‘A grand project’

Planners focus on local arts, performer


By Doug Snover

The 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 of summer.

It will be another year before the place really blossoms.

Walking 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.

Fassinger 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 theaters.

Right 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 outside.


Photo by David Stone


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.

Maybe in another year the rest of us will see what Fassinger sees when he looks around the city’s newest “landmark.”

From the artist’s renderings, it should be spectacular.

From 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.

The 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 January 2001.

All in all, it appears--on paper for now--a grand project.

Comparison to Mesa

Not 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 design.

Tempe says it is content to leave the big national acts and traveling shows to Mesa or Chandler or Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University.

“We 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.”

Tempe 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.

Mesa has booked Michael Crawford (Sept. 17) and Liza Minnelli (Sept. 28) as the first two acts to christen its facility.

“The question that is posed most often is: Aren’t you competing with Gammage Auditorium?” Fassinger said.

“I see this facility as a complement to Gammage and our current arts center. It provides a very different market than Gammage is seeking.

Many, 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.”

“Our facility is being built with a primary focus on the community arts organizations,” Fassinger stressed.

The 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.

On 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.

But the costs of putting on a show at the new theater will skyrocket, Glaess said.

Tempe 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.

For an organization that charges $14 maximum for a ticket and is suffering from a shrinking audience, the higher rent is daunting.

“We don’t want to become a $25-a-ticket theater,” Glaess said.

 “Right now, the performance cost seems insurmountable. If we can’t afford to perform … ” She lets that sentence trail off.

Local theater groups are having trouble drawing audiences to fill the house, Glaess said.

For 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.

Faced with widespread competition from live performances as well as movies and videos, Tempe Little Theatre needs “to work more on our Tempe audience.”

In 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 are.”

Jenny 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 communities.

“There are a lot of local theater companies. Each will find their niche in a facility that is close to their home,” she predicted.

Tempe 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.

Right 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.

If 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.

“It’s 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 Heath.

“We’re 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.

“We haven’t gotten a commitment from the city as to whether the current site is going to be available.”

Fassinger acknowledges the uncertainty that hangs over Tempe Little Theatre and the auditorium-and-office building on Forest.

“We’re 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.

And the fate of Tempe Little Theatre’s office and workspace on Forest?

“We 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 Services.”

He acknowledged, however, that the city already has started looking at its options to redevelop that area of downtown.

Tempe’s 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.

It 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.

“This is a community space. It’s space being built by the community and for the community,” Fassinger stresses.

The 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 officials say.

Seventy-five percent of the acts that come to the new Tempe Center for the Arts will be performed by local companies, according to Fassinger.