by Steven Ayres
The theatre is quiet now. The deck has been cleared, the stage lighting taken down, the audience chairs stacked away. But under this repose is a hive of activity as the people of Prescott Center for the Arts build a new future.
With the spring shutdown for the pandemic, the very survival of PCA was in doubt, recalls Executive Director Robyn Allen. “It was July, we were down to nothing, the board was talking about redlining, and I’m like, ‘We can’t redline the nonprofit! You never know when someone’s gonna walk in and save your company!’And guess what? Seriously. Weeks after me saying that to the board, bang! (slaps the table) Three million dollars. You can’t make this stuff up.”
Where another organization might have floundered over how to use such a large gift, PCA was ready for it. The massive donation, from a donor who remains publicly anonymous for the time being, revived a capital campaign that had been in the works for years.
Since 1969 the theatre had struggled with the limitations of its landmark home, the old Sacred Heart Church and rectory, built in 1915. “I knew coming in that we needed to do something. We had no room for growth, we needed more space, period. Had this happened when I first got here, none of us would have been prepared. It took a year just to imagine how the Center could look in a more sustainable way. We took a year with the board figuring out what we should do, and we came up with the capital campaign. So we thought about it for a year, we planned for a year, and we’d been working on this campaign for two years. But when the pandemic hit, that was done. We knew it was going in the drawer for five years, because now we’re saving our theatre. We had literally forgotten about it, because the task at hand was just keeping our doors open. That dream would still be there, but for another day.”
The organization leaned into a new way of expressing its community-service mission with PCA Serves, a program marshaling its dedicated volunteer force with other community organizations to reach out to its many older patrons for help with shopping, errands, food deliveries and welfare checks while so many were isolated. Allen began to see PCA in a new, more expansive way, with broader potential. Then came the big surprise.
“If we hadn’t had a plan, how nerve-wracking would that be? But here you go, here’s all this money, and everything was ready to go. We still have a lot more fundraising to go — while this gift covers the lion’s share, we also lost a lot of ground. But we definitely reached an important benchmark, and now we’re hoping to break ground in spring!”
Before the gift arrived PCA had begun adapting the old theatre to the needs of right now. The new design includes widening the audience tiers, reducing their number by half to make room for safely spaced cabaret tables with railings and walkways allowing staff to serve drinks and preshow food. A liquor license is in the works. When it reopens, audience capacity will be down by half, to about 100.
The stage floor has been extended to the foot of the first tier, opening up new playing space in front of the black iron pillars that hold up the roof. An all-new digital LED lighting system is coming in, improving both dramatic capabilities and audience comfort, along with updated ventilation and other technical enhancements.
In spring work will begin on a new 99-seat studio theatre on the parking lot to the north, replacing the leased space across the alley that’s been hosting Stage Too, and adding significant square footage for classrooms, storage, gallery and rehearsal space.
Between the old and new buildings, an outdoor amphitheatre will welcome another 100 patrons. The trees that separated the rectory from the parking lot have been cleared and the embankment has already staged its first outdoor concert.
With the expansion to three different stages with their own programs, PCA will be expanding its personnel roster as well, from more paid technical staff to paid house managers, usher/servers and stewards to keep the theatres clean and safe for patrons.
“Here we are in a new world where the show doesn’t always go on if it’s not safe, and that’s the game we’re in now. We’re complying with all that the Yavapai County health and safety guidelines recommend and more, because I’m just hypersensitive about our responsibility here.”
Until the pandemic subsides, safety will be front and center in planning what goes on those stages as well, presenting smaller shows that accommodate social distancing for cast and crew members.
At the same time, PCA Serves continues, “not just in times of crisis, but thinking about what else we can do, and really keeping that in the front of our minds. Yeah, it’s there for good.”
“We adapt. That’s what we do. That’s our job, we build, we tear down, we build, we tear down, so we’re used to that, and we’re also used to reimagining.”
The dire peril of the spring led to a rebirth for PCA, charged with new energy and new ways of looking at what challenges it can take on and what it can be for the community.
“I’ve been doing theatre my whole life,” says Allen, “and I’m so used to adapting that when all this happened it wasn’t, ‘the sky is falling!’ It was, ‘what now?’”
For more information on PCA, its shows and programs, visit PCA-AZ.net.
Steven Ayres is an old theatre hand and Editor of 5enses.