With the extremely loud noise rumbling from the main theater, concrete dust in the air and 40-odd construction workers running around, one might think the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts would be clearing out its calendar. But in the lobby last week, wearing a hard hat and going over plans amid the constant clamor, executive director Rick Nowlin casually mentions—in a raised voice to cut through the noise—"We have a wedding here on Saturday."
"Believe it or not," adds Mark Hagenlocher, director of operations, "we're in the home stretch here. Our first show is 16 days away."
In the midst of a $2.8 million remodel that will give the main theater at the 30-year-old performing arts center new floor seats, a new sound system and a drastically overhauled stage and backstage area, the center's staff is surprisingly calm. They're confident that the center will reopen on schedule, with the changes boosting the center's stature in an increasingly competitive industry.
"All of our wish list has been checked off," says Hagenlocher.
For the main theater, this includes new seating on the floor that can be removed for standing-room-only shows; new raised ADA platforms; a new sound system and speakers; and the removal of two bulky speaker towers and piano storage boxes on either side of the stage, resulting in unobstructed views from the "cheap seats." New LED aisle lighting, a new color scheme of gray and burgundy and a raised stage are all coming in the next week.
Behind the scenes are fixes that audiences may not notice directly, but will improve the booking capabilities of the center. A baptismal font from the building's former use as the Christian Life Center has been removed, and along with it a nine-foot platform that performers once needed to walk over to get to the stage. Crews loading in equipment had to do so through the front doors and down the aisle of the theater; now, new eight-foot doors allow load-in from the outside. For the first time, fire sprinklers will be installed, and a raised heating and air conditioning system means 10 feet of extra space above the stage.
"When you have the Peking acrobats in here," Hagenlocher says, "they're not going to be scraping the ceiling."
The remodel comes at a pivotal time for the center, after what Nowlin calls "a rough few years," echoing most nonprofits weathering the recession. A sale of land for the construction of Sutter hospital next door gave the center a financial cushion, but about 20,000 square feet of the building, rented out to a series of private and charter schools over the years, has been mostly empty since 2011. "The loss of the school was a significant hit. That's $700,000 of revenue," says Nowlin. "It helped fund a lot of what we do."
Then there's the new Green Music Center at SSU, which in its first year hosted several acts that in the past had played the Wells Fargo Center. But because the Green Music Center's specialty is in acoustic-based performance, Nowlin says, the Wells Fargo Center can focus now on amplified shows. (Removable seats to create a dance floor are long overdue; Hagenlocher predicts, "We're gonna have a ballet one day, a hard rock band the next day and an educational show the next.") The relocation of the Santa Rosa Symphony to the Green Music Center, too, allowed the Wells Fargo Center to rethink the acoustics of the theater, remove bulky choral risers and take over symphony storage.
"We really see ourselves as complementary to what they do," says Nowlin.
Built in 1974 as the Christian Life Center before turning into a performing arts center in 1981, the former Luther Burbank Center entered into a naming-rights deal with Wells Fargo in 2005. Though that deal expires in 2015, "We're in discussions right now with Wells Fargo to extend it," says Nowlin.
Future phases of the center's remodel include elevators, balcony and restroom renovation, landscaping, a new roof, new windows and doors, a paint job and repaving the parking lot. The total price tag for all phases is $10 million, to be raised from sponsors and community partners. (Like many performing arts centers, ticket sales pay for only a fraction of the center's overall operating costs.)
The first show in the renovated theater is set for Aug. 16 with Patti LaBelle, in a theater finally distanced completely from its former life as a chapel.
Reminded of the long tradition of artists joking about performing inside a church, Nowlin nods knowingly. "Hopefully," he says, in the final stretch of renovations, "we won't hear that anymore."