By Doug Snover
construction site at the west end of Tempe Town Lake still looks vaguely
industrial, especially when viewed from Rio Salado Parkway--stern concrete
buildings, boxy, towering above the water’s edge, uninviting in the heat
will be another year before the place really blossoms.
through the site, sidestepping construction equipment and dodging welding
sparks, it is difficult to picture this place for what it will
be--Tempe’s new, $63 million Center for the Arts.
Don Fassinger sees through the construction chaos and tries to explain.
is the city’s cultural facility administrator. He points out where the
stages will be in the 600-seat theater and 200-seat studio, and how the
balcony seating will be positioned. How the scenery will be raised and
lowered in the theater, which is why the building is so tall. How the
glass walls on the north side of the building will look out onto the lake
and glow in the reflecting pool being built between the lake and the
now, the project still looks like several extra-large concrete boxes: One
for the 600-seat main theater, another for the 200-seat studio theater, a
third for the 3,500-square-foot art gallery with the sculpture garden
Maybe when you no longer need a hardhat to stand where the rooftop terrace will be. Certainly when the individual buildings are tied into one structure by a massive steel-and-concrete roof that soars and dips in dramatic angles and shields the Tempe Center for the Arts from the noise of aircraft passing overhead.
in another year the rest of us will see what Fassinger sees when he looks around
the city’s newest “landmark.”
the artist’s renderings, it should be spectacular.
the beginning, it has been designed to be the new “home” to Tempe’s own
performing arts groups such as Childsplay, Arizona’s award-winning
professional theater company for young audiences; the Tempe Little Theatre, a
non-professional community theater operated strictly by volunteers; the Tempe
Symphony; and other local performing arts organizations.
city broke ground on the 88,000-square-foot project in March 2004 and expects
completion by late 2006. Funding comes from a dedicated 1/10 percent city sales
tax approved by Tempe voters in May 2000. The sales tax went into effect in
as grand as Mesa’s newly finished 212,775-square-foot,,
$94.5-million Mesa Arts Center at Main and Center streets--and that is by
says it is content to leave the big national acts and traveling shows to Mesa or
Chandler or Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University.
didn’t want to compete with Mesa or Gammage,” explained Jody Ulich,
Tempe’s cultural service manager. “We wanted to provide the facilities for
our local performing arts groups.”
is building a 600-seat theater, just right for the smaller productions of
Childsplay and Tempe Little Theatre, Ulich and Fassinger say. Gammage has about
3,000 seats and Mesa’s largest theater has 1,588 seats.
has booked Michael Crawford (Sept. 17) and Liza Minnelli (Sept. 28) as the first
two acts to christen its facility.
question that is posed most often is: Aren’t you competing with Gammage
Auditorium?” Fassinger said.
see this facility as a complement to Gammage and our current arts center. It
provides a very different market than Gammage is seeking.
many Gammage shows would not be financially feasible (at the new Tempe Center
for the Arts). The expensive productions will continue to go to Gammage.”
facility is being built with a primary focus on the community arts
organizations,” Fassinger stressed.
idea of a lovely new 200-seat theater in the Tempe Center for the Arts has
directors of Tempe Little Theatre both excited and fearful, however.
the one hand, the architecturally modern new theater at the Tempe Center for the
Arts will certainly be an improvement over the troupe’s current 167-seat
auditorium in a converted office building at Sixth Street and Forest in downtown
Tempe, said Teri Glaess, president of Tempe Little Theatre board of directors
and a volunteer since 1992.
the costs of putting on a show at the new theater will skyrocket, Glaess said.
Little Theatre now pays $225 per week to rent the 167-seat auditorium on Forest,
she said. The city has set rent for the new 200-seat studio at the Tempe Center
for the Arts at $1,500 per week, she said.
an organization that charges $14 maximum for a ticket and is suffering from a
shrinking audience, the higher rent is daunting.
don’t want to become a $25-a-ticket theater,” Glaess said.
now, the performance cost seems insurmountable. If we can’t afford to perform
… ” She lets that sentence trail off.
theater groups are having trouble drawing audiences to fill the house, Glaess
one thing, there are many, many organizations competing for an audience.
ShowUp.com, a website that “tells you what’s showing up on stages and at
cultural destinations…in theaters, museums, and outdoor venues throughout
Greater Phoenix” list more than 100 Valley performing arts groups on its site.
with widespread competition from live performances as well as movies and videos,
Tempe Little Theatre needs “to work more on our Tempe audience.”
fact, Glaess said, she almost wishes the new Tempe Center for the Arts were
being built “south of the U.S. 60 because that’s where so many people
Akridge, the artistic director for Stageworks in Mesa and also the performing
arts program supervisor for Mesa’s new arts center, agrees that community
theaters will have to draw their audiences more and more from their local
are a lot of local theater companies. Each will find their niche in a facility
that is close to their home,” she predicted.
Little Theatre, meanwhile, will face a second financial crisis when the new
Center for the Arts opens, Glaess and fellow board member Annette Heath fear.
now, the organization pays minimal rent for office space, storage space, a
rehearsal area, and workshop in the building on Forest. City officials have not
said what will happen to that building once the new Tempe Center for the Arts
opens, and the Tempe Little Theatre directors fear the worst.
the city sells the building to redevelopers, Tempe Little Theatre will be out of
a home, such as it is. Instead of paying a percentage of the utility bill and
paying for their telephone calls at the building on Forest, the community
theater might have to pay rent for office space in without the city’s help.
all unknown. We don’t know what it will cost--where do we go to live? We
don’t have a home. We just have an office that we rent from the city,” said
both excited and scared,” Glaess said of the near future as the new Tempe
Center for the Arts is being built at Tempe Town Lake.
haven’t gotten a commitment from the city as to whether the current site is
going to be available.”
acknowledges the uncertainty that hangs over Tempe Little Theatre and the
auditorium-and-office building on Forest.
very aware of many of the fears of the local arts organizations. We’ve been
working alongside them in the development process and we will continue to work
alongside them in the future,” he said.
the fate of Tempe Little Theatre’s office and workspace on Forest?
don’t know,” Fassinger said. “As far as we know today, at least the
theater portion of that facility will remain under the umbrella of Cultural
acknowledged, however, that the city already has started looking at its options
to redevelop that area of downtown.
initial “dream” was to include office and storage space in the new Tempe
Center for the Arts for the local arts groups like Childsplay and Tempe Little
Theatre, Fassinger said. That dream broke when the sales tax projections and
construction estimates came in, however, he said.
would seem a dubious achievement for Tempe to open a sparkling new
“landmark” Center for the Arts in 2006 and have local arts groups not be
able to afford to use it.
is a community space. It’s space being built by the community and for the
community,” Fassinger stresses.
Tempe Center for the Arts is not designed to compete with Mesa’s new arts
center or the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Gammage Auditorium, Tempe
percent of the acts that come to the new Tempe Center for the Arts will be
performed by local companies, according to Fassinger.