Tuesday, March 28, 2023

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Theater regulars weigh in on city’s plans to expand Paramount

All the world’s a stage. But whether you’re the Bard of Avon or a member of a community theater troupe, there’s something especially poignant about the stage that serves as your theatrical home.

For many local devotees of the performing arts, the site of this dramatic abode has long been the Paramount Theater in downtown Burlington. Right now, this city-owned venue along East Front Street hosts no fewer than three acting companies, several dance troupes, and a kaleidoscope of others with the yen to perform.

So, it’s been with a mixture of exhilaration and dread that the theater’s resident artisans have watched as the city’s leaders raise the curtain on a multimillion-dollar plan to upgrade and expand the theater beyond its traditional footprint.

In order to address the community’s questions and fears, city officials held two public workshops on Wednesday where they promised to lay out all their cards in the hope that residents would also give them an honest account of their concerns and desires about this endeavor.

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The first of these sessions, which began promptly at noon, drew more than two dozen visitors to the downstairs conference room that the city’s administrators had set aside for these gatherings. Morgan Lasater, the city’s community engagement director, kicked off this particular workshop by noting that she and her colleagues wanted to have a two-way exchange about their plans for the theater’s expansion.

“There’s two things going on here,” Lasater said at the top of the hour. “There’s the expansion project…and then there’s a facility assessment, which kind of focuses on the facility that we have at the Paramount right now.

“This is really an opportunity for us to hear from the people in this community who use this theater and love this theater,” she added. “The word active was used a lot in our discussions with council that really speaks to this being a driver of economic development in downtown Burlington.”

Lasater then yielded the floor to Mon Peng Yueh with Clearscapes, a Raleigh-based architect that has served as the city’s primary consultant on the Paramount’s expansion. Yueh went on to present her firm’s latest plans, which envision a two-story addition that will extend the theater’s premises to the corner of Spring Street, incorporating a now-vacant lot that was formerly home to Moorefield Florist.

Yueh acknowledged that, as part of this project, workers will also demolish an adjacent one-story building that presently houses the theater’s restrooms and other auxiliary functions. She added, however, that these facilities will be restored as part of the expansion, which will also extend the theater’s lobby, create new multi-purpose spaces, and – as a crowning achievement – construct a roof-top event venue with a view of Burlington’s storied downtown.

“The roof deck,” she added, “will provide a very unique outdoor venue for events, weddings, performances, or family gatherings.”

For all of its glamour, the theater’s proposed expansion also raised some unsettling questions for a few of the Paramount’s current denizens.

“I’m going to tell you flat out  that there are rumors around town that when this thing is done, they’re going to discourage us from having more than a one weekend run.”

– Bethany Baker

 

“Yes, we’ve been asked to do more programming. But community theater will still be a foundational piece of the Paramount.”

– Burlington’s community engagement director Morgan Lasater

Among those who shared their concerns at the workshop was Bethany Baker, who boasted connections to both the Burlington School, a private academy that uses the theater, and the Gallery Players, one of the Paramount’s resident theatrical troops. Baker acknowledged that she and other users of the theater are worried that they’ll have limited use of their traditional performance space when the new and improved Paramount opens its doors.

“I’m going to tell you flat out,” she said, “that there are rumors around town that when this thing is done, they’re going to discourage us from having more than a one weekend run.”

In response to Baker’s concern, Lasater insisted that scheduling issues will ultimately be worked out when the city hires a new theater director to replace the Paramount’s long-time supervisor, Dave Wright, who recently retired. She also assured Baker that the city will continue to accommodate the theater’s traditional occupants even as it strives to open up the facility to new users as well.

“Yes, we’ve been asked to do more programming,” she admitted. “But community theater will still be a foundational piece of the Paramount.”

Lasater and her associates also fielded some inquiries about their plans for the theater’s existing facilities.

Chrissy Hahn with the Alamance Fine Arts Academy insisted that the city’s grand vision for the additional space won’t be as impressive without some improvements to the current premises.

“While this new expansion is exciting and wonderful,” she said, “the people who use your existing space also need to be excited. You can’t put a bright shiny thing next to a dinosaur and expect people using the dinosaur to be excited.”

To address this concern, Lasater stressed that the city also intends to upgrade the performance lighting and seating within the building’s existing theatrical space. She noted the building’s lobby will also be fixed up to match the appearance of the expansion.

Laster went on to assert that, as work on the expansion progresses, the city will make every effort to ensure that the theater continues to operate without any hiccups. Her assurances nevertheless proved less than water-tight when it came to the theater’s restrooms, which Yueh acknowledged will be demolished when the walls come down on the existing, one-story wing.

[Story continues below renderings of the proposed Paramount Theater expansion.]


 

Yueh added that the latest plans for the theater call for the facility’s 14 existing toilets and urinals to be replaced with 11 fixtures on each of the expansion’s two levels. She conceded that just four of these fixtures will be allocated to male patrons, although she insisted that these restroom accommodations should be sufficient for over 900 patrons – even though the theater’s capacity at the conclusion of the expansion will be no more than 730 people.

Curtis Kasefang, a member of Yueh’s design team from the Theatre Consultants Collaborative, added some insights of his own to confirm his colleague’s assertions.

“One thing that my company did is that we clocked people in and out of toilets and out of urinals,” he said before he declared the proposed accommodations adequate.

Yueh subsequently told The Alamance News that, while the expansion is being constructed, the city may have to provide portable accommodations for the theater’s patrons.

In either case, Yueh assured the workshop’s participants that the hardships they endure during construction will be temporary. She added that the project’s current timetable allots about 13 months for construction and its preliminaries. This work will be preceded by a 14 month stretch during which she’ll complete her facility assessment, design the additional space, obtain the permits to proceed with construction, and solicit bids from contractors who want to build the expansion.

As for the audience’s take on all this, the prevailing view was perhaps best summed up by Elizabeth Tate, whose daughter is active in the Alamance Children’s Theater, one of the Paramount’s resident theatrical troupes.

“Short-term pain is worth long-term gain,” Tate assured a reporter from The Alamance News.

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