Group builds support for theater for Shakespeare

The idea is to convert the old 20th century powerhouse building on Sixth Avenue.

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U-B file photo In the bucket, Mark Anderson (right) and Victor Garcia on Aug. 1, 2008, survey the free blowing parts of the Shakespeare banner preview set-up for Shakespeare uncork'd at Fort Walla Walla Park. The individual panels on the Shakespeare banner were designed to move freely with the ever-unpredictable Walla Walla winds yet still give theatre-goers a good look at the writer extraordinaire.

WALLA WALLA - Thy community doth serve as an ample stage for the works of famed poet and playwright William Shakespeare.

At least that's what coordinators of a local theater organization believe.

For the last three years, organizers of a group known as Shakespeare Uncork'd Walla Walla have partnered with The Seattle Shakespeare Company to bring Shakespeare productions to Walla Walla. Now they have a plan to make a permanent home for the productions and build the community into a must-stop for Shakespeare lovers.

The plan: Convert the old 20th century powerhouse building on Sixth Avenue, just north of Rose Street, into an indoor venue modeled after the Blackfriars 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 presented the plan Thursday at Tourism Walla Walla's annual meeting. From start to finish the plan is expected to take just shy of a decade - completed one step at a time around productions that will begin at the site as early as May.

The plan could be another way to not only expand and strengthen Walla Walla's theater culture - which could eventually lead to the community's own acting company, Hosey said - but also add another dimension to tourism.

During Thursday's meeting, Hosey showed a side-by-side comparison to a number of communities across the country that host Shakespeare festivals. 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.

The comparison with Stratford - or Cedar City, Utah, or Spring Green, Wis. - merely demonstrates that a small community can be a big attraction.

Only one other theater similar to this 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 Walla Walla building - reportedly the site of power generation for the city's gas-fueled light system in the early 1900s - is owned by Sonia Schmitt and Allen Ketelsen, Hosey said. He said Shakespeare Walla Walla will lease the building with an option to buy.

Hosey said any exterior renovation will be true to the structure's own history. The actual theater, on the other hand, is pure Blackfriars. That includes a central stage and seating for 300 spread among balcony and a few rows of floor seats.

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.

The first glimpse into what will be a roughly eight-year development will come in May. That's when the group that will now be simply known as "Shakespeare Walla Walla" hosts "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at the building.

"It's not going to look great," warned Hosey. "Hopefully we won't need heating or cooling," he quipped.

Temporary seating for 300 will be constructed, as well as a stage. The performance by the The Seattle Shakespeare Company will serve as a sort of pilot production in the building.

If all goes well, Shakespeare Walla Walla will continue with improvements throughout the summer in preparation for another performance during Holiday Barrel Tasting weekend.

The Seattle performers will also return in August for two weeks of Shakespeare at the Fort Walla Walla Amphitheater. Starting Aug. 3, The Seattle Shakespeare Company will perform "MacBeth." On Aug. 10, it will switch to "The Comedy of Errors."

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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