Though nothing is yet official, it looks very promising that Children’s Musical Theaterworks will have a home next year.
“I can say with confidence that we are doing everything we can to let CMT do their 2018 season as planned at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium,” city spokesman Mark Standriff told me Thursday after a meeting with Judy Stene, CMT’s executive director, and K.C. Rutiaga, the non-profit company’s board president.
The meeting was the third in recent weeks between city staff and CMT leadership. It came after the theater company was informed by letter on Oct. 21 that it would have to vacate the city-owned auditorium by the first of the year because of safety issues flagged in an inspection. The city has skimped on maintenance over the decades, and some of the theater equipment is in need of major renovations.
The company worried that it wouldn’t have time to find a new place to perform next year and might have to disband.
CMT opens the musical “Annie” on Dec. 1. That production will go ahead as planned, with the company moving into the auditorium on Nov. 25 for tech week.
At the second meeting, held Oct. 31, Standriff — who has an extensive background in professional theater — met with CMT leadership and technical staff for a walkthrough of the venue. Problem areas were identified, mainly with theater’s rigging system, from which lighting equipment, backdrops, scrims and set pieces can be “flown in.” In the preceding years CMT’s staff had already identified those deficiencies and were working around them.
When I reached Rutiaga on Thursday, she said the Thursday meeting was positive. “We left really excited about moving forward,” she said. “Even though this has been stressful, we’ve gone a long way toward establishing a better relationship with the city.”
The city will formally identify a series of safety steps that CMT — and any other organization wanting to use the space — will have to officially acknowledge and agree to. Groups such as University High School, Fresno Pacific University and Bullard Talent have also rented the auditorium.
Standriff has given his recommendations to the mayor and city manager.
“It looks like we’re on the same page,” he said of the city and the theater company. “All the signs are pointing to CMT being able to do the season, but there’s nothing official yet,” he said.
Rutiaga is optimistic as well. “We are happy to work around those contingencies and limitations,” she said.
Both CMT and the city emphasize that the theater is safe for children and adults at the present time if necessary steps are followed — namely avoiding the use of flagged equipment.
On a related matter, Standriff said he’s recommending that the city immediately renegotiate a $1 a year lease that will allow CMT to keep its storage and office space intact in the building. (The company was initially told it would have to vacate the premises completely.)
Standriff told me after this story first broke that he was “cautiously optimistic” that some sort of accommodation could be made to keep CMT’s 2018 season alive. Now, he said, “I am much more optimistic at this time.”
Still, there are serious long-term issues to address. Money is the big concern, of course. The inspection report noted that more than $1 million in repairs and upgrades are needed just to bring the building’s theater up to current code and to an acceptable standard of maintenance.
Where those funds come from — the city or private donations — is key to the survival of the auditorium as a downtown performance venue.
“Everyone is aware that everyone is dealing with a rapidly aging rigging system that needs to be replaced,” Standriff said. “Ultimately the city has to decide whether it wants to allow Veterans to be used as a performance venue.”
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