Shakespeare group envisions year-round destination

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WALLA WALLA -- A local theater group that's been putting on Shakespeare productions for three years has a special role in mind for the community: A year-round destination for fans of the famed poet and playwright.

Their plan is to convert the old 20th century powerhouse building on Sixth Avenue, just north of Rose Street, into an indoor venue modeled after the Blackfriars theater. The plan, presented during Tourism Walla Walla's annual meeting in January, would not only expand Walla Walla's theater culture, but add another dimension to tourism, said Harry Hosey, treasurer and managing director of "Shakespeare Walla Walla."

Known previously as "Shakespeare Uncork'd Walla Walla," the group has partnered over the last three years with The Seattle Shakespeare Company to bring the works of William Shakespeare to life in the Valley.

Incidentally, their plan would also bring new life into the powerhouse building co-owned by local residents Sonia Schmitt and Allen Ketelsen,

Hosey said Shakespeare Walla Walla plans to lease the building with an option to buy. The first production there is slated for May, when the group hosts the Seattle company for performances of "The Merry Wives of Windsor." The venue is expected to seat 300 people, but it will look nothing like organizers ultimately envision.

The building where power was generated for the city's gas-fueled light system in the early 1900s will be renovated over the next decade as a representation of the Blackfriars, the theater that Shakespeare and his colleagues were said to have built on the London site of a dissolved 13th century Dominican monastery.

"We are building the theater that Shakespeare built. From the perspective of the playwright, the director. He really built it for how people could see it and how actors could act," said Harry Hosey, treasurer and managing director of the group that will now simply be known as "Shakespeare Walla Walla."

Hosey said work will be completed around the organization's production schedule. If all goes as planned, Walla Walla could become a must-stop destination for theater-goers.

He said communities across the country that host Shakespeare festivals have been a major draw for visitors. During his presentation in January, he showed a side-by-side comparison between Walla Walla and a number of Shakespeare-hosting towns. Of those communities, Stratford, Ontario, may have the most similar population number to Walla Walla. The community of 33,000 has no airport, unlike Walla Walla, but is only 96 miles from a larger population base in Toronto.

The organization drew 500,000 spectators in 2010, Hosey discovered. That's with four theaters, 16 plays -- only five of which are Shakespearean -- and 500 performances. Tickets range from $50 to $95. The group has an annual operating budget of $60 million.

Hosey doesn't have near as high an estimate for Shakespeare Walla Walla. According to estimates for 2020, with two venues, an extended ongoing season that runs February through December with eight different plays, 13 years of operation and ticket prices from $12 to $65, he figures Shakespeare Walla Walla could grow to an operating budget of $5.5 million.

Only one other theater similar to the one proposed for Walla Walla has been constructed in the U.S. -- the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Va. Hosey said one of the managers who runs that organization will be consulting with the local group on the project.

Already one detail about the Virginia theater and the one proposed for Walla Walla has emerged: The two structures are within one eight-of-an-inch in size, a critical detail for a Shakespearean theater

The transformation ¬?will be expensive and time-consuming. But if all the pieces come together, advocates believe they will have a special venue for a schedule of more than 200 performances that could attract an estimated 130,000 people by 2020.



How to help

Want to be part of the transformation of the 20th century powerhouse on Sixth Avenue into a theater for Shakespearean performances?

Shakespeare Walla Walla is seeking founding members of a startup group whose investment will serve as seed money for the project.

The founding group will include about 100 people with contributions of $2,000. The group will be known as the Transformers.

Those interested in joining can call Shakespeare Uncork'd Treasurer and Managing Director Harry Hosey at harryhosey@gmail.com or 206-909-8054.

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