Waco Civic Theater - Shephard and stairs

Waco Civic Theatre Director Eric Shephard looks out from stairs leading to costume storage, which will be moved to a new storage building to make space for a new rehearsal room.

Audiences attending the opening performances of Waco Civic Theatre’s production of “Newsies” this weekend may notice the wider toilet stalls in the bathrooms, the carpeting on the lobby floor and a new ramp connecting parking lot to sidewalk.

Backstage and behind the curtain, so to speak, larger changes are underway that theater staff say will make a more efficient operation and give breathing room for future production rehearsals. A new outdoor storage building behind the theater will allow shifting of its indoor costume and props storage spaces. That, in turn, will free up space to transform the costume storage into a second-floor rehearsal space.

Think of it as a large-scale theatrical Tetris puzzle game.

It is not as desired as a new facility or expansion of the community theater’s 60-year-old building near the Extraco Events Center, but with property and financial costs constraining those options for the immediate future, the civic theater will take what it can get and is thankful for the help.

The building changes come from a $40,000 Cooper Foundation grant awarded late last year for an external climate-controlled rehearsal room, theater Executive Director Eric Shephard said. As Shephard looked at the cost of running electrical and water lines to the room in compliance with city code, the project’s potential expense mushroomed.

“The project I had in mind was going to cost a great deal more than we thought,” he said. “It would be daunting to fulfill these requirements so we switched gears to make the building a storage building.”

The foundation OK’d using the grant for the alternate plan and, with the theater’s first fall production set to open, the 20-by-30-foot storage building is in place as is framing for a new costume area of similar size. Once the costume space is finished, the theater’s sizable collection of hangable costumes can move downstairs, with work to start on repurposing the upstairs space for rehearsal use.

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Waco Civic Theater - building

Waco Civic Theater — building

Waco Civic Theatre Director Eric Shephard says a new storage building behind the theater will free up interior space now used for props and costumes.

Waco Civic Theatre director Eric Shephard says an exterior storage building behind the Waco Civic Theater will free up interior space now used for props and costumes.

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Waco Civic Theater - costumes

Waco Civic Theatre Director Eric Shephard said moving the theater's costume storage area will create a new rehearsal space.

Jonah Hardt, the theater’s technical director for about two years, said the shifting of spaces may also free the theater’s Baird Room as a reception space on a regular basis. It is now an all-purpose room doubling as rehearsal space.

Shephard said the recent rearrangement of theater space will mean more efficient operations for theater productions. Additions to the original 1958 theater have created an awkward layout, he said. Box office manager Phillip Diaz said a sharp eye can find remnants of those additions backstage: an exterior window on an interior wall, outside bricking in an inside room and unnecessary doors.

A new theater could solve many of those issues, and the Waco Civic Theatre’s periodic sold-out performances each season suggest the facility may be approaching its maximum in upcoming years, Shephard said.

“Once a calendar year, we don’t have the capacity (for audiences), and that upsets our customers,” he said.

Several years ago, the director and several board members shopped for suitable downtown locations for a move, only to find suitable spaces too expensive and affordable spaces unsuitable without extensive renovation.

Expansion of the current theater building has problems as well since the site is hemmed in on two sides by Extraco Events Center property owned by McLennan County. The adjoining properties sometimes have caused friction over parking issues, usually when a production overlaps the run of the Heart O’ Texas Fair and Rodeo and patrons of both facilities are searching for rare parking spaces.

HOT Fair president and CEO Wes Allison, in fact, said the continuing growth of the Extraco Events Center complex could make convenient parking a crucial issue, particularly with an upcoming land swap planned between the county, the Waco Independent School District and the city of Waco.

“There’s no chance of us selling any county property,” Allison said. “As our facility expands and our growth continues, parking is more of a need … and is going to be at a premium.”

The fair and the theater are discussing ways to resolve such issues amiably, he said.

“We can all be good neighbors,” Allison said.

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Waco Civic Theater

A $40,000 Cooper Foundation grant is paying for some minor changes that will be visible to audiences and some behind-the-scenes efficiencies.

Parking also will affect any proposed expansion of the existing facility. There is little room for expansion to the building’s rear while expanding in the opposite direction toward Lake Air Drive would consume the theater’s existing parking and create a new problem.

Board President Laura Indergard said the thorny problem of more space for the theater’s future has had the attention of an ad hoc board committee for several years.

“It’s a challenge to create something much larger with the land that we have,” Shephard said.

A new downtown multi-use performing arts center or theater, a once dormant idea now finding new discussion among some Waco arts supporters, could offer a solution. Fiona Bond, director of the arts nonprofit Creative Waco, said preliminary work is underway on a process to explore options for “visual and performing arts facilities” in downtown Waco, but details are not ready for public release.

Shephard said the Waco Civic Theatre would welcome such a facility, but any possibilities are likely far on the horizon.

“In the meantime, we’re not going to tread water for five years,” he said.

The theater has undertaken some initiatives in recent years to counteract its space limitations. Three years ago, it started a summer collaboration with the Waco Independent School District, staging a family musical in Waco High School’s larger Richfield Performing Arts Center, which allows greater ticket sales.

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Waco Civic Theater - costumes

Waco Civic Theatre Director Eric Shephard walks through a crowded costume storage space that will soon become a new rehearsal space.

Last year, the Waco theater worked with Killeen’s Vive Les Arts Theater to get that community theater back on its financial feet, co-producing shows that played at both theaters and thus saving production costs.

That arrangement has been scaled back to some extent but still continues, with Shephard and Diaz working with both theaters and the theaters sharing the productions of the holiday “Most Wonderful Show Of The Year,” “Steel Magnolias” and season-closing “Mamma Mia.”

The changes Waco theater audiences will see this week may not be large ones, but they are important ones until a way opens for a bigger, better theater building.

“We’re punching above our weight as a theater,” Shephard said.

“We take the little that we have and work to make something great,” Diaz said. “That’s community theater.”

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor

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