The [Little] Theatre at St. Paul’s: Tiny Performing Arts

Much has been discussed on two fronts recently: tiny homes and a new performing arts center for Steamboat Springs. Promotion for a performing arts center has been going on since at least 1990 when the City of Steamboat Springs hired a consulting firm to determine the feasibility and programming potential for a 750-seat, multi-million dollar performing arts facility. This same report included an opinion on the feasibility of a smaller theatre seating 300-400 people and costing a few million dollars less. Obviously, neither option inspired a great deal of enthusiasm from either the majority of the community or City Council.

Flash forward 30 years and the discussion has come full circle. Steamboat Creates is hoping to get a proposal for the same scope of performance space, with estimates now in the tens of millions of dollars, while the Chief Theatre has reopened its capital campaign for expansion to 300-400 seats and costing a few million dollars less. The impact on local arts for either of these two options would be enormous. With no real serious dedicated performance space for theatre anywhere in the community – no offense intended to the current Chief Theatre facility; it’s a wonderful venue for music and comedy shows but is inadequate for theatre work due to backstage and wing space limitations – local groups would be overjoyed if someone gave us unlimited, free access to this kind of performance space. Plus, who knows what sorts of traveling performing arts groups would take advantage of a facility dedicated exclusively to performing arts?

But what about the Strings Music Festival Pavilion? This wonderful venue wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eye in 1990 and it’s become a real attraction for music events of all stripes. The Steamboat Symphony Orchestra calls Strings home; the annual Music Festival attracts thousands of audience members; and visiting nationally recognized artists love both the venue and the community. A perfect spot, for the performing arts, right?? Well, not exactly. Stage and backstage space are limiting factors even for existing users. The pavilion isn’t really suitable for theatre or dance either. As the 1990 study noted, essentially, music is music and theatre/dance are a different kind of animal altogether. The more “multi-use” a facility wants to be, the more its cost goes up exponentially.

Although Steamboat Springs has actively marketed itself as Ski Town, Dog Town, and Bike Town (and even “great-place-to-raise-the-family-if-you-like-these-three-options town”), no one will confuse us with Ashland, Oregon, a small city slightly larger than Steamboat, and home to the world-renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We don’t have the film festival traditions of Telluride; nor the music festival history of Aspen; nor the dance background of Vail. We’re not Theatre Town, and won’t likely become that in my lifetime.

The Lake Dillon Theatre Company has a nearly 30 year tradition presenting performing arts and a population base of over 30,000 in Summit County alone, not to mention the short one hour drive on an interstate highway for Front Range audience members. However, the capacity of the newly completed Lake Dillon Playhouse (another multi-million dollar facility) is only 140 people.

My point being that Northwestern Colorado has a population base of under 40,000 so why are we considering spending tens of millions of dollars for a 300-400-750 seat performance space?

From my experience in the performing arts of Steamboat Springs that, other than the high school or ice show events, a theatre production will attract a total of between 500-1000 over the course of the performance season. Our recent Piknik Theatre production of Hamlet had a total
audience of about 450; our free outdoor summer season attracted 1000, and those productions are as much about picnicking outdoors as performance. No local theatre company wants to do one performance for the 500 or so total people likely to attend. Yes, our community would love to see a touring production every few months (witness the successes of the Bravo Series the
Steamboat Arts Council many years ago) but even 6 visiting productions a year don’t justify multi-million dollar expenditures. “If you build it, they will come” is a risky proposition at best; and why not spend this kind of money on an amenity that would get more use by the local arts groups that are already here?

And that gets to the connection with tiny homes. The small stone church located on 9th and Oak Streets, next to the main St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was built in 1913. It’s on the Routt County Registry of Historic Places. The exterior remodel planned for 2020 will do much to restore the splendor and longevity of the structure. But the interior of this historic space is ripe for conversion into something really unique. Preliminary investigations suggest a 50-100 seat mini-performing arts center could be designed and built for under $500,000 inside the church. It would be ideal for small local performing arts groups ranging from theatre to choral/acoustic music to workshop and lecture space. As a local theatre professional, I would rather perform 6-8 times in a small venue than once in a large one (assuming the scale of the production fit this size of facility). The church is a block away from the heart of downtown Steamboat, and the newly formed Creative District, and walking distance from restaurants, parking, and public transportation. There’s even a burger place across the street, and what theatre company isn’t in love with burgers and beer?

We already have venues like the high school, the Chief Theatre, and the Episcopal Church/Methodist Church/Christian Heritage Church for the occasional mid-size productions. These are good locations for one-off or short seasons of performances. But development of a tiny theatre is an opportunity to create the kind of year round new and experimental work
typically found in an Off Off Broadway theatre (maximum capacity of 100). It will give our community the air and space to develop the audience for a large performing arts complex.
Those who remember the early days of the Strings Music Festival know that its early performance seasons attracted audiences in a space of comparable seating capacity. We can create a reputation for artistic work that builds into the same success Strings has found over time. Best of all, it won’t take 30 years to build consensus but could be a facility ready for use as early as 2021. So if there’s a philanthropist out there who wants to take the lead on this vision, the [Little] Theatre at St. Paul’s could just as easily have your name on it. CU Medical Theatre at St. Paul’s? Steamboat Ski Corp Theatre at St. Paul’s? Jim Cook Theatre at St. Paul’s? Please fill in the blank for all of us local performing artists.

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