Sugden's balcony with benefits: soaring productions, no blind spots — but how?
Anyone who has been in Sudgen Theatre — and many have had ample opportunity because it's been here since 1998 — will scratch their heads at the idea of a balcony in its $15 million renovation plans.
Just think of it as the Mary Poppins factor.
Blackburn Hall, the main performance space at Sugden, has always had space for another entire floor above it, between 25 and 30 feet to the actual roof. The theater at 701 Fifth Ave. S. was actually built with a balcony in its future.
Until now, that potential balcony space has been hidden by a ceiling. The cavernous room above it housed a moveable ganglion of ductwork, wiring, lighting and catwalks.
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Peeling away the ceiling to the roof will give the hall a flexibility that wasn't possible before, said Bryce Alexander, executive artistic director for The Naples Players. The Players are the building's long-term tenant and the force behind the renovation/expansion.
Its new vision of the theater holds a 142-seat balcony, more sophisticated lighting, extra sound possibilities — and room for Mary Poppins to soar over the audience with her umbrella.
It won't help this season's production of the musical about the beloved flying nanny. But it will be a big spoonful of sugar for the next one.
"We can only fly Mary Poppins onstage, because with this, there's no access," Alexander said. "What we can do with the renovation is that each of those catwalks then will have its own hard roof beneath it to sort of shield it. In between them, it'll be open to the structural roof.
"That makes it so we can shine lighting through here. We can fly Mary Poppins through here. We can do any of those things that makes the theater so much more versatile."
Further, an 11,000-square-foot building addition will create a third story to hold a 100-seat KidzAct theater and rehearsal hall atop the black box theater downstairs. Administrative offices will also be moved to a smaller addition across from the KidzAct theater. Its current space can then become second-story restrooms for the main hall balcony.
But a chief motivator is the additional audience space in a building where plays have been running at 100 percent capacity for three to four years.
"While that's a good problem to have, it's also a bad problem when you have to talk about generating revenue," Alexander said of the sold-out performances. Extending runs is hard to ask of community actors who have fulltime jobs.
"The only other way to generate revenue is to raise prices. And as a community-based organization, we don't want to price people out of the market." (Tickets to the musical "Mary Poppins," which opens March 2, are $47; tickets to "The Savannah Sipping Society," a play without music, which opens Jan. 12, $42.)
Turning its 308-seat theater into a 450-seat one will increase performance sales potential by 50 percent.
The Naples Players are more than ready for that. They raised $9 million of its cost before they even announced a campaign, and donors matched a $1 million dollar challenge grant from Patty and Jay Baker. So it is within $4 million of its goal.
If the semi-new theater sounds fascinating, the logistics also sound mysterious. So Alexander and architect David Corban answered a few questions about the Sugden Theatre metamorphosis:
How will balcony fit into the hall?
First, the existing upper orchestra level seating — the section behind the main aisle in Blackburn Hall — will have to come down slightly in slope, about 8 inches, to give those theatergoers comfortable headroom below the balcony. The balcony will jut out a bit more than two seat rows into the current hall and its seats will slope upward toward third story technical booths.
"It will feel intimate, but people won't feel boxed in," Alexander said.
The partial wraparound balcony will rise four rows from an entrance on that floor. On each side will be a box capable of holding eight theatergoers. Balcony doors will open onto a new second-story atrium lobby also being built.
It has all been designed to offer the same comfort the audience gets downstairs, Alexander said.
"The width of the aisles, the width of the seats — all of that generous width we currently have — is going to stay," he said.
How to add a balcony
One firm decision was that there would be no pillars, so no downstairs seating would be lost.
"It'll cantilever, so it will be attached to the back wall," explained Corban, the building's Naples architect. He has designed the Judy Sullivan Resource Center, the Holocaust Museum of Southwest Florida and the Celebration Park outdoor venue.
The trusses, Corban said, maintain an equilibrium by bearing the weight of the second floor lobby on the other side of the wall. They're affixed to the side walls for extra security.
The trickiest part of putting in the balcony could actually be how it gets into the building.
"I suspect the pieces of the balcony will be brought in small enough to be able to fit through the wall so we don't have to take the roof off," Corban said. But he apparently hasn't received promises on that yet.
Other changes you'll notice
For refreshment stand devotees, those on the first floor will be expanded and moved to the wall behind the hall, in more of a traditional theater layout. Restrooms will be moved to the former refreshment stand location.
Ticket sales are coming indoors. The ticket office moving into a new partition just inside the west entrance. There's a reception and check-in area in the lobby, on the other side of that anteroom.
Something Alexander and Corban hope people don't notice is a change in sound, unless it's an improvement. Because Sugden Theatre was built when plays were being performed without amplification, Blackburn Hall's ultra-lively acoustics are a challenge, Corban said.
"We're going to be removing that reflective material on the ceiling, and I think right now it only calls for that reflective material to be on the underside of the catwalks."
But then he added two possibilities: "The face of the balcony is going to have some reflective value, and then the back wall is probably going to be a combination of reflection and absorption."
It will take their professional acousticians, Siebein Associates in Gainesville, to determine that.
"When it was designed they weren't wearing microphones," Corban said. "Now they're doing almost 100 percent plays and musicals with everybody with mics."
Naples Players: naplesplayers.org or 239-263-7990 box office, 239-434-7340 administration
Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.