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Kimball Theatre use evolves under William and Mary

The Kimball Theatre will be an entirely different space by the end of the summer, as its uses continue to evolve under the direction of the College of William and Mary.

The change in management has seen a smooth transition thus far, as the college works to accommodate local groups interested in using the venue for concerts, plays and the like. But William and Mary plans to close Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall in May, the end of the academic year, for two years of major renovations; throughout that process, many of the theater department’s performances and classes will shift to the Kimball. The change is already causing unintended consequences for other organizations hoping to utilize the venue.

A promising start

A staple in the community since 1933, the Kimball’s future appeared uncertain in 2017. As part of a broad restructuring plan, Colonial Williamsburg announced in June its intent to close the venue because it has lost money each year since 1999, including $782,000 in 2016. William and Mary stepped in to keep the theater open, signing a lease that began Aug. 1 and runs through January 2021.

“Pretty much all the groups that contacted us and wanted to use the Kimball and were previous clients, we’ve been able to accommodate,” said Mariellyn Maurer, director of William and Mary’s Office of Conference and Event Services, which now operates the Kimball. Through the end of the fall 2017 semester, various organizations held 55 events inside the theater.

Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra executive director Carolyn Keurajian said she’s been impressed by the college’s staff during the initial transition period. “They’ve just given us a lot of support,” she said. “It’s been comforting to us to have such detail.” The college hired the theater’s production staff and A/V technicians, a move Maurer said helps provide a sense of continuity.

Another transition awaits

But the next shakeup comes over the summer, after Phi Beta Kappa Hall closes and the college’s theater department makes the Kimball its hub. Interested groups couldn’t schedule events at the Kimball beyond May 31 until the college fleshed out its calendar for the 2018-19 school year, including the theater schedule and renovation plans. That posed concerns for groups such as Opera in Williamsburg and the WSO, which must coordinate dates with artists across the globe well in advance of performances. Maurer said that between Thanksgiving and Christmas, she and her team started to reach out to groups interested in dates beyond May and confirming events through Aug. 1, 2019.

“It will change, definitely, as we work around the academic priority of the space,” Maurer said. “But there’s still definitely going to be a home for community groups and those traditional things that have happened there.”

Opera in Williamsburg is scheduled to return to the theater for performances in April and September, as well as May 2019, a slight shift from the organization’s typical April and October performances.

“They’re not the dates that we would have liked, but they’re good and we’re very, very happy to have them,” said Naama Zahavi-Ely, the opera’s founder and artistic director. She said she’s grateful for the college’s willingness to work with her organization and others. “We have every intention to stay there.”

Other groups also confirmed dates for the next academic year, such as the James City County Rotary Club, which has three concerts planned over the summer. The WSO is still finalizing dates for its upcoming season, which runs from September through May 2019, working with the schedules of its musicians and guest artists. Keurajian said the symphony will likely have to use another venue for one or two concerts once they have a better sense of performers’ schedules.

Maurer said the hope is to use the same timeline for scheduling the following academic year as well.

Bert Aaron, a member of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra board of directors, founder of the Greater Williamsburg Virginia Symphony Society and former chairman of the Williamsburg Area Arts Commission, said he understands the perspectives of both the college and the outside organizations interested in continuing to use the space.

“There’s a lot to be said of both sides and both sides have positive things to say,” he said. “It’s a matter of cooperation.”

A glimpse into the future

Other organizations face increased costs related to renting the theater; rates were raised under Colonial Williamsburg prior to the theater’s closure and the college carried over those changes. Zahavi-Ely said the opera’s cost to rent the space nearly doubled. Keurajian said the WSO previously paid $90 per hour to rehearse for roughly four hours, or $360 total. Now, the rental carries a five-hour minimum that runs around $650.

Both Zahavi-Ely and Keurajian said they were prepared for the higher rates, but they weren’t expecting the additional cost of paying for A/V technicians, which used to be included in general fees. “It gets to be quite expensive,” Keurajian said. More uncertainty looms as groups look beyond the fall.

CultureFix founder and president Steve Rose said the outpouring of community support he witnessed in the wake of the Kimball’s closure last year opened his eyes to just how many people share strong connections with the venue. So far, he’s also been pleased with the college’s handling of it, particularly with greater availability as a result of the college’s decision not to screen films there. (***cont.)

***Article courtesy of the Daily Press. Read the rest of it here.

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