by Andy Miles, Portal Wisconsin
Looking over the calendar of upcoming Grand Theater events, one might wonder how a city the size of Wausaujust under 40,000 residentscould boast a schedule so crowded with top performers and touring productions. The answer is ArtsBlock, the new $13 million visual and performing arts center in the heart of the city's historic downtown. Designed by an architectural firm specializing in performing arts spaces and adaptive reuse, ArtsBlock integrates three historic structures, casting the newly expanded landmark 1927 Grand Theater as its centerpiece.
Converted into a performing arts venue in 1987, the Grand Theater soon began showing signs of age, not so much in the structural details (the theater underwent a $2.2-million restoration project in the 1980s), but in the amenities. "It [had] the garden variety of needs of historic theaters," architect Paul Westlake recently observed. "Not enough toilets, inadequate lobby space and concessions."
Meanwhile, the Grand was scheduling more than 200 events per year. "We were using the theater in ways we had never imagined," says Jim O'Connell, executive director of the Wausau Area Performing Arts Foundation. When "the demands of touring groups escalated, Broadway shows became larger and the audiences became more responsive," members of the Performing Arts Foundation began to consider options for expansion of backstage and offstage space. "As we began to explore those opportunities," O'Connell recalls, "our downtown was also experiencing the need for renewal."
After the Wausau Century hotel and conference center proposal fell through, the Performing Arts Foundation stepped in with its ambitious plan to connect the performing and visual arts into a unified center in the downtown core. "[And] the rest is history," says fund-raising consultant Halsey North. "Jim O'Connell raised four times as much money in Wausau, Wisconsin, than had ever been raised for anything in the history of the community."
In addition to such patron conveniences as elevators, expanded restrooms, and enhanced accessibility, that money eventually paid for an expansion of the stage and orchestra pit, enlarged dressing rooms and storage areas, two full-sized truck loading docks and a backstage cargo elevator.
Now, the Grand can accommodate not only brass bands, ballet troupes and famed Broadway toe-tappers like "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," but the up-to-the-minute theatrics of the outsized pop musical "Rent" (arriving March 4-5, 2003). Add to that the London City Opera production of "Madame Butterfly" (March 18) and Wynton Marsalis' ever-popular Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (March 30), and you have an idea of both the lure and staging capacity of the newly renovated facility.
But the new ArtsBlock will not just present the most impressive acts on the national performing arts circuit. The facility will continue to provide a home for several local performing groups, including the Wausau Symphony & Band, which offers an ambitious "Conversations" series throughout the coming season; Wausau Dance Theater, presenting its 30th Anniversary Gala May 1-2; and Wausau Community Theatre, which concludes the 2002-03 season with four performances of "A Streetcar Named Desire."
"Both the visibility and the aspirations of local producers are heightened by association with the new spaces and the national and international events," says O'Connell.
Coming in January: Read about another spectacular new performance space, Appleton's Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.