recognizable face, it’s the front of the 80-year-old Burbank Auditorium building, overlooking Santa Rosa’s busy Mendocino Avenue from a discreet and dignified distance.
While the exterior looks as nobly traditional as ever, the performance spaces inside have undergone a radical change. After two years of renovation, at a cost of $30 million, the venerable structure is ready to greet its public with a newly redone 400-seat main auditorium and a brand-new 200-seat studio theater.
“It’s more than just a theater opening, with SRJC being such a big part of our community. It’s a big deal,” SRJC President Frank Chong said. “Now we have a world-class facility where our students and faculty can hone their skills. Generations of theater-goers have come there, and now the building is ready for another generation.”
The first theatrical production in the remodeled building will be “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” opening Friday in the studio theater, to be followed April 17 by the stage musical version of the 1990s rom-com film “The Wedding Singer” in the big auditorium.
Also, this weekend, the college’s music department will put on its first concert in the auditorium on Saturday.
The opening of the remade Burbank Auditorium has been a long time in coming. Crews broke ground on the project in January 2018, but planning began two years earlier.
The whole process really began in 2014, when voters approved $410 million in bonds to finance not only the Burbank building renovation but a long list of other projects, including revamped athletic facilities and construction of a new science, math and technology center.
“It seems like money well invested by Sonoma County voters,” said Kerry Loewen, dean of humanities at Santa Rosa Junior College. “It’s a good long-term benefit for the community. In education, you have to play the long game.”
The road to the Burbank Auditorium’s opening night hasn’t been easy. The original target date for completion of construction, May 2019, was postponed when it was discovered that underground power lines and cables and storm drains had to be moved.
Last August, completion of the project was delayed again to allow additional time to make, deliver and install the ropes, pulleys and counterweights used to raise and lower curtains and support lighting equipment.
Those problems forced the junior college’s theater department to move its shows to other venues: first to Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa and most recently to the Evert Person Theatre on the Sonoma State University campus in Rohnert Park. The junior college also canceled its popular Summer Repertory Theatre season in 2018 for the first time in the program’s 46-year history and erected a temporary outdoor pavilion for the 2019 season.
“It has been a challenge, but now we’re happy and pleased with the outcome,” Chong said.
Leslie McCauley, chairwoman and artistic director of the junior college’s theater and fashion department and director of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” said her cast and crew are delighted with the new performance space.
“It’s all just about the moment now, because we’re just pinching ourselves. We really have a studio theater. We have needed one for a long time,” McCauley said.
For the past 18 years, the theater department has staged productions with small casts in the Newman Auditorium, a lecture hall on campus that allowed little space for actors and technicians to maneuver. The new studio theater has a large thrust stage that leaves room for audience seating on three sides. This weekend’s opening production of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” with a cast of nine actors, will also include live Irish music onstage.
Playwright Martin McDonagh, director of the film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” is the author of “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” a satire set on an island in Ireland’s Galway Bay.
“He’s known as the bad boy of Irish theater, and his writing is absolutely hilarious,” McCauley said of McDonagh.
Patrons who enjoy the studio theater also will appreciate the new larger auditorium, where a full production of “The Wedding Singer” will open next month, McCauley predicted.
“Audiences are going to really love the new space, especially if they’re used to the old space, which was darker. The outside of the building still has a historic look. But inside, it’s very contemporary,” she said. “They’ll be struck by the size of the lobby and how bright it us.”
The new auditorium has a “raked” floor, gradually slanted downward toward the stage, to give audiences better views over the heads of the people seated in front of them.
“Every seat has excellent sight lines, and they’re wider seats,” McCauley explained.
The first performance in the newly renovated auditorium, however, will be not a stage play but a concert by Santa Rosa Junior College Orchestra, Symphonic Band, Choir and Chamber Singers, with 110 performers onstage. The program will include a new piece titled “For Us All,” composed for the occasion by Mark Anderman, music department chairman.
“It’s a pretty ambitious piece,” Anderman said. “I’m really excited about the students performing it in the new space, which will now be our home for performances by all four of those groups. It’s going be a more comfortable audience experience, and it’s just a better concert hall.”
Not until June will the college’s Summer Repertory Theatre series get a chance to use the upgraded performance spaces. But the program’s artistic director, James Newman, is already eager to get started.
“It’s incredibly exciting to go into a state-of-the-art building,” Newman said. “The upgrades of the sound and lighting equipment are all fully integrated into the building. I can’t wait to use these spaces.”
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @danarts.
Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat
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