$9.6 million performing arts center in the works for Viterbo, La Crosse community

By Jessica Schurmann

A&E Editor

Viterbo University is joining the La Crosse Community Theatre (LCT) in a collaborative effort to build a mid-size theatre downtown that will be open in January 2013.

Called the La Crosse Performing Arts Center, the 30,000 square-foot building will feature a 450-seat main theatre, 100-seat Black Box theatre, classrooms, a costume shop, and a lobby overlooking the Mississippi River.

Groundbreaking for the project took place Nov. 16. With such a large pronouncement, it is natural for community members, students, and faculty to have many questions re­garding the topic. However, Viterbo President Rick Artman remains con­fident that Viterbo is moving in the right direction.

“We’ve characterized this collabo­ration as a Convergence of Oppor­tunity,” Artman said during a press conference on Nov. 9. “A mid-size theatre was identified as a high pri­ority in the 2009 Campus Master Plan for the university. The addi­tional performance space is an im­portant element to advance our goal to achieve national distinction in the performing arts.”

The La Crosse Community The­atre has always had a dream of building a new theatre. In October of 2010, tax-exempt property (locat­ed on the riverfront on the corner of Front and King Streets) was donated to the LCT by Don Weber of Logis­tics Health Inc. to be used for the project. Since then the LCT has been fundraising to raise enough money to begin construction.

Over this past summer, the Vit­erbo Board of Trustees suggested talking to the LCT to see if some sort of collaboration would be pos­sible. Viterbo’s plan to have a mid-size theatre built in the near future meshed well with the LCT’s project.

“Our organizations have different missions but we complement each other’s strengths,” Artman said.

Aidan Smerud is a senior vocal performance major at Viterbo who has been volunteering at the La Crosse Community Theatre since he was eight years old.

“I think [the new theatre] is a fantastic opportunity for both the La Crosse Community Theatre and Viterbo,” Smerud said. “It is a great opportunity to reach out and work with the community. It also gives students another venue to work on their skills, be it technical or perfor­mance.”

To Artman’s knowledge, on the national scene there are no other col­laborations between a university’s theatre program and a community theatre. But Viterbo’s track record for successful and unique collabora­tions has been impressive, Artman said.

The 2005 collaboration of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater La Crosse with Viterbo created the Amie L. Mathy Center. The success of this program gives Artman confidence that the university can make such an opportunity work once more.

“It may not be conventional for a community theatre and university theatre to work together,” David R. Kilpatrick, executive director of the La Crosse Community Theatre, told Lumen. “However, I would say that Viterbo and La Crosse Community Theatre have clearly demonstrated that they are proud to be non-con­ventional.”

Viterbo and the LCT have already worked together and shared talent in multiple ways. Viterbo theatre majors have performed in LCT pro­ductions, and LCT staff members teach at Viterbo.

What will be gained from such a unique collaboration? Financially, both organizations will benefit by sharing one roof. Viterbo will be able to help the LCT finish its fund­raising and financing of the project. Joining LCT will cut costs to Viterbo because in the original 2009 master plan, the university’s expenses were much greater for building its own new theatre.

Working together will also al­low both organizations to have a finished project much sooner than planned. So far, the LCT has raised over $4.6 million, with the total proj­ect projected to cost $9.6 million. Now Viterbo will partner with LCT to reach the $9.6 million goal.

Artman estimated that an in­crease in future tuition as a result of the Performing Arts Center could amount to be 1%.

Once the facility is paid for, the university’s annual share of the op­erating expenses will be approxi­mately $200,000, Artman said. In the long term, this is less than what Vit­erbo would incur if it built its own mid-size theatre, Artman added.

Faculty and community mem­bers posed questions for Artman at a Nov. 15 forum regarding difficul­ties that may come from combin­ing the two organizations. Some are worried that one organization may overpower the other in some way.

Artman answered the concern by explaining that the board that will run the Performing Arts Center will be made up of three LCT members and three Viterbo members, as well as an independent representative.

This will guarantee a fair say for both organizations in all decisions of the theatre, Artman said.

“Although some may consider La Crosse Community Theatre and Viterbo University Theatre to be in competition, it is my experience that audiences are interested in seeing good theatre and will go wherever it is presented,” Kilpatrick said. “This new facility will give both organi­zations the opportunity to present their best and have every audience member receive a special theatrical experience.”

The 450-seat theatre, “will give more opportunities to students,” Pat Kerrigan, vice president for Com­munications and Marketing, told Lumen.

Kerrigan explained that with the mid-size theatre, students will be able to put on productions that would not be possible on Viterbo’s main theatre stage or the small Black Box stage. They will also have the experience of working in an off cam­pus environment, that will prepare them for the work field.

“The new performing arts cen­ter will include state-of-art technol­ogy both on the stage in the audi­ence spaces,” Kilpatrick said. “We are seeking to utilize LED lighting wherever possible and to take ad­vantage of advanced technology for our heating and air conditioning, in an effort to provide a exciting loca­tion to truly enjoy a performance.”

Three classrooms will also be included in the facility, which will be available to Viterbo for teachers. When asked if there will be classes at the center built into Viterbo class schedules, Artman said he isn’t sure yet, but that it is possible.

In the future, students will be able to work at the Performance Center with a likelihood of intern­ships in finances, business, and ser­vant leadership, among others. This will allow opportunities not only for theatre majors, but many other pro­grams as well, Artman said.

A new art gallery and dance stu­dio were included in the original 2009 master plan. As they will not be included in the Performing Arts Center downtown, Artman said at the forum that Viterbo is committed to beginning conceptual planning of expanding the current Fine Arts Center in 2013, with high priority being put on a new dance studio and art gallery.

For now, given such a good op­portunity, Artman feels Viterbo must start with the Performing Arts Center downtown.

The question of transportation was raised at the forum. Attendees were concerned about how students will get to the building if they do not have their own car. Even though the new facility will be located approxi­mately one mile from Viterbo’s cam­pus, there is still a safety concern for walkers.

As for other forms of transpor­tation, Artman says there are no plans for shuttling or busing. He re­minded those at the forum that stu­dents have found their own way to the soccer fields, located miles from campus on Highway 16 near Valley View Mall, and that they will be able to do so again through ride sharing, the bus system, walking, or other means. Parking is not planned for the facility, so performers and visi­tors downtown will use the parking ramps.

Viterbo Student Government President Josh Kohnhorst feels posi­tive about the theatre project. “The decision to collaborate with the La Crosse Community Theatre will provide the students at Viterbo with a beautiful facility to perform, grow, and learn. The new theatre will open many new doors for students,” Kohnhorst said.

With the groundbreaking cer­emony completed, the predicted 12-month construction timeframe is well underway. Viterbo and the LCT hope to open the La Crosse Perform­ing Arts Center with its first produc­tion in February of 2013.

Tim Schorr, the interim dean of the School of Fine Arts at Viterbo, noted the significance of the timing for this project during the forum. This year Viterbo celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Fine Arts Cen­ter, when the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA) took a bold leap of faith to extend the FSPA vision of arts and work toward na­tional distinction, Schorr said.

Sister Marie Leon LaCroix, one of the original FSPA to head up the Fine Arts Center project 40 years ago, was also at the forum. She told the audience, “I’m delighted that you’re taking an adventure. As we did 40 years ago, you have to look to the future and say, ‘Let’s try it.’ So, my blessing.”

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